From Australia, Zusak debuts with an intense tale about boxing, brotherly solidarity, and searching for self-respect. The Wolfe family is on the skids, with Mr. Wolfe five months out of work, Mrs. Wolfe barely able to keep food on the table, older sister Sarah coming home drunk more and more often, and brothers Cameron and Ruben firmly tagged as troublemakers. When a schoolmate calls his sister a whore, Ruben reacts with such devastating speed and efficiency that a local racketeer makes a job offer. Soon Ruben and Cameron are both sneaking off every Sunday afternoon for low-paying and, needless to say, illegal prizefights in a grimy warehouse before bloodthirsty crowds. Though Cameron can give a good account of himself in the ring, he lacks Ruben's raw talent and ferocious concentration. But even as Ruben runs up a string of victories, he confesses to Cameron that he may know how to win, but not how to lose, not how to pick himself up off the floor and keep going the way Cameron and the rest of the Wolfes do. Ultimately, the brothers are forced to face each other in the ring, but Ruben, ever the brains of the outfit, finds a way to turn what might have been an ugly, divisive fight into a reaffirmation of love and respect. Zusak's eccentric language—a smell is "raucous," a pause "yawns through the air," a young woman has "eyes of sky"—gives Cameron's narrative a slightly offbeat air that suits the brothers' escapade: part lark, part a real effort (however misguided) to break from the unpromising path down which they seem to be going. The book closes on a rising note, with the brothers, and the whole Wolfe clan, closer than ever, showing real signs of regaining its feet. Engrossing. (Fiction. YA)

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-439-24188-X

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2001

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In 1880s New York, a young lad with inadequate means but an abundance of character uses his head, heart, and fists to battle his way out of the tenements. Johnny Woods works 12 hours a day at a sweatshop ironing men’s shirts. Since his father deserted his mother and five younger brothers and sisters, this 15-year-old youngster has valiantly toiled to help put bread on the table. Desperate for some extra cash, he signs up to box in a bar, only to get arrested—fighting was then illegal—and thrown into prison. In an unexpected twist, it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. There he meets Michael O’Shaunnessey, “Professor of the Science of Boxing,” and a “born teacher.” Returning home fit and trained, Johnny finds a paucity of job opportunities for politically unconnected and uneducated youths like himself, except in the boxing ring. There he soon piles up an impressive string of victories. Hard-working and kind, Johnny returns to school, spending his meager spare time with his five siblings, giving them by turn the treat of his undivided attention. Karr’s first-person narrative is fast-paced and instantly engrossing, and she captures her character’s dreams and dilemmas as well as the rhythm and excitement of the boxing matches, and the scenes, scents, and squalor of tenement life. Although Johnny is a little too good to be true, readers should be rooting for the kid with the killer punch and the soul of a Boy Scout both in and out of the ring. (Fiction. 12+)

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2000

ISBN: 0-374-30921-3

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2000

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Nicely executed fiction with a neatly-resolved ending that will leave readers smiling.


A short, empathetic novel for middle-schoolers that addresses learning disabilities and bullying.

Retired teacher Spurr’s prior experience with learning-disabled children shines as she compassionately illustrates the world of Jamie Parker and the way dyslexia affects his everyday life. Jamie’s learned much from his fisherman father (who isn’t a great reader but has a wealth of practical knowledge about nature), but still doesn’t understand why his dad is so adamant that Jamie focus on schoolwork. School is difficult for Jamie–dyslexia not only makes coursework a challenge, but he is subjected to the bullying of Ray Quinn. He would far rather spend the day on his dad’s boat than in the classroom. Jamie’s first year of middle school promises to be the same as all the others–special reading classes, abuse from Ray and stress headaches–with the exception of finding a friend in newcomer Oscar. Over the course of several months, Jamie grows as he experiences success on the soccer field, collaborates on an interesting research project with Oscar and realizes the unfortunate circumstances that motivate Ray’s behavior. Oscar and Jamie have complementary skills in school and learn a great deal about Native Americans for an important social studies project, as well as learn a difficult lesson about bullying when their project disappears, leaving them with the threat of failing their class. When Jamie’s dog Mac has an accident, Ray plays a pivotal role, and because of this new bond, the relationship among the three boys is transformed. The book contains age-appropriate vocabulary and natural dialogue, with likable characters that help flesh out the absorbing plot. Readers learn about human behavior as the book opens topics–including disabilities, families and the local environment–for further discussion.

Nicely executed fiction with a neatly-resolved ending that will leave readers smiling.

Pub Date: Oct. 26, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-595-43915-7

Page Count: -

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: Dec. 29, 2010

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