Little, Brown, 2019 374 pages
Caitlyn offers a first person narration of her experiences moving from the suburbs to rural Vermont. She joins a small class of seventh graders called the "Originals", as they are the first class who started kindergarten in the Mitchell School, a converted mansion, and have moved up a level every year. This year introduces a group of goats who are given the challenge of chomping away at a soccer field to get it ready for the school's big competition again a rival rich school. As Caitlyn experiences discomfort at entering an environment where everyone knows each other and culture shock, further troubles develop when the other students are disappointed with her presence and the absence of former class clown, Paulie Fink. Everyone seems to mourn his absence and Caitlyn sets out to find out more about this local legend by conducting a series of interviews with her classmates. Inspired by a reality shown, Caitlyn creates a contest to determine who will be the next Paulie Fink. Students are eliminated as she issues challenges. Finally, the day of the big soccer game arrives-and with it a huge surprise. Will Caitlyn get to meet the mysterious Paulie Fink at last? And is he all that he is cracked up to be? Where and why did he go in the first place? As the students grapple with these questions a threat ensues in the possible closing of their non-traditional school. Will they all have to transfer to a big school miles away?
Benjamin follows up her award-winning novel The Thing about Jellyfish with another heartfelt tale, although a bit lighter in content and infused with humor. Caitlyn experiences all the struggles of a new kid, forcing herself to come to terms with her own bullying behavior aimed at a girl at her former school. Now the tables have turned and she feels vulnerable and exposed. To make matters worse, her presence is a disappointment in the absence of larger-than-life legend Paulie Fink. As Caitlyn sets out to discover more about this unusual character, she gradually gets to know her classmates better, through interviewing them and then by hosting the reality competition. Throughout the book Benjamin touches on issues such as the changing face of rural America, the importance of kindness and acceptance, reality television as it reflects our society, and economic disparages in our society. Through it all, gentle humor moves the plot along through the antics of both Paulie and the goats. Eventually, Caitlyn (and the reader) gets to meet Paulie and he gets his own say at the end of the story, clearing up many unknown questions. The book is a bit long, yet reads quickly and is often written in transcript form as Caitlyn interviews her classmates. Readers will find much to identify with here and the gentle mystery behind the whereabouts of Paulie will keep them guessing and turning pages. Not quite the punch of Benjamin's first novel, yet still time well spent.