mitchell k dwyer's Reviews > Beetles, Lightly Toasted

Beetles, Lightly Toasted by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
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's review
Jun 12, 2009

liked it
bookshelves: reviewed
Read in June, 2009 — I own a copy

Andy and his fifth-grade classmates are psyched about an essay contest sponsored by the local newspaper. The prize is fifty bucks, a pin that says imagination, and recognition by the newspaper. Andy, an extremely finicky eater who won't touch certain foods just because he doesn't like the sound of such words as okra or because the concept of a pie made from sweet potatoes freaks him out, decides to write his essay about how people can eat beetles, grubs, and worms in order to save on grocery expenses. In order to write this essay, he has to prepare a few recipes that include these ingredients, and he can't very well taste the resulting dishes himself, so he lets his family and classmates try them instead, without their knowing what they're eating.

I disagree with one GoodReads reviewer who calls this a simple story. While the plot is quite linear and even predictable, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor populates her book with interesting characters, tricky group dynamics, and the kinds of details that betray a serious appreciation for rural life. In telling her silly story, Naylor doesn't let her characters off easily when it comes to the meaningful questions that occur to Andy and his classmates. Why does Andy have such difficulty getting along with his same-aged cousin Jack? Is there an element of racism in his Aunt's apparent dislike for the soul-food restaurant owned by the family of Andy's best friend Sam? In a community whose members are dependent upon each other for their survival, what kinds of behaviors are tolerated and what kinds of behaviors are unacceptable? How are the values of these farming families different from the values of urban families, such as Sam's?

The author doesn't dwell on these questions, but she does present them and she allows her characters to inhabit them for brief moments before moving on with the story, creating a rich 130 pages that will reward thoughtful readers. There's much to discuss here for parents and teachers guiding kids through the reading.

I read Shiloh , the Newbery-Medal-winning novel by the same author, last year. While that novel is definitely more ambitious in its dealing with social issues, I found its resolution somewhat disappointing. Perhaps the weight of that gold medallion on the book's jacket added to my expectations, but whatever the reason, Beetles, Lightly Toasted is sort of the opposite: a seemingly silly story with a surprising depth and a resolution that had me laughing out loud.

I definitely prefer this one.
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