by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
Sometimes a book is so rich and textured, and the story is so compelling, that I have trouble finding a way in to write about it in this Life of a Reader column—other than to say, “This is an amazing story I can really relate to.”
Years and years ago, I attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now the Columbia Publishing Course) after college—i.e., I did not go to law school as originally planned.
One of the highlights of our days immersed in publishing was the program’s iconic nightly “sherry hour.” Each evening, students drank sherry while mingling with authors and luminaries from the publishing industry to which we were all presumably headed to work after graduation from the course.
(Three members of my class went on to become publishing luminaries themselves: Jenny Frost, former president of Crown Publishing Group at Random House; Christopher Franceschelli, an author and editor who runs Chronicle’s Handprint imprint; and Margaret Ferguson, publisher of Margaret Ferguson Books at Holiday House.)
We were an earnest group of students of books and magazines and the world of publishing, and we all relished the opportunity to hear from these publishing-industry superstars—and then from ourselves during the question-and-answer period.
One evening, John Irving, the author of the mega-bestselling The World According to Garp, came to sherry hour.
John discussed his life and work, and the innovative way the paperback edition of his story about writer T. S. Garp, born to a famous feminist, was being published (in four different neon colors at once—which was radical at the time!).
During the Q&A period, one particularly earnest and well-prepared student who had already read the 600-plus-page novel asked John Irving an earnest and very well-prepared question about the Freudian significance of assorted characters losing assorted body parts during the course of the story.
In my memory, John Irving paused for a long minute before answering. He told the student that he didn’t intend any special significance, Freudian or otherwise; all he was trying to do in his work in general—and The World According to Garp in particular—was to tell a good story that his readers can relate to.
I learned a lot—and met a lot of current and future publishing people—that summer. I don’t think I have ever had a glass of sherry since 1979, but all these decades later, John Irving’s comments are at the top of my list of takeaways from the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course. I love to go deep and analyze books—and all art, really. But the reason I love a book (and, ultimately, the reason I can recommend it to friends and family, teachers, and readers of all ages) is that it tells a great, relatable story.
That’s the way it is with me and Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan. I first listened to the audiobook, and then I liked the story so much I wanted to read it in print as well. So I experienced this story of two fifth graders—Ravi and Joe—from very different backgrounds in a kind of stereo.
I loved Save Me a Seat—both as a great story and because it reminded me of aspects of my own childhood. Ravi and Joe’s friendship reminds me of my own friendship with Debbie Reichard, which began when we met in second grade at the John Ward School in Newton, Massachusetts. Debbie and I weren’t from different countries like Ravi and Joe, but she was Catholic and I am Jewish, and so we had very different family traditions.
The Reichards always had fish for dinner on Fridays. Our family ate gefilte fish (inedible to many non-Jewish people) on holidays like Passover. In certain special restaurants (or lobster shacks), we ate fried shrimp, and fried clams and Maine lobster on special occasions. And once in a while, we would have Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. But otherwise, there was not much seafood in our diet.
Debbie and her family went to church on Sunday. I would sometimes join them, and in not wanting to be disrespectful, I remember feeling pretty stressed about whether I should kneel and make the sign of the cross when everyone else did or just sit there and try to be inconspicuous.
Debbie’s parents loved to play tennis, and they belonged to the famous Longwood Cricket Club. I was welcome as a guest for a day at the pool, but my own family would not have been able to join then.
Ravi and Joe’s experience with the bully, Dillon Samreen, in Save Me a Seat also reminded me of bullies I have known and (not) loved through the years.
I won’t name them here, but reading about Dillon brought back memories of those horrible kids who created so much anxiety and stress in me and other kids in the class (and probably in our teachers too)! There was also a small part of me—which I did not like—that secretly wanted to be friends with those jerks.
And the teachers in Save Me a Seat brought back vivid memories of the many wonderful—and always-committed—teachers I’ve had in my life. While it takes Mrs. Beam a while to get Ravi’s name right, she eventually gets there. Mr. Barnes makes Joe feel important. And Miss Frost, the resource room teacher, brings these two friends together.
“A refreshing spin on a story about fitting in and overcoming obstacles features two viewpoints written by two authors.” —Kirkus Reviews
Save Me a Seat is also about school lunch. I don’t have too many memories of school lunch (other than the small milk cartons), but my own children tell me now about all the horrors of middle school cafeteria life. I’ll save their stories for another post, but thinking about school lunch did bring back memories for my own decades-long friend and colleague David Vozar:
“When I was a kid, I always looked forward to lunch at school. I loved going down the hall with my dime for my carton of milk, followed by the predictability of sitting at my desk along with my classmates to eat.
“Unlike Joe and Ravi, it wasn't until seventh grade that my lunchtime was forever changed and I had to eat my lunch in the cafeteria. What I thought would be fun turned into anxiety for me as I fought the clock in the lunch line so I would have enough time to eat, followed by the daily search to find a seat. I would search the sea of kids for any familiar face, and if that didn't work out, I would find a seat alone at the end of a table.
“At least I still had my familiar carton of milk!”
Culture, friendship, teachers, and lunch—these are the cornerstones of childhood. Of mine, of David’s, of Ravi’s and Joe’s, and of the millions of kids who love to choose books they love to read through Scholastic Book Clubs.
Just like John Irving said: we all want to read great stories that we can relate to. In the incredible cooking-and-talking author interview Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan did for the blog this week, you hear Sarah say that what makes her happy is when teachers choose to read Save Me a Seat as their first read-aloud for the new school year.
I encourage you to do that too. And we’re making it available for one dollar for one week only so everyone can have access and you can get copies for your students to take home and share with their own families.
I hope you and your students enjoy Save Me a Seat and that it reminds everyone to celebrate what makes people unique and special—in themselves and others—and the power of a good story!
Happy reading, and thank you for your support of all we do at Scholastic Book Clubs.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs