Book Review: Armstrong and Charlie by Steven B. Frank
Charlie isn’t looking forward to sixth grade. If he starts sixth grade, chances are he’ll finish it. And when he does, he’ll grow older than the brother he recently lost. Armstrong isn’t looking forward to sixth grade, either. When his parents sign him up for Opportunity Busing to a white school in the Hollywood Hills, all he wants to know is “What time in the morning will my alarm clock have the opportunity to ring?” When these two land at the same desk, it’s the Rules Boy next to the Rebel, a boy who lost a brother elbow-to-elbow with a boy who longs for one.
From September to June, arms will wrestle, fists will fly, and bottles will spin. There’ll be Ho Hos spiked with hot sauce, sleepovers, boy talk about girls, and a little guidance from the stars.
Set in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Armstrong and Charlie is the hilarious, heartwarming tale of two boys from opposite worlds. Different, yet the same.
This was a fantastic book. While at its heart it’s about serious issues–racism, busing, and school integration–it’s also a book full of humor and is narrated by two characters with great, stand-out voices. Set in 1974 and 1975, Armstrong’s parents sign him up to be bused out of his neighborhood from his all-black school in South Central LA to an, until now, all-white school, Wonderland, in the Hollywood Hills. Charlie, who is Jewish, is puzzled why suddenly everyone else in his neighborhood is leaving Wonderland to attend private schools or schools out of the area. A neighbor kid tells Charlie that Wonderland is “going downhill” and their parents don’t want them there. Charlie says those parents are racist, but Charlie’s dad says they’re just doing what they think is right for their kids. Charlie’s parents are doing the same.
As you might imagine, the integration isn’t seamless and Armstrong, who has a history of fights, is quick to be confrontational and bristles easily. Charlie and Armstrong share a table and, while they don’t get along well at first, end up becoming friends. But the path to that genuine friendship involves fights, theft, and what often feels like reluctant attempts to actually get to know each other. Along the way, the boys are helped out by their loving, compassionate families. Charlie has always been raised to stand up against injustice. His mother (currently lost in a fog of grief over the recent death of Charlie’s brother) is part of a consciousness-raising group. When Armstrong steals from Charlie’s lunch and Charlie gets mad, his father encourages him to stop and think for a second about why Armstrong stole. Armstrong also has the guidance of Mr. Khalil, his 95-year-old neighbor. The road to their friendship isn’t always easy, but then again, whose is?
Armstrong and Charlie is a funny and thoughtful look at differences, friendship, family, and the changing times of the 1970s. This historical fiction story has broad appeal.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 03/07/2017
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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