I love a good family story. And by good, I don't mean that everything has to be perfect, or end happily, although that's nice when it happens. I mean the type of family story that feels real, honest and satisfying. In the last few years, I've come to realize that although families may be shaped differently, there is a love there that should be celebrated. Families are magic when they work, and I love watching those moments unfold, whether in real life or on paper.
When I checked out The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, I was just expecting it to be a fun read. But I ended up loving it so much that I've read it twice this spring, and have kept it out from the library way too long. I am so happy to be able to share it with you!
There are four boys in the Fletcher family - Sam, the oldest, is starting sixth grade; Jax and Eli are both in fourth grade (but at different schools), and Frog (whose real name is Jeremiah) is just beginning Kindergarten. When the book begins, it is the first day of school.. The first day of school is filled with Fletcher family traditions, including a picture on the front steps before school starts, and a celebratory dinner when they all get home. I love celebrating the little moments, and this first day of school dinner (there is a last day of school dinner too) is a special ritual I'll be stealing. Each child gets served all their favorite foods at the first/last day of school dinner. Eli always chooses Chinese dumplings and spareribs. Sam wants spaghetti and meatballs (with homemade sauce). Frog asks for macaroni and cheese from "'the purple box, not the blue box...That blue box is disgusting!'" (p. 22). The boys' dad is a teacher, so he gets to have a special meal too: rare grilled steak with mushrooms and peppers. And finally, "Papa had a small portion of everyone's meal, making, he said, a most fascinating study in how something can be less than the sum of its parts." (p. 22). Whew - that is a lot of cooking - and eating!
Yes, there is a Papa and a Dad in this story and the matter of fact way this is treated by Levy gives me hope for more books where the emphasis is on the family structure, not who is within it. While the Fletchers are all used to their family and how it operates, though, that isn't true of all of their community. In the novel, Eli starts at a new school (more on that later), and as they arrive at a open house, Eli realizes that his family is a little overwhelming. "Eli had been so worried about what his family would think of his school that he hadn't really though about how the school would react to his family. But as they trooped in, Eli couldn't help seeing them through new eyes... 'These are my dads' - he gestured behind him - 'and my brothers.' Hoping desperately that was enough of an introduction, Eli swooped into his seat." (p.30-31). Of course, people have questions, but the Fletchers mostly seem to attract attention because they are loud, rowdy boys, not so much because they have two dads. All four boys are adopted and are a mix of races, which can lead to more enquiries. Eli thinks "He wasn't embarrassed about his family - it wasn't that. It was just...there were so many of them. And so many boys. He knew the questions were coming." (p. 32) The boys answer questions from Eli's new classmates as a family, united and secure in their story, although slightly defensive when kids get a bit too nosy.
But this novel is about the family at this time, not really how they became a family. Each boy has their own story during the book as they navigate the school year. We'll start with the youngest, Frog. Frog is just beginning Kindergarten, and at dinner on the first day of school, Frog announces that he's met a new friend. Her name is Ladybug Li, and she has three sisters and two moms. This is all too much of a coincidence for anyone to believe. They are already primed to be suspicious of Frog's information. "Frog had what his preschool teacher had called an engaging and encompassing imaginary world, which Sam figured pretty much meant he was nuts. Papa and Dad, of course, thought an imaginary cheetah under the bed was perfectly normal. " (p. 23) Frog continues to insist throughout the year that Ladybug Li is real, but no one believes him. And she is never at the birthday parties Frog attends, and she isn't in the phone directory...you can understand why everyone questions Frog's integrity.
Sam, who is entering sixth grade, has a great group of friends and plays soccer competitively. Jax describes his brother this way: "Sam was royalty, kind of like a carnivore with a bunch of gazelles and zebras and wildebeests around him." (p. 7) Sam's plan for the year involves preparing for the Elite team tryouts in the spring. Getting on that team really requires plenty of practices, workouts, and an incredible amount of focus and determination. But then Sam tells stories at the Fletcher Halloween party, and then kids ask him to tell stories during lunch period. This leads to the director of the school play asking Sam to audition. "She must have been joking - he'd never acted in his life. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but he wasn't the type of kid. He was the play-sports-every-recess type, the make-the-A-team-in-soccer type, the can't-wait-for-the-high-school-ski-team type. Not the sing-and-dance-onstage type. Obviously." (p. 93) And suddenly Sam finds himself taking a risk, trying something unexpected, and possibly putting his soccer dreams on hold.
Then there is Eli. At the start of the year, Eli is thrilled to be starting at a different school than his brothers. He's been accepted at the Pinnacle School. "A school where everyone was the smart kid sounded awesome. A school where he didn't get 'rewarded' for already knowing the work by being allowed to sit and read quietly in the corner." (p. 15) The school is expensive, and a huge shift for Eli. "His parents hadn't been sure it was the right choice, but he knew it was." (p. 16) This school has a lot of rigor, and doesn't believe in distractions like recess. As the year continues on, Eli wonders if this is really the place for him. This is the first big decision he's made for himself. What if this was the wrong choice?
Finally, Jax's story involves the whole family. On the very first day of school, his fourth grade teacher announces a year-long Veteran's Project. The students find a veteran and interview them about their experiences. They will also research the war that veteran fought in. The family realizes that their new next door neighbor, Mr. Nelson, is a Vietnam veteran. The problem is that Mr. Nelson doesn't seem to like the Fletchers very much. The boys always seem to be doing something wrong in Mr. Nelson's eyes. After a contest to see who can hit the car horn harder gets the horn stuck, "Mr. Nelson had roared, threatening to call the police. Eli had thought it was ridiculous. It wasn't like they'd enjoyed the forty-five minutes it had taken to find the right fuse to turn the thing off any more than he had." (p. 14) Diplomacy with Mr. Nelson will require effort from each of the Fletchers in order to get Jax's project completed.
There is so much life going on in this book. Like any family, they have their ups and downs, but they work through things together. The characters are dynamic and human. Papa's sister, Lucy, lives in New York City and is a famous baker. Frog loves to visit her because "best of all, when they were with her, she told them that, unless it endangered their health or well-being, the answer to any question would be yes." (p. 97) Best aunt ever! Every person in the book is full of personality and humor, even the cranky Mr. Nelson. It keeps the book lively and chaotic, just like family life.
And that is what I love most about The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher. It is full of family life. Levy includes the snapshots of everyday rituals as well as the traditions that matter to this family. In the nine months that elapse during this novel, there are bound to be some of both. But there is also the family magic - the support, love, listening and guidance that make a family work successfully. At the beginning of the book, Papa says that the meal he ate is less than the sum of its parts. Once you've met the family Fletcher, you realize that their strength is the sum of all of them. I'd like to read another book about the Fletcher family - they've won my heart.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher. Dana Alison Levy. Delacorte Press, 2014.
borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library