Friday, October 17, 2008

Book Review: A Long Way from Chicago, by Richard Peck

     "Who's doing all this talking?"
     "A real old, humped-over lady with buck teeth," Mary Alice said.
     "Cross-eyed? Grandma said. "That'd be Effie Wilcox. You think she's ugly now, you should have seen her as a girl. And she'd talk you to death. Her tongue's attached in the middle and flaps at both ends." Grandma was over by the screen door for a breath of air.
     "They said he'd notched his gun in six places," I said, pushing my luck. "They said the notches were either for banks he'd robbed or for sheriffs he'd shot."
     "Was that Effie again? Never trust an ugly woman. She's got a grudge against the world," said Grandma, who was no oil painting herself.

Joey Dowdel and his sister Mary Alice are first shipped off to visit their Grandma Dowdel in the summer of 1929. Being city kids from Chicago, they are none too pleased to be packed off to the boonies for a visit with a grandmother they hadn't seen since they were "tykes." 

But Grandma Dowdel is no ordinary Grandma, and these two kids learn to always expect the unexpected. This town they first saw as sleepy and dull transformed in their eyes all through helping Grandma carry out her plans. She squeezes off a couple of rounds from her shotgun - right in her own living room. She teaches a family of bullies a lesson they won't soon forget. She strong-arms a banker into returning something rightfully belonging to someone else - and demands a few bucks for the grandkids for good measure. 

Over the years, and beneath that steely exterior, Joey and Mary Alice start to see a whole new and surprising side to Grandma Dowdel. And they begin to look forward to each summer adventure, always wondering: what will she be up to next?

For Teachers and Librarians:
A Long Way from Chicago is a novel broken up into eight short stories - one for each summer Joey and his sister spent a week with Grandma Dowdel. Joey tells the stories as he remembers them many years later. It is full of out loud laughs, poignant moments, bittersweet memories, and complicated relationships. Here is a novel you will relish reading out loud as much as your students relish hearing it.

Kids who struggle through full-length novels will enjoy this book's format, being able to read it in small chunks that each are a story in and of themselves. It may even encourage them to try longer works, once they find how fun this book is to read.  

You will find much to work with here from a curriculum standpoint. The book is set from 1929 through 1942, and touches on life during the Great Depression, rural life in Illinois, Chicago gangsters, the World Wars, economics, human nature, relationships, community politics... Where will you choose to use this book? With so many ways to go, you really can't go wrong in using A Long Way from Chicago to supplement your lessons - or in wrapping your lessons around reading the book.  
For Parents, Grandparents and Caregivers:
Grandparents and Great-Grandparents may find themselves reliving memories of their own while reading this with their kiddos. Parents will like the life lessons Joey and Mary Alice learn from their eccentric but principled grandmother. It is a lot of fun to read, so don't be surprised when they snicker and laugh out loud while curled up on the couch with it. 

Written in short-story-collection format, this book may encourage your more reluctant readers to stick with it. Maybe it will even inspire them to pick up other books. If they like A Long Way from Chicago, they will be happy to know there is a sequel: A Year Down Yonder, that continues to tell of Grandma Dowdel and the hilarious situations she orchestrates.

For the Kids:
Laugh out loud funny! Totally. You will seriously wish you had a grandma like Grandma Dowdel. She bakes a mean gooseberry pie, but isn't afraid to squeeze off a few rounds of her shotgun when necessary. She gives the bullies what for, but they don't even know what (or who) hit them. She's rough around the edges, but she gets what she believes is right, and soon Joey and Mary Alice see how much she really does care about people. Even people they thought were her enemies. Pick up a copy of A Long Way from Chicago and see for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

For Everyone Else:
A Long Way from Chicago is a novel marketed to older kids and young adults, but the rest of us will get a kick out of it, too. Senior citizens will be able to relate to the time period (1929-1942) and may even want to spin a few yarns about their own lives back then. Middle age adults will get a better sense of all that stuff they heard about as kids and read about in school. 

Wrapping Up: 
Everyone will love Grandma Dowdel. She is truly one of a kind, and this is a book not to be missed.

Title: A Long Way from Chicago
Author: Richard Peck
Pages: 176
Reading Level: Ages 8-12
Publisher and Date: Penguin Young Readers Group, October 2000
Edition: paperback
Language: English
Published In: United States
Price: $6.99
ISBN-10: 0141303522
ISBN-13: 978-0141303529


  1. i love this book it is sooooo funny keep up the work richard

  2. I read this book aloud to my husband in the car. He laughed so hard, he almost drove off the road. We both agreed that my Grandma Elliott was just like Grandma without the shotgun

  3. gardenwitch - Oh, Grandma Dowdel is one of my all-time favorite characters! Have you read his other books about her?

  4. Well, Grandma Dowel is certainly NOT your typical grandma!

  5. love this book so much


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