Title: TrashAuthor: Andy Mulligan
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Poverty, Oppression, Friendship
Age Range: 6th-9th Grade
Summary: from Goodreads
In an unnamed Third World country, in the not-so-distant future, three “dumpsite boys” make a living picking through the mountains of garbage on the outskirts of a large city.
One unlucky-lucky day, Raphael finds something very special and very mysterious. So mysterious that he decides to keep it, even when the city police offer a handsome reward for its return. That decision brings with it terrifying consequences, and soon the dumpsite boys must use all of their cunning and courage to stay ahead of their pursuers. It’s up to Raphael, Gardo, and Rat—boys who have no education, no parents, no homes, and no money—to solve the mystery and right a terrible wrong.
Ok, I'll admit it, I'm conflicted about this book. As an adult reader I liked it, but I am a little unsure about how appropriate it is for the target audience. Mulligan addresses issues of poverty, child labor, and government corruption in all its gory detail...he does such an excellent job describing the bone-crushing poverty, the disgusting conditions in the dump, and the despicable way that the boys are treated that I felt a little bit like I needed to shower after reading. But I think maybe it is a little bit too real for intermediate age kids, though the average to above average readers among them could certainly read it.
I am not usually one who thinks that children need to be sheltered from the harsh realities of the world we live in (see my review of Boy Without Names if you don't believe me!). But as an adult reader I have a context to place this story in. A young reader would not have the same background knowledge, and while it is certainly possible to frontload some background with the kids, even then I'm not sure about it. Among other issues that may arise are the couple of times that one of the boys uses the phrase "what the hell" or "_____ the hell out of me", and there are also scenes that involve the boys (the youngest of whom is only 7) smoking and drinking. Now, this may be an authentic picture of the lives of dumpsite children in what I think is the Philippines, but I'm imagining angry parent phone calls and long discussions with the principal.
That said, I think that there is a lot of good fodder for discussion in the book. I am always in favor of holding a mirror up to American privilege, and books like this can help children understand that not everyone enjoys the same rights and freedoms they get from living in a rich society (though we certainly have children in our country living in deplorable circumstances, but that is the subject of another post). I liked all of the characters, and the plot is actually fairly intricate considering the length of the novel and the intended audience. The book has been on several "Best Of" lists, including the American Library Association and Publishers Weekly, both in the young adult category. While I think that the readability level is probably more like 4th or 5th grade, I would suggest it really is more appropriate for mature sixth grade readers and above.