To say that sixth grader Maverick Falconer has it tough is an understatement. He misses his dad, who died a hero in Afghanistan and his alcoholic mom can't seem to hold onto a job or attract a stable boyfriend - or at least one who doesn't hit her. He has lived in a series of awful apartments, wears old clothes that he usually launders himself and his sneakers are falling apart. Oh, and he's been bullied mercilessly at his elementary school and has little hope that things will be different in middle school. But, he soldiers on. He has a pet hamster he loves despite being allergic to him and a supportive aunt he adores. Plus, he has the plastic sheriff's star his father gave to him before his last deployment.
I must repeat what I wrote on Goodreads: Classic Sonnenblick M.O. He sucks you in with a winning, earnest, imperfect narrator; then breaks your heart while making you laugh out loud; zings education and some educators; and gently imparts his message of kindness without didacticism. Love!
Maverick is such an endearing character. He's a roiling mixture of sarcasm, cynicism and hope. Despite the trauma in his life, he remains kind. Like many survivors of trauma, he is hyper-observant - constantly assessing the mood of adults around him and seeking to protect his secrets. Despite his mother's alcoholism and failings, he protects her and covers for her and beats himself up when he can't protect her from abusive boyfriends.
Another endearing character is Vice-Principal Overbye, or the "Bee." His reputation precedes him and Maverick is terrified. He wants to avoid him but, of course, ends up in his office on the first day of school.
While all of Sonnenblick's main characters in all of his books face tremendous challenge such as serious illness, injury or anger, Maverick's problems are grittier and more difficult to identify and help. His is a situation of neglect and poverty and loss. He's the kind of kid who could very easily fall through the cracks. Even his doting aunt was unaware of how dire his situation was. What I especially liked here was the fact that on two separate occasions, just as I was about to mentally insult a character, Sonnenblick revealed an insight that brought me up short and reminded me not to be too quick to judge.
This world we live in needs books that help young (and old) readers build empathy now more than ever. The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade is such a book. Read it, read it aloud to your students, and recommend it widely.