In tween literature, if you want the kids to deal with real-world problems, you have to get the parents out of the picture. That’s a tried-and-true first step in the genre. Leslie Connor frames Crunch in such a kid-centered scenario, and the result is a deftly-written and deceptively deep tween novel.
At the center of Crunch is our 14-year old first-person narrator Dewey Marris. Dewey’s family lives on a New England hobby farm within earshot of the interstate. Dad’s a regional truck driver. Mom went along for the ride on the current trip. Dewey’s 18-year old sister Lil has been left in charge, with Dewey’s younger brother Vince, and 5-year old twins Angus and Eva rounding-out the family. The industrious Marrises operate a small family business – The Marris Bike Barn – on the property.
Author Connor succeeds in creating a summertime gasoline shortage that turns the Marris family's lives upside down. With no fuel for the trip home, Mom and Dad are stuck near the Canadian border. And the Bike Barn, once a sleepy little repair shop, is now the most popular business in town. Connor doesn’t attempt to explain why there’s a fuel shortage, or why Dad – a truck driver – didn’t anticipate problems refueling. Instead, the focus is on the Marris kids and how they each adjust to absentee parents and increasing responsibilities in new circumstances.
And that’s the value of Crunch. We get to see how each family member reacts to their new challenges. Anyone who’s experienced a similar shift – the loss of power during a storm, for example – can relate to the Marris kids’ situation. At first it’s exciting. Dewey enjoys his role as the Bike Barn’s customer service manager, and gets an ego boost by being the solution to so many problems. Vince’s skill repairing bikes is on full display. Lil takes on a motherly role, and even the twins mature a little bit. The Marris offspring will be just fine until Mom and Dad return.
However, the days turn to weeks, new challenges present themselves, and the older challenges don’t seem fun anymore. The task of managing a small business becomes overwhelming to the boys. Lil alternates between snapping at her siblings and losing herself in her art projects. Even the twins grow weary of the “maybe tomorrow” answer to their questions about their parents’ return. To complicate matters, there’s a thief in town. Much-needed bike parts are gone, and cash is missing from the Bike Barn. The siblings find themselves ill prepared for these developments.
Within a few chapters the thief is caught and Mom and Dad are on the way home. And then Connor gives us something rarely seen in a tween novel: a third act. More problems, more delays, and more extreme reactions from the kids. Dewey's stress is overwhelming, and Vincent becomes even more reclusive. Lil’s meltdown features some very brief profanity usually not found in tween novels, and that may be a deal breaker for teachers and media specialists. She apologizes on the next page – but the words are still there with each successive reading.
In the final chapters the book turns a corner – almost a little too quickly – as the Marris siblings learn some valuable life lessons. You don’t have to do everything yourself. It’s okay to ask for help. Enabling isn’t always helping. You can’t make everybody happy. The fuel crunch has changed the family for the better. But as with most difficult lessons, there’s been an emotional price.
Despite the kid-friendly cover, the elementary reading level, and the breezy tone of the first few chapters, Crunch isn’t a little kid book. It’s a story about a family separated, and in crisis. The older siblings face challenges beyond their years, and to their credit perform admirably. Still, Crunch is best suited for the middle school audience. Minus Lil’s verbal outburst, I’d recommend Crunch to middle school audiences without reservation. However, inclusion in a library or classroom collection will require librarians and teachers with a good knowledge of their community’s standards.