Free Lunch

Norton Young Readers. Sept. 2019. 208p. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781324003601.
Gr 6-8–Heart-wrenching, timely, and beautifully written, this is a powerful and urgent work of autofiction. Telling his own story of growing up in Texas, Ogle looks back at starting middle school while navigating the crushing poverty and intermittent violence of his home life. It is especially humiliating to sixth-grade Rex that he is required to announce his free lunch status every day in the school cafeteria, wear secondhand clothes, and give excuses for not playing football when the truth is that there’s no money for the uniform. At home, where he lives with his unemployed mother and her boyfriend, Rex is the one who cares for his baby brother, balances the checkbook, and cooks dinner. His mother, overwhelmed and hopeless, clearly loves Rex, but does not know how to care for her sensitive son. At school, Rex struggles to maintain friendships with boys who have joined the football team and to make new friends—until he meets Ethan, a classmate who encourages Rex to recognize that every family is complicated. He also has to contend with his English teacher, Mrs. Winstead, who does not miss an opportunity to make Rex feel bad about himself. Over time, and with the support of his loving Mexican grandmother, Rex grows into an empathetic boy who begins to recognize the hardships his mother faces and starts to look outward in ways not restricted by his immediate situation.
VERDICT Ogle’s story will inspire empathy for the experience of children living in poverty. Recommend this book to mature readers who are ready to grapple with the realities of the impacts of socioeconomic status.

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