by Betsy Byars. Novel. 185 pages. Grades 5-8.
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Carlie, Harvey and Thomas J., three foster children, have been taken in by the Masons who have had many other foster children in the past. It's Carlie who compares the children to pinballs, controlled by external forces, and at the mercy of fate. Carlie is tough; she has been abused by her step-fathers and is convinced that people are not to be trusted. The master of insult, she maintains her tough exterior.
Harvey has two broken legs, having been run over by an alcoholic father after being abandoned by his mother. He is convinced that his father has kept his mother from communicating with him since she ran away to find herself in a commune. Thomas J was also abandoned; he was found as a toddler by elderly twin sisters whose minimal love and care for him has ended when both of them are hospitalized with broken hips. He is inarticulate and overly anxious to please. The Masons provide a supportive environment in which the children learn to care for each other and begin to experience love and trust. This is a believable, funny and touching novel.
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It didn’t surprise me to read that Betsy Byars has received more letters about The Pinballs than about any of her other books. Of all her books that I have read, The Pinballs is one of my favorites. I love the three main characters. The plot is perfectly balanced. Even the writing style immediately impressed me. The Pinballs is a classic for many sound reasons.
More than anything, the characters are distinct and memorable. Meet Carlie. Byars tells us she is as hard to crack as a coconut. Carlie also never says anything polite. And yet despite her negative attitude, which includes being suspicious of everyone, I like Carlie. Partly I feel sympathy for her. One paragraph particularly stands out in Byars description of Carlie, “For some reason insults didn’t hurt her. People could insult her all day long, and she would insult them right back. But let somebody say something polite or nice to her—it made her feel terrible.” Partly I like her because, over time, Carlie lets down her defenses. She begins to have normal conversations with others, even to the point of being concerned when one of the foster kids emotionally shuts down.
That would be Harvey. He has two broken legs. He got them when he was run over by his father’s new Grand Am. Of course, Harvey prefers that others think that instead he got injured while playing football. Then everyone would sign his cast and girls would even kiss his cast and leave their lipstick prints. What keeps Harvey going, despite the tragedies in his life, is the belief that his mom will one day return for him. She left three years ago for a commune in Virginia, where she went to find herself and reconnect with nature. Oddly, given Carlie’s attitude that foster kids are pinballs who have no control over their lives, it’s Harvey whom the foster parents feel needs the most support. And they feel Carlie is the one who is most likely to be able to give that support, which Harvey desperately needs when he finally accepts that his mother doesn’t care about her family.
The third character is Thomas J. His story and personality are also unique. Byars writes that Thomas J didn’t know to whom he belonged. When he was only two years old, someone left him in front of the Benson farmhouse like an unwanted puppy. The Bensons were the oldest living twins in the state and he had stayed with them for six years, until at age eighty-eight they broke their hips. Thomas J had lived with the Benson twins so long that when he moves into his new foster home, he about everything because that’s the only way the Bensons could hear him. Even when he learns to speak quietly, Thomas J still barely talks to anyone. Communicating how he feels is something that Thomas J never learned to do, a fact which weighs on him most when he visits the Benson twins in the hospital and aches to tell them that he loves them.
When an author stacks as much against their characters as Byars does in The Pinballs, two approaches are common. One is to weigh down the characters with such misery that their lives are devoid of happiness. I dislike this approach because, when I read fiction, I want my books to reassure me that life has hope. Byars avoids this by providing the foster kids with foster parents who empathize with their situations. A memorable example is that of Mr. Mason’s conversation with Thomas J, when Mr. Mason shares that he took five years to tell his own wife that he loved her. Byars also avoids this approach by infusing humor and warmth into her story. The second approach is to give the antagonists a change of heart, allowing the characters to live well-adjusted lives. While this is a valid solution, it can also feel unrealistic. In The Pinballs, besides the three foster kids being given a safe place to live, the most important change instead occurs within each of them.
Before I conclude this review, I want to mention the writing style. I read a lot of young adult books, where emotional pathos is the norm. While that is part of their appeal to me, I also found myself struck by how little emotional pathos exists within The Pinballs. We find out how insecure Carlie is not through introspection but through learning that she’s developed a certain way of smiling to hide her crooked teeth. We discover how troubled Harvey is not through introspection either, but by the multiple lists he keeps, which Carlie keeps trying to see. With Thomas J, Byars does provide some introspection. This is how we learn that Thomas J remains curious about that morning when the twins first discovered him in their yard. However, even here, Byars mostly uses fleshed-out flashbacks filled with revealing dialog. In The Pinballs, Byars tackles topics often covered only in young adult books, but with such a controlled style that the result is a book appropriate to younger readers too.
The first day I read The Pinballs, I loved it. The feeling never changes, no matter how times I reread it. If you haven’t yet discovered Byars, start with The Pinballs and then move on to any of her other numerous books.
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Tags: Allison's Book Bag, Betsy Byars, Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers, reviews of books for young people, The Pinballs, The Shepherd's Song