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Life isn’t easy for Carter Jones. His uncommunicative father is in Germany with the U.S. Army. The family Jeep is breaking down, the family dachshund keeps throwing up, and on top of it all Carter is starting middle school. Worst of all, deep down, his family is still reeling from the death of his little brother a couple of years before.

Things take a turn when a stranger appears on their doorstep—a man in a black suit and a bowler hat holding a huge umbrella. He is Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, a “gentleman’s gentleman” who has come to serve their family after his former employer, the grandfather they’ve never met, passed away.

The Butler, as Carter refers to him, brings a massive change in their lives. He brings order to the chaos of a mourning mother single-parenting four young children. He uses a different vocabulary, has high expectations of the children, and even teaches Carter and some other middle-schoolers how to play cricket. Each chapter of the book begins with the definition of a term from the game of cricket, terms that also relate to Carter’s life.

Schmidt entertains with humor and wordplay even as he slowly reveals the depths of Carter’s pain, pain that has kept him inward-focused and oblivious to the needs of the rest of his family. Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick helps him pay attention to those he loves and to remember who loves him as things get “sorted.”

At the start, it’s hard not to see the Butler as a male Mary Poppins, swooping in to bring order and happiness. But Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick does not encourage Carter to stay a child with magical flights of fancy; instead he pushes Carter to take an active role in his own life and supports him in becoming a strong and sensitive young man amidst the hard realities of his life. Possibly taking a cue from Reformed philosopher James K.A. Smith, Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick says, “We are what we love, young Master Carter.”

Pay Attention Carter Jones is a witty and compelling novel for middle readers that will appeal to many adults as well. Ages 10 and up. (Clarion)

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