A cynical reader might say that Jerry Spinelli's latest book is simply another coming of age book or a "you-don't-appreciate-your-loved-ones-until-they're-almost-gone" book—but it's a lot more than that. It is a skillful portrayal of how an adolescent can become so obsessed with his own thoughts, dreams, and plans that he can miss what is going on in his own family. As Will Tuppence, the main character discovers, he doesn't have to live life the same way in which he plays chess - seeing every move laid out on the black and white squares in front of him. Unexpected events happen, providing a way to help you see your life, your family, and even your best friends in a totally different way.
I am a fan of Jerry Spinelli's books. I loved Stargirl, blogged about Eggs, enjoyed Maniac McGee, and refer to Milkweed when I discuss creating an historic setting or character at teachers conferences. I even had the opportunity to meet him and his author wife, Eileen, at the Keystone Reading Association conference last fall. I appreciate how Spinelli's characters are believable and how he delicately and precisely weaves figurative language into a book for middle school boys and girls. But I have to admit, I was bothered about two things in Smiles to Go: the science fiction inclusion of dying protons and little flashes of light which mysteriously appear and disappear. As I mentioned in my blog about 47, an author has the responsibility to ensure that his book makes sense. I kept waiting for the flashes of light to be explained which they weren't. And although protons dying make an interesting backdrop to this story, the novel is not science fiction and my concrete mind desired an explanation for these alleged "facts."
But in the end, Spinelli is a masterful storyteller and I would recommend this book for middle school readers. Since Will is a freshman in high school, some high school readers will also enjoy it. Spinelli obviously wants to make a point about time—appreciating the past and cherishing the present. Smiles to Go will hopefully help young readers appreciate the gifts that have been given: family and friends who stand by you and accept you for who you are, and finding your place in a universe that is out there to be admired, enjoyed, and respected.
As a mother, one of my favorite lines from the book came from Will's mother. "Sometimes you get so wrapped up in your own little world that you don't see what's right in front of you." That's advice that all of us can benefit from. (Harper Collins, 2008)
Jerry Spinelli, Eileen Spinelli, Smiles to Go, Milkweed, 47, Stargirl, Maniac McGee, book for boys and girls, contemporary fiction