Before I begin, look at this cover. My three year old son looked at it and asked if the kid sitting down in Harry Potter. Dark hair, round glasses ….. I can see it.
I’ve mentioned before that Betsy Byars sure can write a melancholy kids book. She has a tendency to write kids who just aren’t happy. Not that they’re always in dire situations (though some are in The Pinballs) but the kids in her books are vaguely depressed. The three protagonists in this book, sisters Deanie and Clara, and John D. Jones are slightly happier, kind of, than most other Byars’ protagonists.
Deanie and Clara are spending two weeks at the beach with their father, when he drops a bomb that his girlfriend, Delores (whom the girls have never met) and her son, John D are going to spend the vacation with them. Neither Deanie nor Clara are happy about this news, and they make no promises to be kind to John D or Delores.
John D is just as unhappy. John D is never really happy, actually. Or maybe he is – we never know because he thinks emotions are for weaklings. John D is so much like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. In fact, I assume John D is somewhere on the autism spectrum, but this book was published in 1984 when the spectrum wasn’t really a thing yet. John D is writing a book called “You are Smarter Than Your Teachers,” and it’s full of hints about how to get your own way. Including not showing emotion, always keeping a calm voice.
The way he’s described is a little chilling, almost sociopathic.
In the past year, John D had discovered his power over his mother. All he had to do was speak firmly and quietly and he got his way. He was amazed at how simple it was. All those years he had spent…kicking and screaming….His whining alone, he figured had taken up countless hours of his valuable life.
John D had never been bored in his life. This was because he had the constant companionship of the most intelligent, witty, and creative person in the world – himself.
The only person John D cares about ever meeting is his father. Delores is a widow – her husband, John D’s father, was killed in a plane crash a half hour before John D was born. Delores clearly has her hands full.
Deanie and Clara are more typical teenagers. They are sisters who constantly pick on and tease each other. Deanie is older and is popular and is the one doing most of the teasing. Clara is sulky and sarcastic and never gets her own way.
The result of putting three unhappy teenagers together is (predictably) awful. John D and the girls do not get along. Though throughout the book, you see John D have moments of understanding of Clara, which he is quick to dismiss and get back to his usual emotional detachment.
One day, after several miserable days, Clara takes a plastic raft into the ocean. Deanie is on the beach practicing her cheerleading moves, and John D is on the front porch writing his book. Their dad and mom have gone out. Clara falls asleep on the raft and gets pulled out beyond the waves and swells and out to sea.
John D is the first one to notice it, and gets Deanie’s attention. They find a way into town to their parents. The coast guard is contacted and they begin an extensive search – where they end up finding the raft with no Clara on it. The search is called off, and it’s assumed she’s dead.
Clara, however, had been rescued moments earlier by a fishing boat. The boat’s radio had stopped working so no one knew she was rescued until they got back to shore. The boat brings her into the coast guard office, where she has a tearful reunion with her dad and Deanie, and even with Delores. John D manages a smile.
While Clara had been missing, Deanie is upset at how much she’d picked on Clara, but a lot of the focus is on John D and how he’s feeling. Despite himself, John D sort of liked Clara’s sarcastic nature, and he is shocked to find how deeply frightened and upset he is over her disappearance.
She (Clara) was back, safe and unharmed, shaken – and yet somehow she seemed more secure. He, on the other hand, was not. His emotions, new and crude and oversize as the beginning of a carving, made a lump in his chest.
He could have written a chapter about it, he thought. “Ways to Avoid Misery.” And for the first rule be “Don’t care about anybody.” But for some reason, his book no longer seemed important. He doubted he would finish it.