The 18th Emergency by Betsy Byars – A Retro Review by Tony Keefer
About four years ago I celebrated my 40th birthday with family and friends at a local pub and late in that evening, one of my ‘older’ friends told me, “Life begins at 40.” The next morning, I definitely wanted to call him and explain that life most certainly does not begin at 40. However, as incredible as the last few years has been for me, I do think a life can be definitely be reenergized at 40. I am hoping that this post in some way can introduce or remind people of one of my all time favorite books. The 18th Emergency by Betsy Byars turns 40 this year. I don’t know its actual book birthday, but I hope when it celebrates turning 40, it has a much fun as I did — just without the aftermath of the next day. I also wish that the next few years it might pick up some new friends and have a revival of sorts in classrooms and libraries.
The 18th Emergency is the type of book that just doesn’t seem to get written anymore. It is short (less than 120 pages), it is realistic fiction with boy main characters that has nothing to do with sports (other than a few brief moments where the some of the main characters attempt to play basketball to pass the time) and it is a completely stand-alone book (no sequel or 7-book series with an internet tie-in).
The 18th Emergency is a well-written story about a boy who makes a mistake, gets threatened by a school bully, then solves his problem in a non-conventional wisdom way. The rest of this review will tell some of the story, but not all of it, while weaving in why the book has stuck with me for so long.
I think I was in 6th grade when I read first read The 18th Emergency. I am pretty sure I wasn’t in elementary school, because we had SRA in elementary school, so actually reading books wasn’t that important; getting to the Aqua level was more on my mind during those years. When I picked it up, it appealed to me because the cover made it seem like some fighting was going to happen and it was short. What probably drew me into the story immediately the fact that Benjie “Mouse” Fawley, like me, is a doodler. He drew little signs all over the place to leave his mark on the world. Things like “UNSAFE FOR SWINGING” labeled a cobweb in the corner of his living room, “DROP COINS HERE BEFORE EXITING” by a hole in the wall next to his apartment building door and “MARV HAMMERMAN” under the picture of a Neanderthal man outside of his history classroom. Unfortunately for Mouse, Marv is the school bully and Marv happened to be standing right behind Mouse when that label was drawn. YIKES.
I remember rereading The 18th Emergency for my college children’s lit class. We had to create a file of some insane amount of children’s books and fill out an index card with all relevant information. I had forgotten about this book, but I happily reread it for the class. I remember telling some of my fraternity brothers about the book on the day I read it because a major part of the story line is that Mouse, while trying to avoid a confrontation with the oversized Marv Hammerman (which by-the-way might be one of the best bad guy names ever) starts remembering all the possible emergencies that he and his best friend Ezzie have devised escaped plans. The wisdom of jamming your arm down a Lion’s throat in case you happen to attacked by one and provoking a boa constrictor to bite you instead of squeezing you pepper the pages of this book. My college buddies and I started coming up with our own emergencies to escape. I’ll let you imagine what a bunch of 20 year-old guys living in a decrepit house together brainstormed. The funny thing about this time was that I had several friends read and enjoy the book even though they weren’t education majors.
The 18th Emergency came back into my life when I got my first teaching job and had to start building a classroom library. Back then we didn’t have the Twitter, Goodreads or websites like this one to help us vet books for our classroom libraries. We had Scholastic Book Clubs, Newbery lists and (if you were like me) a file filled with index cards that reminded you of the gazillion books you crammed into a quarter long children’s lit class. So, naturally, when The 18th Emergency card popped in front of my eyes, I bought a couple of copies for my classroom and tried to convince as many kids as I could that it was a great read. Most of the boys in those first classes liked it because they could (unfortunately) imagine what it would be like to potentially have to fight somebody after school. When they got to the part that Mouse actually got sent home before the end of the school day, they felt cheated. They wanted to read a fight scene. But they also thought it made the story better because the myths of Marv Hammerman’s fighting prowess continued to be developed by Byars.
I kind of forgot about The 18th Emergency until this year. Over the years I have lost so many books from my classroom library and multiple copies of The 18th Emergency found new homes along the way. But when I was helping to clean out our grade level storage room in our building, I found a small box of books with my name on it. Apparently I shoved the box in there instead of unpacking it when I moved to my current school. Miraculously one dog-eared yellowed copy of The 18th Emergency was in the box. Several of my students read it this year and one of my more avid readers told me, “I really loved the ending, it was so real.” When I dug a little deeper she said, “Well it seems like most books that have a bullying in it end up with the bully getting what he deserved and the main character getting a celebration or something. That didn’t happen in this book.”
I tend to agree with her assessment. Betsy Byars wrote a compact story about a boy who faces the prospect of being pummeled by a class bully with plenty of nervous tension, some humor and incredibly memorable characters, but she didn’t create a morality tale about how fighting is never the answer. She handles Mouse’s journey with an animated, yet subtle, reality that whether we like it or not is more real than many of us have experienced. I encourage you to find a copy of the book and give it a chance to celebrate its 40th birthday in style.