(Disclosure: The reviewer has a professional relationship with the author of this book.)
It should be said up front that the cheery front cover illustration of J. B. Cheaney’s “Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous” is a little misleading. For the middle-schoolers riding Mrs. B’s school bus, life isn’t exactly cheery. Most of these kids are dealing with some pretty heavy issues: absentee dads, moms with serious mental issues, ailing relatives, bullying, academic pressure, racial tensions, disappointed hopes, friends who take advantage of them, and more. In other words, all the problems that many normal 21st-century American kids are dealing with.
And then there’s the mystery bus stop that none of them understands: the stop where their bus driver waits every day for someone who never shows up. When seventh-grader Bender Thompson decides that he has to know what the mystery is all about, the stage is set for hair-raising schemes, strange incidents and appearances, new friendships, and much more.
Cheaney focuses each chapter on a different student, so that we get multiple points of view about various occurrences in the book, and get to know each of the kids in turn. Her young characters are well-drawn and true to life: full of hopes and fears, not always able to understand the world around them, with good qualities and not-so-good ones.
In Shelly’s chapter, we learn about her singing talent and her desperation to get into a camp for young performers; in Miranda’s chapter, we learn to what lengths Shelly will go to get there, as Miranda is under tremendous pressure from Shelly to help her cheat in a school poetry competition. Quiet, seemingly nondescript kids like Matthew and Alice turn out to have quite a lot going on behind the scenes. Mysteries about various characters, things that other kids on the bus wonder and whisper about, are cleared up as we get to sneak a peak into those characters’ lives.
Cheaney is a Christian author (she writes for WORLD and Redeemed Reader), and though the book isn’t explicitly Christian, her faith is reflected in the moral and ethical themes woven throughout the story. Her young characters struggle with what to do in difficult situations, and they don’t always make right or wise choices. These conflicts feel real and compelling; it’s easy for the reader to get so drawn into the story that his or her heart sinks when a character does something foolish or wrong. On the other hand, it’s heartening to watch as many of them grow and learn from their mistakes, and as some of them discover what it truly means to be selfless, kind, and generous.
There’s no sexual content in the book and very little profanity (and what little there is, is very mild). The content most likely to cause concern is the school bus accident that frames the story — we get a snippet of the scene at the very beginning, then flash backwards for the bulk of the novel, and then we get the bus accident described in detail at the very end. Some of those details may be a little gory for this age group, so parents of sensitive readers may want to check out the scene first, just to be on the safe side. On the plus side, the accident gives the kids and some of the adults an opportunity to show both great courage and great mercy.
A lot of ends are left untied in the story, but that feels realistic; for kids and their family members with problems like these, life rarely ties itself up in a neat bow. The important thing is that we’ve seen many of them learn how to deal with those problems with a greater measure of maturity, grace, and wisdom, and that makes the book well worth a read.
Image copyright Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. Review copy obtained from the author.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.