When Zachary Beaver Came to Town -- middle grade novel review


Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

A few months ago I reviewed The Ambassador to Nowhere, Texas. I discovered it was a sequel to another book, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, both by Kimberly Willis Holt. The Ambassador to Nowhere, Texas was set in the era of 9/11 and told the story of a middle school girl in Antler, Texas and how she and those around her dealt with all that was happening. During the book she and a friend begin to try to find out about Zachary Beaver because of a photograph of him and her father and his best friend from when they were about her age. Having not read the first book I was thrilled with the mystery, but it also left a yearning to read the first book, so today I am sharing with you the first book! It is set in 1971 with the Vietnam War going on. Seeing how I turned one in 1971 I was curious to read about this era.

From the Publisher:

The red words painted on the trailer caused quite a buzz around town and before an hour was up, half of Antler was standing in line with two dollars clutched in hand to see the fattest boy in the world.

Toby Wilson is having the toughest summer of his life. It's the summer his mother leaves for good; the summer his best friend's brother returns from Vietnam in a coffin. And the summer that Zachary Beaver, the fattest boy in the world, arrives in their sleepy Texas town. While it's a summer filled with heartache of every kind, it's also a summer of new friendships gained and old friendships renewed. And it's Zachary Beaver who turns the town of Antler upside down and leaves everyone, especially Toby, changed forever.

With understated elegance, Kimberly Willis Holt tells a compelling coming-of-age story about a thirteen-year-old boy struggling to find himself in an imperfect world. At turns passionate and humorous, this extraordinary novel deals sensitively and candidly with obesity, war, and the true power of friendship.

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town is the winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

This title has Common Core connections.

From Me: 

Wow, talk about bringing back memories. The 1970s in many ways were such a simpler time. I didn't live in a small town or in Texas, but the simpleness of the lives are still the same. Kids were often left on their own during the summer days. They rode their bikes to where they needed to go. The roads were safer. The world was safer. This book brought back so many memories of my own childhood even though I was a baby during the Vietnam War and I didn't live in a small, farming town. Just for the memories and as an explanation to kids of how life use to be, this book is amazing.

Now let's talk about the story. I was excited to learn about Zachary Beaver having read the second book first. I was surprised at first how rude he was but it made sense when one considers his life. I was also surprised that there wasn't more to the friendship. In the end it was there but it took quite awhile for the friendship to form. It was very interesting to see how the town came out to take care of a young boy, a stranger, who was left in their town for a few weeks. It was the small town feel as well as the kinder era. The characters are very well developed. The book had me wanting to continue to read it. I read it only in a couple of days. It was interesting and heartfelt. 

I also love how it deals with the stigma around obesity without really shame. Yes, Zachary Beaver is put on display as the "fattest boy in the world". They charge $2 to see him, but when asked why he lets his guardian do that to him, he answers with they would stare anyway. Toby and Cal realize how hurtful the staring and comments are for Zachary. They try to give him a normal life while he is in Antler. They find ways to get him to the drive-in movie. They help him fulfill his promise to his mother. They understand what he is going through. Helping him also is a distraction from what is going on in their own lives. The story is truly touching and yes it had me tearing up at times. 

Having read the books backwards, I have to say I think it gave the second book more of a mystery. It also made me say oh, that is what they were talking about as I read the first one. The characters are so well developed in the first book that I do think it may help to read it first but I don't think my reading out of order made that much difference. Both books are rather amazing. They are well written and each captures a moment in our country's history and ways that people dealt with the issues going on at those times. These books are amazing novels to use in classrooms to share a bit about the history and the emotions around them but also are just great stories to read. I hope you check them both out!