Dexter is angry. His life has been turned upside down by circumstances way beyond his control. It is only his first day at his new school, but Dexter hates everything and everyone, from the janitor to the secretary to the kids and even his sunny, sparkly teacher, Ms. Abbott. He has arrived on the day when Ms. Abbott is introducing a writing project in which the children are asked to write about their lives and to work on the story for a whole month, just like real writers.
And so Dexter's classroom story begins with the words, "I'm the new kid. I am tuf." And later, "This morning I beat up a kid." It takes a while to find out all that Dexter is angry about, and it turns out he has a right to be upset. His father is awaiting a bone marrow donor in a hospital far away, in Seattle. His mother has no choice but to move fourth-grader Dexter from his home in Cincinnati to live with his grandmother in Bellgap, Kentucky.
Slowly, Ms. Abbott peels back the layers of anger that threaten to destroy young Dexter. She pushes his writing project forward and eventually the writing of his story allows him to connect with a new friend, examine his behavior and look to the future.
Margaret Peterson Haddix's light hand keeps this from being a treatise on confessional writing and allows it to be the story of a child who learns to forgive himself. She hints at something that is rarely included in a novel for early readers the idea of an unreliable character. Dexter's memory of beating up a boy in the bathroom is so vivid to him and the guilt he suffers because of his behavior is so deep that he is not able to remember it correctly. And when he discovers the truth, the reader will surely feel a sense of recognition.
There is a lot to this slim volume. Children who are dealt a challenging hand will find much to identify with in young Dexter.