“Sardines” is a tough and tender story of a group of outsider kids – kids who are not part of the cool crowd, or who come from families that are somehow broken – who band together to help each other get what they most want and need. In “Sardines,” Maine author Sashi Kaufman deftly navigates the difficult waters where middle grade fiction meets real life, neither pulling her punches nor settling for easy answers to achieve a happy ending.

We first meet Lucas Barnes as a sixth-grader trying to get out from under the large shadows cast by his older brother: Charlie was a beloved, standout student who has recently, and tragically, died. His death has had a shattering effect on Lucas’s family. His dad is just holding it together, while for her part, his mom has simply vanished.

Lucas feels angry at his father and alone at his new school (set in a fictional town near Kezar Falls). He’s just drifting through life at middle school, whose “five thousand rules” and rituals are aptly described by Kaufman, a middle school teacher herself. Gradually, Lucas finds a circle of friends in the after-school teen program. The hub of this circle is an eccentric new boy named Finn. Smart, kind-hearted and oddly formal, at times he sounds more like P. G. Wodehouse’s butler Jeeves than an 11-year old. He calls Lucas “my good man” and on his first day asserts that “Middle school is a unique cultural amalgam of learning and the dynamic metamorphosis of puberty.” Right. You can see he’s going to fit right in with a bunch of sixth-graders.

It’s Finn, though, who gets the after-school group to bond by converting an old hunting blind they discover while playing Sardines into a clubhouse. In this safe space and at his urging, they confess, one by one, their dearest wish, and then plot ways to make each one happen. The five are not obvious outcasts or misfits, not victims of racial discrimination or violent bullying – just regular kids who don’t conform, or whose painful home life is not readily apparent. In other words, the often invisible kids who never get on anyone’s radar as needing help.

There’s Cat, a tom-boy who admits she doesn’t “like like” boys. She can handle being picked on by other girls, but the group needs to find a way to convince her mother to let her cut her hair short. There’s Robbie, a goofy kid who is relentlessly mocked by a classmate. The group figures out the bully’s Achilles’ heel and convinces him to stop. There’s Anna, whose work-obsessed mother is too busy for her, and on whom Lucas has a little crush. The ingenious, funny solution the four come up with to help the mother see the error of her ways nearly gets them all into big trouble. And then there’s Finn, whose life outside school is a complete mystery until it’s finally revealed that he lives in a group home, and what he really wants most of all is a family. The way the others solve this problem is touching, if a bit far-fetched.

But the real core of the story is Lucas, who dreads admitting his wish: to get his mother back. When he finally is able to share that, his new friends help track her down: she’s in a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts. How Kaufman handles this revelation, and Lucas’s attempts to reconnect with her, is impressive in its shear honesty. There is no sugar coating the fact that she’s dealing with depression, nor a simple way to make it go away. What matters, though, is Lucas’s being allowed to make the journey – physical and emotional – to find and reconnect with her, a journey that also helps him reconnect to his father and move out of the shadow of his older brother.

Despite a couple of loose ends (Lucas’s dad’s interest in dating another woman, a hinted-at darker side to Charlie’s death), “Sardines” is an accomplished book. What charmed me most is the way it faces the reality of the crappiness of life for some kids while maintaining a feeling of innocence in its characters. This is a difficult feat and an unusual quality in the children’s book world these days.

Amy MacDonald is a children’s author who lives in Portland. She may be reached at AmyM781@gmail.com.


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