Title: Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life
Author: Wendy Mass
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Dealing with Loss, Coming of Age, Overcoming Obstacles
Age Range: 4th through 8th Grade
Summary: from Goodreads
In one month Jeremy Fink will turn thirteen. But does he have what it takes to be a teenager? He collects mutant candy, he won't venture more than four blocks from his apartment if he can help it, and he definitelydoesn't like surprises. On the other hand, his best friend, Lizzy, isn't afraid of anything, even if that might get her into trouble now and then.
Jeremy's summer takes an unexpected turn when a mysterious wooden box arrives in the mail. According to the writing on the box, it holds the meaning of life! Jeremy is supposed to open it on his thirteenth birthday. The problem is, the keys are missing, and the box is made so that only the keys will open it without destroying what's inside. Jeremy and Lizzy set off to find the keys, but when one of their efforts goes very wrong, Jeremy starts to lose hope that he'll ever be able to open the box. But he soon discovers that when you're meeting people named Oswald Oswald and using a private limo to deliver unusual objects to strangers all over the city, there might be other ways of finding out the meaning of life.
Review:The death of a parent is an event that is destined to have a profound impact on anyone, but especially a child. In that regard Jeremy Fink seems to be doing better than most. He misses his dad, but he was a great relationship with his mom, and his best friend Lizzy's daughter, plus his dad's best friend, provide positive male role models for him. But as he approaches his 13th birthday, he can't help but wonder what advice his dad would have for him about navigating the murky and sometimes dangerous waters of adolescence. When he is given a box from his father labeled "The Meaning of Life", he is desperate to find out what's inside. The only way to open the box and preserve the contents is to find the keys, which sends Jeremy and Lizzy on a city-wide search for old key collections. As in many aspects of life, it turns out to be the journey, rather than the destination, where he learns the most about just what the meaning of life could be.
Mass has done a wonderful job creating an authentic emotional landscape in this novel. Jeremy's very tween-ness reminded me of just how awkward and painful the land between childhood and adolescence can be, and would be very relateable to young people reading the book. The character of Lizzy keeps Jeremy (and the reader) from becoming too angsty, though. Their friendship is one of the best parts of the book. I especially appreciated that it is a boy/girl friendship. Too often I think we make an artificial divide between "boy" stories and "girl" stories, and Jeremy and Lizzy prove that boys and girls can be close friends, even as their differences become more obvious. There are tender moments in the story, and hilarity occasionally ensues, but what Mass has given us is a fairly straightforward story of being lost, and somehow finding our way, even if the destination is not the same as the one we thought we were traveling towards.