The Butler Did It: Gary D. Schmidt’s New Middle-Grade Novel

Cindy: Doesn’t everyone need a butler to appear on their doorstep to help restore order and routine to their household? He might not have the supernatural talents of Mary Poppins, but the butler in Gary D. Schmidt’s new book, Pay Attention, Carter Jones (2019), works his own kind of magic.

The butler, Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, was previously in the employ of Carter’s grandfather; now, his services have been bequeathed to the Jones family. Carter’s father is deployed in Germany and his mother is doing her best to hold it together with four children, an easily excitable, vomiting dog, and more challenges. Over the course of the book, readers slowly learn from Carter the full range of issues facing the family, including overwhelming grief after a substantial loss three years earlier. Schmidt knows grief and its consequences (parenting solo), and surely draws on that personal experience as he creates this rich, moving, and at times hilarious look at a family who needs everything the butler can provide.

Carter’s emotional growth and eventual bond with Bowles-Fitzpatrick make me long for both stability and wise-but-strict guidance for many of my own middle-school students. Children need adults who care for them while also providing structure and discipline. Without preaching, this novel demonstrates just that—and it might be just as an important read for parents and teachers as it will be for its intended middle-grade audience. This will be a great classroom read-aloud and provides rich themes to discuss between the laughter, the tears . . . and the healing. It’s going to be hard for me to find a book I both love and admire more this year.

None of these things are in the instruction manual
for how to write a book for this age level!

Lynn: I totally agree with Cindy both about my love for this book AND about Gary Schmidt working a special kind of magic here. For one thing, he features elements I would have been happy to bet would NOT work for American middle-schoolers: cricket, an English butler who insists on precise grammar and impeccable manners, and a purple Bentley. Furthermore, he gives us a narrator who is NOT saying as many things as he IS saying, leaving the reader often wondering about what has happened in the past. Plus, definitions of cricket terms and rules in tiny print start each chapter. None of these things are in the instruction manual for how to write a book for this age level!

It all sounds like a recipe for disaster but the magic of Schmidt’s craftsmanship turns these unlikely parts into a story that is brilliantly told, very funny, and incredibly moving. Schmidt gifts readers with impossible-to-forget characters and a compulsively readable story, filled with moments that make us laugh out loud one moment and weep the next. It is a story about grieving and healing, responsibility and abandonment, loving and letting go. It is about family and keeping the bails up. (It’s a cricket thing!)

And, as bonus, I think I finally have a glimmer of what is going on in the sport of cricket!

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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