Storytime: ‘The Center of Everything’ is a meaningful YA journey
Ruby Pepperdine is the kind of girl who always does what she’s supposed to. Offers to walk to school when her mother’s running behind. Listens to her grandmother’s stories. Stays out of trouble and out of the way.
Witness her diffidence a few chapters into The Center of Everything, when she’s hit by an unexpected crying jag one day during art class and ends up at the nurse’s office: “The nurse smiles and says take all the time you need, and Ruby says thank you. And she takes some time, which is not all she needs but is all it feels like she ought to take.”
If you’re not lucky enough to have such a child (yes, yes, I know seemingly easy children present their own set of challenges, or at least I’ve always told myself that), you surely know one. Maybe you were one.
If so, you’ll understand why Ruby grows slightly obsessive thinking about the thing she didn’t do right just before her grandmother died. Oh it’s nothing shocking or tragic at face value. She doesn’t unplug Gigi’s oxygen tank to charge her iPod or anything like that. That’s what’s refreshing about this new novel by Linda Urban (A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Hound Dog True): Life just kind of marches along without too much drama or fanfare. Like Ruby. Like it’s supposed to.
Never mind that the setting is a giant town-wide parade. As anyone who has stood on the sidewalk jostling for a prime spot to grab Tootsie rolls surely knows, small-town parades are very nearly the opposite of drama – a kind of manufactured hoopla that often only underscores just how little there is to get excited about in town.
Urban, who lives in Montpelier, Vt., wouldn’t put it quite that way. Her take on small-town life is neither cynical nor cornball, and though she employs plenty of light humor that one hopes won’t be lost on her middle-school-age readers, she seems largely respectful of the small towns that make up northern New England.
The Center of Everything is set in the fictional New Hampshire town of Bunning, New Hampshire, where the modern donut, supposedly, traced its origins. As Bunning legend had it, a passing sea captain, Cornelius Bunning, was eating a plate of fried dough fritters while trying to steer his ship in a storm. To keep them from rolling away, he speared each one onto a spoke of the ship’s wheel. He later settled in the town and built a school from ship materials (There are numerous variations of this donut hole story floating around, but New Hampshire does not seem to play a real-life role).
Every year the people of Bunning celebrate the town’s origins with a parade. Every year, a student from the local school is chosen to read an original essay about the town’s history at the end of the parade. And this year, 12-year-old Ruby is chosen. Not the sort who ordinarily seeks the spotlight, Ruby decides that winning the contest is some kind of sign and that somehow she can use it to undo the mistake she made with her grandmother.
In the days leading up to the parade, Ruby finds herself drawn to a boy in her class named Nero, whose outlook on life is very much the opposite of Ruby’s. In one of the best passages in the book, Nero questions the school librarian about the Seven Wonders of the World and why they’re so named. “So how come we’re all just supposed to say, ‘yeah, okay, those are the Seven Wonders?’ ” he asks.
Poor Ruby just wants things to have meaning and purpose, while the clever Nero loves nothing better than to shake up the status quo. Thankfully, Urban strips her of her ideals gently.
Urban also does an expert job of weaving together themes and creating metaphors, the humble donut being the central metaphor for everything from connectedness to time travel. Another small gift she gives her young readers is the character of Gigi, Ruby’s grandmother. Hers is a bit part in the story but her parting words to her granddaughter turn out to be pivotal. And while middle school readers may not fully appreciate the small-town pride Urban presents – in fact, it’s rather hard to imagine the young characters in the book paying as much attention as they do to the town’s history – they can surely understand the love of a grandparent.
Or at least, they ought to.