Donavan's a word geek, but there aren't words to describe his frustration with math and his embarrassed reaction to his favorite Uncle Vic's homecoming. Vic Carter Johnson had once been a fun-loving basketball star and firefighter. He had taught Donavan and his sister crazy dance moves like the cabbage patch, the snake and the running man. But when Uncle Vic's legs are blown away by a bomb attack while his National Guard unit is on active duty, Donavan is left to figure out how to accept this new version of his adored uncle.
Monalisa DeGross' latest novel is a follow up to Donavan's Word Jar, and readers will remember the warm-natured affection of this African-American family. Donavan's friends Pooh and Eric also provide encouragement and acceptance as Donavan struggles to sort out his math block and his feelings. Adult readers may question the juxtaposing of math homework and the seriousness of Uncle Vic's injuries, but young readers will empathize with Donavan's angst.
While the pacing of the novel is measured, DeGross' words shine in the dialogue between Donavan and his grandmother. In a competitive game of Scrabble, Donavan reveals his difficulty with numbers and his uneasy feelings about Uncle Vic. Grandma gives him counsel and hope, peppered with teasing and affection. In other scenes, as Donavan grapples with his problems, the language teeters on didactic, but the obvious well meaning of Donavan's family and teachers soften the lessons. A nice moment comes when Donavan's little sister tries to explain three-digit multiplication. Frustrated that his sister is better with numbers than he is, Donavan can't believe she solves one of his math homework problems. But she reminds him that she loves math the way he loves words. It's a sweet reminder that everyone has talent for something.
Always, Donavan comes across as a sincere boy, trying to do his best despite his shortcomings. He never gives up, and in the end, that may be the key to solving his double trouble. Young readers will also enjoy the pencil-sketch quality of Amy Bates illustrations.
Helen Hemphill is the author of Long Gone Daddy and Runaround.