Sometimes a powerful and emotionally rich book like “Brave Like That” by Lindsey Stoddard comes along that I wish everyone would read. A thoughtful book that could change the world – really. And in this book, the lessons Cyrus, the main character, learns are ones that he recognizes could change the world.
“Brave Like That” is a difficult book to review. There’s so much packed into this treasure of a story that it’s difficult to include all the messages and themes. Cyrus is the son of a firefighter, and his Dad was a star football player in their small town. Since he’s been a little kid, everyone thought he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps. Cyrus was adopted by his dad after being left at the fire station when he was an infant. On the night of his eleventh birthday, celebrated at the fire station, a stray dog shows up, and Cyrus is convinced that fate expects him to keep the dog, just as his father kept him. But Cyrus’s father has other ideas.
When his dad is on the 24-hour shift at the fire station, Cyrus stays with his grandmother. She’s in an assisted living apartment since she had a stroke, and she can’t talk or move her right side. But Cyrus understands her “Na na na” language and knows what she’s trying to tell him. His grandmother loves music, and when they are together, they listen to music a lot. Cyrus also loves his grandmother’s special music.
We learn immediately that Cyrus doesn’t love football, and he doesn’t want to play football. But he doesn’t know how to escape what is expected of him because of his father’s prowess on the field. Cyrus realizes that what he really wants is to play music and join the school band, but he doesn’t have any idea how that can happen. He also doesn’t have any idea how he can convince his dad that they must adopt Parker, the dog they found and that he named for the way the dog immediately parked his head on Cyrus’s shoulder that first night.
This story is complex. Cyrus is concerned that his best friends, who are now on the middle school’s version of a varsity football team, are becoming mean. He likes the new student, Eduardo, even as his friends make fun of Eduardo. Cyrus also has trouble reading and comprehending what he reads, but he’s been able to hide it until now. His grandmother suspects but can’t talk to him about it, and he’s been embarrassed to talk to his dad or his teachers about it. He’s a master at faking it, and in the story, he becomes a master at faking a lot. He fakes notes to his football coach so he can leave football practice to go walk Parker at the Humane Society.
Cyrus is lucky because other people in his life are there to show him how to stand up and not fake it. Sam, the new firefighter at the station, is a woman. Leo, the big, muscular firefighter, doesn’t like having a female firefighter and bullies her. But Sam doesn’t put up with it and neither does Cyrus’s father. When Leo makes fun of Cyrus for tapping his foot to music instead of playing football in one scene, his father calls him out on it with two words — “so what?”
Cyrus feels that he’s not brave like his father. He is afraid of running into burning buildings, he is afraid of getting tackled in football, he’s no war hero like his great-grandpa whose dog tags he gets as a birthday present from his grandma, and he’s afraid of telling the truth about his real feelings. The first person narrative allows us to know exactly what Cyrus is feeling when he muses, “I definitely don’t have that Olson gene that turns them into war heroes and firefighting football stars. I’m just not brave like that.”
But what we find out through Stoddard’s beautiful and emotional text is that Cyrus is really brave in all of the important ways. He’s brave enough to stick up for Eduardo, who speaks Spanish, wears velcro shoes, loves playing the oboe, and is a bit different. He is brave enough to stop his friends from being bullies and making fun of Eduardo in front of the whole class. He recognizes that just small acts of kindness and bravery can make a difference.
When Shane and Marcus, his childhood friends, make a snide comment about Eduardo’s oboe, Cyrus finally summons the nerve to stand up for his new friend. He literally stands up and says in a loud voice, “So what?” His friends don’t know how to respond, but the rest of the class agrees with Cyrus, and there’s a beautiful scene when all the students go around sharing how weird they are, from one student who colors her nails with Sharpies to another student who admits he must always wear something green. They seem to be saying, “Everyone is weird – get over it.” And it makes Cyrus remember how Shane and Marcus are still weird, even though they aren’t sharing their weird predilections with the class.
At the fire station, when Leo sees Cyrus with his trombone and smirks, Cyrus is ready for him. He’s ready to repeat what his father said, “So what?” which has now become Cyrus’s go-to remark when a bully makes fun of someone. But Leo doesn’t say anything. He’s learned his lesson. Cyrus realizes that “…. if kids like Marcus and Shane just keep sparking little fires without anyone saying NO or So what? they’ll probably end up like Leo. Someone who walks around like he’s a little bigger than everyone else.”
It’s important for middle grade readers to realize that they have power, especially the ones who are bystanders, watching the bullies’ cruelty to the bullied. They can make a difference by just saying something like “so what?” when the bully ridicules someone for being different. Because aren’t we all weird in our own ways? As an exercise, I used to have my 5th graders share one way each of them was “weird.” I shared my weirdness: that I had four dogs and four cats and a bird. Certainly weird.
It’s apparent that Stoddard has impeccable taste in children’s books, including picture books. In the story, Cyrus’s middle school teacher reads picture books to the sixth graders including “Each Kindness” by Jacqueline Woodson, and “Red” by Michael Hall. Each book shares an important lesson. Woodson’s book is about bullies and kindness, and the ending — when the bully realizes the harm she’s done and has no way to make things right — is almost shocking to children. Hall’s book about a red crayon who can’t draw strawberries but can really rock coloring in an ocean is really about being true to who you are inside. He might wear the “red” label, but he’s really a blue crayon inside that red label. And once he realizes that and accepts who he is, he’s much happier. Picture books are an important tool in teaching children essential lessons packaged in a short read, and Cyrus learns those lessons well.
“Wonder” and “Because of Winn-Dixie” are two other middle grade books that are mentioned in this novel, and both are important children’s books. “Wonder” is about a child who is born with a face that doesn’t look like other faces, but inside he’s just like everyone else. Finally starting school in 5th grade, he learns about bullies and true friends. “Because of Winn-Dixie” is about a girl who moves to a new town with her father. She’s lonely, and she misses having a mother. When she finds a stray dog at the local grocery store, a Winn-Dixie, it changes her life. Everything wonderful that happens to her in the story happens because of Winn-Dixie. Both are excellent choices for middle grade readers.
In these times, it’s important to be brave. It’s important for children to learn the value of sticking up for others, stopping bullies, and allowing for all the differences that we exhibit. Because without all our differences, life would be boring. It’s our differences that make us interesting and make life more interesting. It’s essential that children learn the value of kindness and compassion. And last, children must realize that it’s never okay to allow cruelty. All it takes is one upstanding person to step up, stand up, and call out wrongdoing. That one person can start a revolution.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s edition provided by the author for review purposes. Published by HarperCollins Childrens Books.