Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Book Review: When the Whistle Blows

When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton. (Grades 6-10.)
Philomel, June 2009.
Reviewed from ARC provided by author.

(This is a 2009 Cybils nominee and this review reflects only my personal opinion of the book, not necessarily the opinion of the panel!)

Jimmy's father is a railroad man and, growing up in the small railroad town of Rowlesburg, West Virginia, Jimmy's determined to be a railroad man, too. No matter how much his father doesn't want him to.

Jimmy's got it all figured out. His dad wants him to finish high school, but Jimmy's going to drop out as soon as possible and go to work for the railroad as a machinist. He'll follow in the footsteps of his brothers and maybe things will just stay the way they are, the way Jimmy likes them. But you can't stop change.

Told in a series of vignettes, all set on All Hallow's Eve from 1943 to 1949, When the Whistle Blows is the story of a child turning into a man. Of a small town boy coming to grips with the fact that the world is changing, that things can't stay the same.

I will tell you something. I don't often sit down and read a book from cover to cover. I may read half of a book one day and finish it the next day, but I have a hard time sitting down and actually finishing a book in one sitting*.

And to be completely honest, I wasn't sure I was going to like When the Whistle Blows that much. Sure, I was intrigued enough by the premise to accept a review copy, but when Travis compared it to Richard Peck, I had trepidation. I do not have a great track record of liking Richard Peck. Or vignettes.

Which is why it's so surprising to me that I absolutely loved this book. (Maybe I should give Richard Peck another try...) It started a little slowly. I was still unsure after the first story. But then I got into the second story where all the boys are pelting the bully's car with rotten cabbages and I really started to like it. By the time Jimmy's schoolmates are rebelling against the principal keeping the school open on the first day of hunting season, I had started it love it. And then I didn't want it to end.

The vignettes are a mix of comical and serious. Fran Cannon Slayton brings the town of Rowlesburg to life. In parts of the book I felt like I was watching a movie unfolding before my eyes, so clearly could I see the town and the people in it. The characters, too, shine through. Of course I fell in love with Jimmy, with his bright-eyed naivety at wanting to work at the railroad just as the men in his family before him, his perseverance when faced with the changes that inevitably come to us all. I equally fell in love with Jimmy's father, the man who pushes Jimmy to make a better life for himself even while Jimmy clings to the hardscrabble town because it's all he knows.

So, go and pick up When the Whistle Blows. If you don't, I fear you'll be missing something truly special. And in the immortal words of LeVar Burton (RIP Reading Rainbow!), don't take my word for it. Read reviews at Practically Paradise, Shelf Elf, Jen Robinson's Book Page, and The Reading Zone.

When the Whistle Blows is on shelves now. OH. And are you a teacher or a librarian? If you are, you can enter Fran's contest to win 30 copies of WTWB for your classroom or library! Deadline December 15.

*Special circumstances like Cybils reading and the 48-Hour Book Challenge notwithstanding.