Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander

The Fourth Stall
by Chris Rylander
2011 | 314 pages | Middle Grade

The Fourth Stall tells the story of Christian Barrett, better known as Mac, who runs a mafia-like business from the fourth stall by the window in a rarely-used boy's bathroom in the East Wing of his elementary school. Mac and his best friend and business manager, Vince, started working for the other kids in their school when they were very young, but now that they and their classmates are older, the problems the boys must solve are becoming tougher and more dangerous.

At the start of this book, a third grader approaches Mac and asks for protection from Staples, who, until now, has been a legend and nothing more. It turns out that Staples has started a gambling ring among the elementary school kids, and he has hired a number of rats to infiltrate the school, collect bets on school sporting events as well as information on Mac and his business, and report back. At first, Mac doesn't realize it, but over time, he comes to find out that someone working for him  - one of the nine school bullies, perhaps, or maybe even Vince - is revealing his secrets to Staples. Who is Staples? Will he ruin Mac's business? And if he does, how will Mac and Vince pay to see the Cubs, who might actually make it this time,  play in the World Series? 

What is so brilliant about this book is that it plays on the fascination kids have with what goes on in the buildings they frequent when no one else is there. I was a good student and liked school growing up, but there was still something so thrilling about being allowed out of the classroom while school was in session, and taking a walk around the building. It felt different, too, when I stayed after school for an activity and could see all the empty classrooms, and the janitors removing the trash from the trash cans. This book uses this behind the scenes part of the school as its setting, and then creates even more excitement by including dangers unknown to adults, but known all too well to kids.

This is not strictly a realistic fiction story. Rather, it falls into a category with books like Sideways Stories from Wayside School, or The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, or even Diary of a Wimpy Kid. They exaggerate the real-life experience, add some elements of humor and creativity, and tell a story that overall could never happen, but that we can still somehow feasibly imagine, because some of the events of the story, at least, do ring true. While I wondered at times why we didn't see Mac attending classes more often, and wished we could see more of how he worked his business in around his other responsibilities, I was more interested in Mac and Vince's friendship, which survived even after Mac moved out of  the trailer park and left Vince behind. I also love the way they root for the Cubs, and understand the loyalty and disappointment of fans for a team that hasn't been successful in a long time.

Finally, I just thought the concept of a grade school Godfather was genius. There is so much that can be done with the setting Rylander has created, and I'm so thrilled there's going to be a sequel published in early 2012. (There's A Book has the cover reveal and a brief synopsis here.)

I recommend this book to fans of authors like Louis Sachar, Gordon Korman, and Jeff Kinney, and especially to boys. Girls will like it, too, but there are few books that capture boy buddyship and the culture of schoolyard bullies better than this one, and I have no doubt this book will have a huge male following.

I received a finished copy of The Fourth Stall from Walden Pond Press after winning a giveaway at There's a Book.


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