Justin Case: Rules, Tools, and Maybe a Bully

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Justin Case: Rules, Tools, and Maybe a Bully Book Poster Image
Giggles, wisdom as worrywart Justin starts fourth grade.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids will pick up interesting bits of information along the way, from differences in regional culture (the fact that Justin's new friend Cash, who isn't always the best influence, is over-the-top polite to adults because he comes from the South) to holidays (Justin's family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas). There's a comical thread about little sister Elizabeth's science project on the rain cycle. Older kids will get the joke when Justin's mom calls him Gandhi; younger kids may be inspired to look it up. 

Positive Messages

Strong messages about having family members who always come through for you and coming through for them; learning to understand and help your friends, even when they don't make it easy; and being kind but also standing up for yourself.

Positive Role Models & Representations

One of the real strengths of the Justin Case books is that characters aren't only cardboard figures of good and evil, they're a mix of qualities, just as people are in real life. Justin's big challenge is figuring it all out -- why his oldest friend is being mean to him, why his new friend is telling him to do things he's pretty sure are wrong, and what he should do about it. Justin's believably confused and out of his depth (which will delight more socially savvy young readers), but he has a strong support system in his parents, grandparents, and new teacher.

Violence & Scariness

Justin's friend Noah seems to be "accidentally" hitting him a lot.  A group of his friends hatches a plot to take revenge on a bully by removing all the screws in his chair so it collapses when he sits down; the prank has a surprising victim.

Language

Brief comic mentions of butts and farts.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Justin Case: Rules, Tools, and Maybe a Bully, the third installment in Rachel Vail's funny, affectionate series, follows worried kid Justin Krzeszewski as he takes on the perils of fourth grade. There are plenty of giggles (like when Justin's grandparents go on a cruise and call to report that his grandpa, Poopsie, forgot to pack any pants. Justin, with the help of illustrator Matthew Cordell, imagines Poopsie strolling around the ship in his underwear). But there also are a number of life lessons that Justin, whose coping skills keep improving, manages to figure out by himself. Author Vail deftly handles the issue of bullying, as Noah, Justin's oldest friend, has trouble dealing with the fact that Justin has new friends, too -- and starts to "accidentally" hit Justin a lot. Meanwhile, Elizabeth, Justin's little sister, is in trouble at school because she won't stop kissing her friend Buckey. Everything gets resolved happily, of course, and along the way parents and kids may find some real-life versions of the story to talk about. Makes a fun read-aloud, too. 

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What's the story?

He survived the perils of summer camp in Justin Case: Shells, Smells, and the Horrible Flip-Flops of Doom, but new challenges await worried kid Justin Krzeszewski, known to practically everybody as Justin Case. School's starting, and Justin's in fourth grade, with a new, strict teacher and standardized tests. There also are a lot of new rules, and the whole class has to learn to play the recorder. But Justin has a bigger problem: Now that he's also friends with the "runny-aroundy" kids from camp, his longtime friend Noah isn't coping too well, and Justin keeps getting "accidentally" punched. Meanwhile, his little sister Elizabeth, who never worries about anything, loves first grade -- and soon gets in trouble because she won't stop kissing her classmate. Concerned adults and kids with questionable judgment weigh in, Justin's hysterically funny grandparents make a return appearance, and Justin figures out quite a few things for himself.

Is it any good?

There are plenty of moments in JUSTIN CASE: RULES, TOOLS, AND MAYBE A BULLY to make readers stand up and cheer -- and also, like the characters themselves, see things from a new perspective. Hence the moment at the little kids' soccer game when Justin's dad takes on an adult heckler who's sneering at the fact that everybody gets trophies. "'Nope,' Dad said, turning around again to face the big red-faced dad. 'Not buying it. They're still little kids, all these guys. There's plenty of time for them to learn they won't get trophies every time they show up; that lots of times they won't be the one to get the trophies and the awards. Let's get them to show up first, run around, try. And then we can clap for them. Give them a little shiny something to look at, on top of their dresser, next time they're in their room, thinking maybe it would be a lot easier not to show up, not to try. You know?'"  

Justin's perennially worried narrative voice and his frequent leaps from utter confusion to brilliant insight and back again will keep young readers entertained -- and probably reflecting on a few of their own experiences. The book works as a read-alone or a fun read-aloud.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about bullying. Justin wasn't sure whether he was being bullied or not; what do you think? How would you deal with it if your friend started hitting you for no reason?

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  • How does this third book in the Justin Case series compare with the previous book about summer camp? Why are books about school so popular? 

  • Have you ever had a problem with your old friends not getting along with your new ones? What did you do about it?

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