Published by Ember (Penguin Random House), October 2011
Suggested age range: 12 and up
In an unnamed Third World country, in the not-so-distant future, three “dumpsite boys” make a living picking through the mountains of garbage on the outskirts of a large city.
One unlucky-lucky day, Raphael finds something very special and very mysterious. So mysterious that he decides to keep it, even when the city police offer a handsome reward for its return. That decision brings with it terrifying consequences, and soon the dumpsite boys must use all of their cunning and courage to stay ahead of their pursuers. It’s up to Raphael, Gardo, and Rat—boys who have no education, no parents, no homes, and no money—to solve the mystery and right a terrible wrong.
-courtesy of Amazon
IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES: extreme poverty, greed, corruption, police brutality, justice
So what did we think?
Eva: I LOVED the setting of this book. I know there are places like this in the world — enormous garbage heaps that children pick through — but I’d never thought about what life would be like there…. or the fact that people actually LIVE there: “The shacks we live in grow up out of the trash piles, bamboo and string, piled upwards — it’s like little villages in amongst the hills.” The author did a great job of bringing the setting to life, with all the disturbing sights and smells (and rats!) that come along with it. For example:
It was dead trash underfoot, and it was damp — you were up to your knees.
Soon we came to one of the old belt-machines, but this one was disused and rotting. The belt itself had been stripped out, and the wooden panels had been taken. It was just a huge metal frame, rusting away. The arm that held the belt pointed up into the sky like a big finger, and now and then kids would climb it and sit in the breeze.
I think it’s very important for kids to read a book like this; to be aware that places like this exist.
Meagan: I agree. We’ve talked before about one of the major functions of literature being to increase your empathy range. That’s definitely the case with this book. Even though the characters’ life circumstances would be hard to relate to for lots of kids, the characters themselves aren’t hard to relate to at all. They are funny and sweet and struggle with things that many kids struggle with (like loyalty to friends and trying to decide the right thing to do in a complex situation), and that makes them relatable, even though their circumstances are much more dire than the average kid’s.
Eva: I found out about Trash because some of the 7th graders I tutor were assigned it for summer reading. I’m sure it provides a great jumping off point for class discussions about poverty, class differences, and the environment. Hopefully those who read it will think twice every time they throw something away!
Meagan: I could definitely see reading this book with a class. Not only does it have some powerful social issues to discuss, but I think it could be an easy entryway to talking about theme in literature. The book’s title, Trash, is an overt theme throughout the book and comes up in multiple ways. There’s all the literal trash the boys pick through and live amongst, but there are also several situations in which human beings are treated like trash or called “trash.” I think this is a sort of gateway literary theme that almost any middle school kid could pick up on. They might even be able to make the leap to realizing that the author is using the dumpsite setting to get readers to think about the “trashification” of people.
Eva: I think many middle school kids will enjoy this book. It’s fast-paced and written in a simple style. It contains plenty of action and suspense. However, as a writer, I wondered if the story as a whole could have been put together in a different way.
For example, the story is told in turns by the three boys, as well as a few chapters here and there narrated by minor characters — all are in first person. I’m not sure if it was necessary to give all these characters their own chapters, and there wasn’t always a clear distinction between various voices. Also, the book makes it clear that all of these accounts were written down except for Rat’s (he can’t write so he narrated to someone who wrote it down for him). I couldn’t help wondering how Raphael and Gardo, who never went to school, were able to write their sections. I think I would have preferred keeping the story solidly in one perspective, or at least from the three boys’ points of views only. (And I’d recommend either third person, or, if in first person, making Raphael and Gardo’s voices more distinct from each other.)
Meagan: I wondered about the narration choices as I was reading, too. The multiple narrators didn’t make it confusing to me, but I’m not sure how necessary it was. For me, when I read a book with multiple narrators, I am looking for each new point of view to add something critical to the story. I enjoy a viewpoint shift that gives me an “aha!” moment and allows me to see plot events or character in a new way that undeniably drives the story forward. While some of the viewpoint shifts were interesting, I wouldn’t quite characterize them as critical.
Eva: Overall I enjoyed the action and mystery, but I think there could have been more clues and foreshadowing. For example, there is a climactic scene set in the graveyard on the eve of All Souls Day, and it is only then that we find out that in this culture people believe this is the time when “ghosts come up and walk around.” I would have liked this information planted earlier in the story. Instead it felt like the author saying, “oh, and by the way, what’s happening right now is a big deal because…”
Meagan: I was surprised at the lack of foreshadowing or lead up to the All Souls Day scene, too, but I really liked that scene for a whole separate reason. Without spoiling it too much, what the boys end up doing (in a graveyard, at night, during a storm) would terrify most people. Even imagining it is terrifying, but for the boys in the story, the horror-factor barely even registers. This struck me as so noticeable, but then I realized what a strong comment this was on the condition of their lives. The vague notion of spookiness about being in a graveyard at night is nothing in comparison to the real violence and risk that these boys are facing all the time in real life. Imagined spookiness is much more of a threat if you are accustomed to a secure life, I think. These boys have virtually no source of security (no family, no trustworthy government or protection from crime etc.). So what do they have to fear from the idea of ghosts?
Eva: As usual, it’s likely I’m being too hard on this book. One of my students, a 7th grade girl, told me that she loved Trash and that it was pretty much her favorite book ever. I think that says it all.
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:
Eva: In a way it reminded me of Holes by Louis Sachar. In Holes it becomes clear that the boys at a juvenile detention center aren’t just digging to build character — they are trying to find something, although their Warden won’t say what or why. Similarly, in Trash the police are looking for something that is obviously important, but they won’t say what or why. Both are books of action and suspense, and both are about disadvantaged boys who are mistreated by tyrannous and greedy authority figures. The difference would be that both the setting and that story in Trash are a bit more serious than in Holes and bring up some more serious real-life issues.
THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:
- Easy-to-access theme
- Action and suspense
- Social and environmental issues
- It is an example of multiple first person narrators, but I wouldn’t say it’s a great example.
Eva: A fast read with an intense setting that provides a great prompt for classroom discussions on social issues.
Meagan: I think I’ll remember this book for its empathy-enlarging social issues, but also as an example of literary theme with “training wheels.”