THE GRAHAM CRACKER PLOT, by Shelley Tougas
Published by Roaring Brook Press, September 2014
suggested age range: 8 – 12 years
Daisy Bauer doesn’t have much. She doesn’t have a nice place to live or especially responsible parents (her mom is on vacation with her new boyfriend, and her dad is in jail). What Daisy does have is hope, a vivid imagination, and an after-school friend named Graham. When Daisy and Graham are left at their trailer park on their own, they hatch a plan to bust Daisy’s dad out of jail and escape to Canada to start a new life.
TOPICS AND THEMES: Touches on a number of hot-button issues: poverty, alcoholic parents, neglect, parent in prison, mental illness, and a brief mention of drugs.
So what did we think?
Eva: This book is so fun and funny! The story is made up of letters that Daisy is writing to Judge Henry in an effort to explain herself, so even though we don’t know at the beginning what Daisy did exactly, we know it was something bad enough to land her in major trouble with the law. Daisy’s voice throughout is great; she explains her world with humor, and the story deals with difficult topics in a light-hearted and middle school appropriate way:
The Chemist is my dad, but he’s not the kind of dad who lives in your house. He doesn’t drive me to school or fold socks or put away dishes. My parents were never married, so he didn’t learn that stuff.
The Chemist’s the kind of dad who buys presents and lets you watch zombie movies and gives you ice cream even though you already had cookies. Mom was like that, too, back when she’d put booze in a travel mug and pretend it was coffee. But now, she’s all, “Eat your peas and do your homework and that’s enough TV for one day.”
Meagan: I agree that Daisy’s voice is memorable and a very strong part of this book. Shelley Tougas writes Daisy’s socio-economic status into her voice subtly and in a way that is driven by Daisy’s character. Daisy is a fast-talking, no-filter kind of person to begin with, and her lack of mature adult role models shows up in her word choice and topic choice.
Eva: Not only is Daisy’s voice great, I love the humorous (and realistic) banter between Daisy and her friend, Graham. For example:
“I’m definitely the brains of this operation.” (Daisy said.)
“More like the butt of this operation,” he said.
Meagan: Speaking of butts, as a writer, my favorite line in the whole book is: “My butt was cold.” It’s a totally unnecessary thing to mention, she’s just telling it like it is, AND it gives away that Daisy has not had a model of a more formal, respectful way of speaking that one might use with an authority figure such as a judge. To me, that one line exemplifies the author’s brilliance in bringing Daisy’s voice to life.
Eva: Daisy is also a great example of an active protagonist. She is not just an observer. She makes bold (often misguided) decisions that propel the plot forward. At the beginning of the story, she throws a tantrum and gets banned from visiting her father in prison. Not only is this realistic for a kid in her situation, it shows us her emotions and it sets the rest of the story in motion.
Meagan: Another notable element of this book is the story-framing device. As mentioned, the story is told as a series of letters Daisy writes to Judge Henry. It gives a strong, authentic-to-the-character reason for the story to be told and adds an extra layer of humor because you’re constantly thinking I can’t believe she’s telling the judge about the sound of someone peeing or dog barf or whatever. Initially I didn’t think much of the letter format. It seems to me like this sort of thing has been done before. But on the other hand, it works, it supports the story, and I don’t think any kid readers would be bothered by it.
Eva: The book also manages to be hugely visual. There is a part where Daisy and Graham accidentally trash a stranger’s house, and I could see it all playing out in my head like a movie: the dog’s muddy footprints on the white comforter, the refrigerator tumbling over onto the kitchen floor… Tougas isn’t afraid to make things go from bad to worse and beyond! It’s a great example for writers who tend to be too cautious or “quiet” in their storytelling.
Meagan: Yes, she does a great job with her action scenes, like the house-trashing incident you mentioned. Writing action scenes can be a real challenge. At least it is for me. I remember when I first started trying to write action, I wondered what really made a scene “actiony.” I certainly don’t claim to have mastered it, but my working hypothesis is something like this: a character makes a plan to do something difficult and midway through something goes wrong and they have to change course and make a new plan on the fly. I know there’s more to it than that, but I do find that to be a useful definition to work from. So, by that definition, the entire book of The Graham Cracker Plot is practically one big action scene, and that IS kind of how it feels to read it.
Eva: That’s a really good observation. Maybe that’s why I could so easily see this book as a kids’ comedy-adventure movie. It’s a series of hilarious mishaps and plans going awry.
The only concern I had was about the character of Ashley, who is mentally-impaired. Sometimes she seemed like nothing but a plot device, and I wonder if her character was perhaps not handled in the most sensitive way. But otherwise, I was impressed with the book, and it seems like you were, too. It was action-packed and a lot of fun.
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:
Meagan: I distinctly remember the books Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli and The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson making a big impression on me because they were about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds (one who is homeless, the other in foster care). Learning to love characters with lives that are very different from your own is one of the ways that reading can really enlarge your world as a kid (and as an adult).
Eva: I had a similar thought. While reading The Graham Cracker Plot, I thought of a book I LOVED in middle school: Silver by Norma Fox Mazer. Although it has a totally different tone (much more somber), it was about a girl who lived in a trailer park and had to deal with difficult issues. I remember thinking it was refreshing to read about a character who didn’t have a lot of money.
In the same way, I think Daisy is a great character because certain kids can identify with her and her situation, and other kids, by reading Daisy’s story, can learn to sympathize with kids who are in difficult situations.
THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:
- Active protagonist
- Character/narrator voice
- Story framing device
- Dealing with difficult topics in an age-appropriate way
- Contemporary middle grade fiction
Eva: If The Graham Cracker Plot were a movie, it would be a family-friendly comedy-adventure. I think kids will love it. I really enjoyed the voice and the action-filled plot.
Meagan: I’ll put this on my writer’s reference shelf as an example of brilliantly crafted character voice.
FINAL FINAL NOTE:
Shelley Tougas has a new middle-grade book coming out in October: A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids. Click here for my interview with the author.