Review posted January 7, 2017.
Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2016. 300 pages.
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children's Fiction
Ms. Bixby's Last Day is both a middle grade boys' caper novel and a heart-warming tearjerker. How did John David Anderson manage to pull that off?
We've got three viewpoint characters, best friends Topher, Steve, and Brand, sixth grade students in Ms. Bixby's class. One day, Ms. Bixby tells them she's got to take a leave of absence a month before school's out. She has cancer. They're planning a class party for her last Friday, next week.
Topher has a taxonomy of teachers.
There are six kinds of teachers in the world. I know because we classified them once during indoor recess. First you have your Zombies: those are the ones who have been doing it for a few centuries, since Roosevelt was president -- the first Roosevelt, with the broomy mustache from those museum movies....
Then there are the Caff-Adds. Brand calls them Zuzzers. You can spot them by their jittery hands and bloodshot eyes and the insulated NPR travel mugs they carry around with them....
Then you have your Dungeon Masters. The red-pass-wielding ogres who wish paddling was still allowed in schools. The kind who insist on no talking, whether it's reading time, work time, sharing time, lunchtime, after school, before school, the weekend, whatever. You are supposed to just sit still and shut up....
Then you've got your Spielbergs. They're not nearly as cool as Steven Spielberg. We just call them that because they show movies all the time....
My personal favorites are the Noobs. The overachievers. Fresh picked from the teacher farm. With their bright eyes and their colorful posters recently purchased from a catalog and the way they clap like circus seals when you get the right answer. They don't stay Noobs for long. They get burned out pretty quick. A year. Maybe two. I don't think it's the students' fault, though. I blame the system.
The last kind we simply call the Good Ones. The ones who make the torture otherwise known as school somewhat bearable. You know when you have one of the Good Ones because you find yourself actually paying attention in class, even if it's not art class. They're the teachers you actually want to go back and say hi to the next year. The ones you don't want to disappoint.
Like Ms. B.
But then on Monday, it turns out that Ms. Bixby is already out, with a substitute in her place. Brand, Steve, and Topher make a plan to go visit her on Saturday. But then they overhear some teachers saying that Ms. Bixby is getting moved to Boston on Saturday. They are going to have to skip school to visit her on Friday.
They devise a plan to sneak off the school grounds, ride buses, pick up the specific items they need, and make it to the hospital. Everything that can possibly go wrong with their plan does go wrong. That's the middle school boys' caper part of the book. Sadly, I found myself laughing quite hard at their bad luck and, in a few cases, poor judgment. Though how they deal with each setback approaches brilliance in places.
As they narrate their journey, each boy also gives the readers memories of Ms. Bixby. We find out how she noticed them and saw them for who they are. We learn why they chose these specific items they need to bring to her. We also learn each boy's back story and how they really needed someone like her in their lives.
This book made me think of my first college roommate, Colleen Jenks. Colleen was teaching high school English before she died of brain cancer. Truly, teachers get to touch lives in ways that will never be forgotten.
This book is, as Brand would say, frawesome (freaking awesome)!