Thursday, January 2, 2020

Free Lunch

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Free Lunch by Rex Ogle. Grades 6+. Norton Young Readers, 2019. 208 pages. Review copy provided by my local library.

Rex knows he's missing something. He's all ready for sixth grade to start - he's got his schedule, he knows where his bus stop is... but there's something he's forgetting... Oh, yeah! His lunch money!

But when Rex asks his mom about it, she tells him that she's signed him up for the Free Lunch program at school this year. Free lunch. Rex knows what that means - the government's paying for his lunch because his mom and stepfather can't afford it. What he will discover when he gets to the school cafeteria is how humiliating it feels to have to tell the cafeteria cashier that he gets free lunch. And how lonely it feels keeping this secret from his friends. And how frustrating it feels to be singled out by a teacher who thinks you're trash because your family is poor.

This is not an easy book to read. Beyond Rex's struggles with hunger and need, his mother and stepfather are both physically abusive to him and to each other. Being out of work and struggling to keep a roof over their heads creates so much stress in their household that it comes out in fists and fights. Ogle is very clear and even handed about that. While he hates the abuse and lives in fear that the fists will be turned towards his little brother one day, he also recognizes that his mom does love him. Reading this book was a very emotional experience. My heart went out to young Rex and I just wanted to see him come out the other side.

This is an important book to read and an essential book to have on your library and classroom shelves. There are kids who need this book, who need to know that they're not alone in what they're experiencing, to see that you can survive it and you can make a better life, that things can turn around. The hopeful ending will give kids hope. And there are kids and adults who need this book to understand what others may be going through. It's a raw and honest portrayal and doesn't hold back.


Although Free Lunch is memoir, the novel Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt also explores the emotional life of a boy who is dealing with abuse and heavy stuff at home. His actions also cause others to judge his character before they really know the real him and what's going on that makes him act out.


And while Hey Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka is a graphic novel and Free Lunch is not, these books are both powerful memoirs about boys growing up with tough home lives as parents face poverty in Free Lunch and addiction in Hey Kiddo.