Rex Zero, King of Nothing by Tim Wynne-Jones is a middle-grade novel set in 1962 Ottawa. One month after the Cuban missile crisis, Rex Norton-Norton (whose last name is a subtraction problem, his friends note) is due to attend an Armistice Day ceremony -- which Rex had misunderstood as "Our Mistress Day" -- with his father, a WWII vet who "always gets crabby this time of year." So unenthusiastic about this occasion is Rex that he honestly forgets, standing his father up and creating distance between the two of them that he regrets but doesn't know how to bridge. With five siblings; a fascinatingly horrible substitute teacher; a collection of funny, loyal friends; the discovery of a little black book of phone numbers in a phone booth; a mixture of crush and worry over a young woman married to an angry husband; and increasing secrecy on the part of his father; eleven-year-old Rex has plenty to sort out in this active, funny and heartwarming novel about the many different expressions of love.
I found both the family and the friends funny, thoughtful, and engaging, but I was really caught up in the teacher, Miss Garr. I had Miss Garr in elementary school. She's the kind of teacher who, when you calculate that a week after November 26th is November 33rd, as Rex does, and the students roar and the class clown literally rolls in the aisle, says to the clown, "Do you think it polite to show such disrespect because of the stupidity of a fellow classmate? Have you no concern for his feelings?" She's the kind of teacher who, when a student reveals that he knows the song she mentions as her favorite, as Rex does, decides that a fitting punishment for some infraction would be to make him sing that song in front of the class. ("I didn't used to hate the song. Now I do," Rex says later.) She's the kind of teacher who, when someone needs help with his math, as Rex does, says to the kid in the next seat, "Help your mathematically inept friend, will you?" If the fact that I'm reading about "kids my own age" here weren't reason enough to ID with these characters, I SO had Miss Garr in elementary school. Yet she has her sympathetic point: Miss Garr's turns at playground duty show her special affinity with younger children. Miss Garr's problem (though I don't think this would have been the answer for my Miss Garr) is that she's teaching at the wrong grade level.
Another thing I love about this book is the number of subplots. I'm sure somebody somewhere would say that theoretically this book has too many for a mid-grade novel. About a third of the way through the novel, Rex does something that helps not only himself but readers get a handle on all of the plot threads. He lists several of them: 1) Why has my father been acting so strange? 2) What is the story my mother thought he was going to tell me on Armistice Day? 3) Why was Annie [his sister] snooping in Dad's study? 4) Who is the beautiful Natasha Lavender and why is she so sad? 5) Why is she called "Nate" in some guy's address book? 6) What is Kathy going to do about Dr. Arnold Schwartz? 7) What is my class going to do about Miss Garr? From this point on, the author tightly weaves all of these -- and more -- together until all are resolved at the end. Rex's string of mysteries creates an active, concrete plot structure for a novel whose overall aim is more psychological -- to explore what it means to love, to become a man, to be loyal, to take responsibility. It all works very well.
Rex has some great lines. Waking up one morning he says, "I feel smart, just like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard gives him a diploma. Morning is like a diploma." He describes a wobby smile as "a smile with training wheels." Though some might object to the present-tense narration, I barely noticed it. I think we've reached the point where objecting to present tense just because it's present tense makes no more sense than objecting to past tense because it's past. Just throwing it out there. :)