Zachary Beaver is “The World’s Fattest Boy,” – at least that’s what the sign on the side of his travel trailer says. And in 1971, the residents of Antler, Texas line-up to pay $2 and see for themselves. This is the backdrop for Kimberly Willis Holt’s National Book Award-winning When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, a masterpiece of tween fiction that you should read now, if you haven’t already.
This isn’t Zachary’s story. Our narrator is 13-year-old Toby Wilson who is having the worst summer of his life. His mother has left home to pursue her music dreams in Nashville. The girl of his dreams has no such feelings for him. His best friend’s brother, whom he idolizes, is fighting in Vietnam. Toby is left to stoically deal with these issues with limited support from a sincere, yet emotionally-distant father.
The plot of the book unfolds slowly, deliberately, intentionally. Toby and his friend Cal are asked, then encouraged, and finally pushed to visit Zachary, who has been abandoned by his guardian/sideshow manager who has left town to recruit additional sideshow acts. Toby and Cal begin to see Zachary as a person with dreams and wishes. Eventually they help him explore the world outside his cramped trailer. They take him to the drive-in movie, include him in the annual release of thousands of ladybugs in the cotton field, and help him fulfill his desire to be baptized.
While Zachary is experiencing life with new friends, Toby learns to come to terms with his difficult situations: he forgives his mother for leaving, and he helps his crush find her true love. Just as Zachary takes those first steps outside his trailer, Toby begins that melancholy journey from childhood to adulthood. Readers with similar emotions, and those who can remember them, will count this book among their treasures.
Holt’s writing talent is on full display, and every page is a treat. Some events in the story are predictable, but reading about them is emotionally satisfying nonetheless. This is a book to be savored. It should be part of every middle grade library and classroom collection, and considered for class study.