The Center of Everything by Linda Urban – A Not-Quite-a-Review by Kate Messner
When Colby invited me to review Linda Urban’s The Center of Everything for the Nerdy Book Club, I jumped at the opportunity. But then I got thinking…I’m not really going to review this book. I’m simply going to recommend that you read it and share it far and wide because it is that kind of book.
The word “review” implies a kind of impartial distance on the part of the writer. And I am not even a tiny bit unbiased when it comes to Linda. I’m a big, gushing fan of her writing, and I’m incredibly thankful to count her as a friend. I always tell young writers to seek out writer friends because these people understand things that no one else will understand. They’ll talk with you about your characters as if they’re real, live people. They’ll listen while you explain why what you’ve written is a hot mess, and then they’ll help you see that your mess is really a masterpiece in need of a bit of revision. If you have the right writer friends, when they say this, you will somehow begin to believe it, and you will get back to work feeling so much better.
Linda is one of those friends for me, so I will leave the unbiased reviews of her work to someone else. But now that my full disclosure if out of the way, I will say this: I’ve read and loved all of Linda’s books. I think The Center of Everything is her best one yet.
Right away, when we meet main character Ruby Pepperdine, we know that the stars are not quite aligned in her universe. Something has knocked things out of orbit, and Ruby is unsettled as she waits for the Bunning Day parade to pass by so that she can do the job she has to do, the thing she believes will make her wish come true and put everything right.
It’s a little later, bit by bit, that we begin to understand that Ruby is grieving the loss of someone she always considered to be the center of her universe. Add to that the challenges of changing middle school friendships, a new friend who’s a boy, and a very old town superstition involving a sea captain, a quarter, a birthday, and a donut, and you have a magical book indeed.
It’s not literal magic. There’s no time travel, even though the narration does take us smoothly and seamlessly back and forth from present times to what happened a while ago.
And there are no witchy spells or psychic abilities, though the point of view changes, too, allowing us to see inside a lot of different minds along the parade route. The Center of Everything is written in third person omniscient, which means the reader has the opportunity to check in with any number of characters passing by Ruby in that parade. Aside from Ruby herself, who won my heart, I think this might be my favorite thing about this book. As a reader, I loved spending just a few seconds inside everybody’s head because somehow, it captured the warmth and joy of small-town life in a way that was just so funny and wonderful. Case in point: the flag girls from the high school, carrying a banner that says BUNNING DAY…
Behind the banner is the rest of the flag squad: six girls in matching sleeveless sweaters and pleated skirts. In November they will wear those sweaters over turtlenecks and wave their flags at football games and wish that they were warmer, but now, in the late-June heat, the girls have lobster-red faces and each is using her own favorite curse word to swear she will never try out for flag again. Next year, thinks their captain, Talia O’Hare, I am joining the show choir instead.
And as the parade continues…
The car with Uncle David and the town manager is followed by Grannies for Groceries, who have joined the Soup’s On Food Co-op in their shopping cart brigage. The third cart on the left is being pushed by Mitzie Oliver, who is wondering why it is – even in a parade – that she always chooses a cart with a back wheel that won’t turn.
I am totally in love with this slice of life that marches past in The Center of Everything. I want to go to this parade and know these people, and in a way, I feel like I already do, thanks to that omniscient point of view that let me spend a few moments with each of them, seeing how they’re all connected.
But the story always comes back to Ruby. It’s her story, after all, and her moment is coming. She has to get it right so things can be the way they’re “supposed to” be. Ruby is very good at doing what she’s supposed to do, and if you are like that or you have a kid like that, you know exactly what I mean. But what happens when you look back on a moment – an important one – and don’t know what you were supposed to have done? What if there is no “supposed to?” That idea rocks Ruby’s universe – even as the time comes for her to do the thing she is supposed to do, the thing she’s been waiting for while nearly the whole parade passed by.
This is a perfect mentor text for students to use when they’re playing around with different points of view. After sharing some of the parade perspectives aloud, students could write their own short descriptions of an even that’s experienced by many people (a parade, a football game, a wedding) in that omniscient point of view, providing numerous views of the events from all different views.
If I wanted to go all Common Core Standards on you right now, I would trot out these 4th and 5th grade reading standards that have The Center of Everything written all over them:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.6 Compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narrations.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.6 Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.
But really…you probably shouldn’t even talk much about Common Core Standards while you’re reading The Center of Everything. It’s an exceptional book, and I would hate for you to get standardized testing germs all over it.
Instead, you’ll want to read this one aloud because the language sings. You’ll want to read it for the voice, for the humor, and for the interconnected stories that fit like a perfect puzzle. You’ll want to read it for that made-of-awesome small-town New Hampshire parade. And you’ll want to read it for Ruby. Mostly for Ruby. She’s a girl you know, so your heart will ache for her and celebrate with her, and when you turn the last page, you just might understand where to find the center of everything, too.
.Kate Messner is a former middle school English teacher and the award-winning author of books like OVER AND UNDER THE
SNOW, THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z., EYE OF THE STORM, the MARTY MCGUIRE chapter book series, CAPTURE THE FLAG and its forthcoming (April 2013) sequel HIDE AND SEEK. Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @katemessner, visit her Pinterest boards (http://pinterest.com/katemessner/) and learn more at her website: www.katemessner.com.