Get a glimpse of the cover of Chris Rylander’s first middle-grade novel, and you’ll instantly understand the slightly dark sense of humor in The Fourth Stall. With an elementary school (and an old out-of-use bathroom) as the background and a sixth grade boy (who “solves” other kids’ problems for a fee or a favor) as the primary character, the story is set up from the beginning in the fashion of a slight parody of the “mobster” culture, placing it firmly in the contemporary world of American schoolchildren.
Sixth-grader Christian, better known as Mac (short for MacGyver, which first used by an eighth grader one time and simply stuck), is the guy to see if you’re a kid who needs something. We’re not talking about things completely on the up and up, of course. Fake hall passes, quiz answers, maybe a video game that’s been outlawed by one’s parents. Mac can help kids get their hands on things like this, because he’s got connections that run the gamut from kids younger than himself who can help him out, all the way up to the school janitor who owes him a couple of favors. Mac is the man.
The usual cases keep his business running briskly, with a constant line of potential customers outside his office in the East Wing bathroom, the fourth stall from the high window, to be exact. For all his assistance, Mac is repaid in cash, as well as in favors to be collected upon at a later date. As a result, Mac’s business is quite profitable, and his right-hand man, his best friend to boot, Vince keeps close track of their books. Vince and Mac, die-hard Chicago Cubs fans, are working toward a goal- to go see a World Series game if the Cubs ever pull it together enough to make it in. But everything is threatened when their toughest case yet visits them in the bathroom one day- even Mac can’t imagine it, but this case has the potential to bring down his entire empire, as well as ruin his friendship with Vince, which is even worse to think about.
I started out reading this aloud with my ten year old son, but life got in the way of our reading together for a week or so, so he finished it on his own, and I then followed suit. The first few chapters introduce a humorous tone that still has a level of innocence to it, despite the overt depictions of an elementary school kid’s mob-like business. As the novel progresses, though, the language gets slightly stronger (nothing more than “pissed off” and insinuations at cursing), and the suspense and violence increase as well, with a couple scenes of moderately described adolescent physical fights. In my opinion, it was on the upper edge of what I’m comfortable with for my own fifth grade son now, but I wouldn’t have handed this to him a year or two ago.
This isn’t the type of book that overtly teaches a lesson, and clearly even the protagonist who is presented to the audience as the person with whom to identify, is not an ideal example of morality. Yet, readers will identify with his personal struggles of understanding what it means to trust someone and how to sustain a friendship through times of trouble.
Overall, The Fourth Stall is funny in a way that will appeal to older elementary and middle school kids, and is also appealing for its contemporary setting and tone. Even with an eleven year old boy at the center of the story, there’s a lot of expressed emotion and heart here, depicted in a way that is simultaneously tender and authentic, directed both at friendship and baseball- things many boys can relate to.
We have a special giveaway today for one lucky reader- a hardcover copy of The Fourth Stall with a bookplate signed by Chris Rylander. Leave a comment here to be entered, U.S. and Canada addresses only, please. We’ll announce a winner in our regular giveaway spot on 4/20.
This giveaway is now closed. Thanks for all the entries!
We’re happy to be just one stop on the blog tour for The Fourth Stall. Check out Walden Pond Press’ blog for more posts this week.
Also, check out author Chris Rylander’s original essay in our On Reading column- Writing for a Middle Grade Audience.
Dawn enjoys reading what interests her oldest child as one way to stay connected. She’s sometimes “allowed” to write about him on her blog, my thoughts exactly.