Benjamin Epstein loves “sweeping,” or applying to sweepstakes. He’s especially excited about the competition to write a new slogan for Royal-T Bathroom Tissue. Winning the contest would provide enough money for Benjamin and his mother to avoid eviction from their small Philadelphia apartment without giving up on the Grand Plan his father designed before dying of lung cancer: Benjamin’s mother will finish her accounting degree, get a good job, and she and Benjamin will have a better life.

But saving for accounting exam fees is difficult when the rent is due, and the unexpected arrival of Benjamin’s Zeyde (Yiddish for grandfather), who suffers from memory problems, complicates matters further. Benjamin hatches a moneymaking scheme to help his family, but it’ll take all his creativity and energy—along with his best friend Toothpick’s skill at crafting horror movie-style special effects—to keep the Grand Plan on track.

As its title suggests, Death by Toilet Paper balances this serious content with a light tone. Unusual facts about toilet paper open each chapter, and Yiddish words sprinkled throughout the text add interest (although because Yiddish is a declining language, the vocabulary sounds more authentic when spoken by Zeyde and the Epsteins’ elderly neighbor than by seventh-grader Benjamin).

With the contemporary economy placing many families into circumstances like Benjamin and his mother’s, Donna Gephart’s latest middle grade offering provides an important perspective on how love, humor and, most of all, hope can make a difference during tough times.

 

Jill Ratzan reviews for School Library Journal and works as a school librarian at a small independent school in New Jersey.

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