Title: Ms. Bixby’s Last Day
Author: John David Anderson
Publisher: Walden Pond Press
Audience: Ages 8-12
Summary: In the taxonomy of teachers devised by the sixth-grade protagonists of this novel, Ms. Bixby is one of the rare “Good Ones,” the kind that make school bearable. When she is diagnosed with cancer and quickly becomes so sick that she can’t attend her own farewell party, three of her students cook up a plan to break her out of her hospital room to celebrate her last day as she has dreamed of doing.
Literary elements at work in the story: A quest motif serves as the plot device for this novel. The story is told sequentially in the first by three unlikely 12-year-old heroes: Steve is the nerdy but brilliant one who is scared of everything; Topher is the talented artist who plays it cool but wishes his parents had time to spend with him; and Brand is the street-wise kid who is hiding a secret at home. Together they skip school one Friday and travel around their town collecting all the props for Ms. Bixby’s last day. The journey is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, and though the props are mashed, stolen, and replaced by absurd substitutes, the heroes persevere. Author Anderson’s comic voice is true, and we come to know the characters more deeply with every chapter. They sneak the now-bald Ms. Bixby, perhaps as unlikely a heroine as her knights are heroes, from the hospital, and the story ends with a poignant picnic in the park.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? The setting of this story seems to be a fairly typical middle-class public school. Behind the facades that the main characters show to the world are families that struggle with finances, prescription drug abuse, social standing, etc. Battles between middle-school boys and girls are also acknowledged and corrected with ironic humor.
Theological Conversation Partners: Ms. Bixby is one of the Good Ones because she is able to recognize the unique and irreplaceable gifts of each boy in this novel. With echoes of the anointing of David in 1 Samuel (16:7), Ms. Bixby looks beyond physical characteristics and sees keen minds, uncommon artistic talent, and persistence beyond measure inside of these kids. She admires those who behave as their authentic selves in a culture that encourages affectation, just as Paul warns the Romans against being conformed to this world (Romans 12:2). She isn’t afraid to break cultural and institutional norms herself in the service of kindness. Ms. Bixby and her effect on the boys in this novel would serve as a great jumping-off point for a conversation with youth about the difficulties of living in the social pressure cooker of school and about the power of one person to crack those social conventions into many pieces. Ms. Bixby is by no means a Christ figure, but as with Jesus, death does not have the final word in this remarkable story.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Why do you think that Steve, Brand, and Topher say that Ms. Bixby is one of the “Good Ones”?
- Bixby sees special talents in each of the main characters. Do you think that the other kids in the class recognize these same talents? Why, or why not?
- What talents or gifts do you think the kids in your classes see in you?
- What talents or gifts does God see?
- Why do you think that the boys spend so much time collecting all the items for Ms. Bixby’s picnic?
- Is this a sad book or a happy one? What makes you choose that answer?
- Is death the end for Ms. Bixby or for any of us?
This review was written by Union Presbyterian Seminary alumna Beth Lyon-Suhring who serves as Director of Christian Education at the St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Suffolk, VA.
Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.