The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
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Rich, authentic characters are heart of thoughtful novel.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Benny and his close friends engage in wordplay based on a thesaurus they enjoy and consider themselves an exclusive club, the Word Warriors. His class has an intense poetry discussion, and Benny ends up leading the boys' argument in favor of poetry that doesn't rhyme. He also takes an unconventional approach to a presentation on Samuel Morse, focusing on his painting rather than his famed invention.

Positive Messages

Benny learns to accept the gray in-between spaces and that love, humor, and flexibility help smooth rough edges and forge human connections. Loss -- and fear of loss -- may feel lonely, but it's a universal experience. The story celebrates independent thinkers, making a clear distinction between being confrontational and being disrespectful.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Benny is compassionate, tenderly helping his brother when the 9-year-old wets himself at the bus stop and treating his grandfather with love and patience. Despite the family's stresses, they are loving and kind to one another. Benny is open-minded enough to change his opinion of his sister's boyfriend, who emerges as an especially generous spirit. His parents are loving and engaged, and Benny's father and grandfather are especially strong presences.

Violence & Scariness

Benny's brother seeks revenge on a hawk that swiped a bird from his feeder. Another character's dog dies of old age, and Benny's family seems keenly aware of his father's advanced age and his grandfather's frail health.

 

Language

There's little harsh language aside from an occasional "jerk." An elderly character with memory problems mistakenly calls his grandson "Crap."

 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Peter Johnson's The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez is a quiet but rich story with an admirable, realistic boy protagonist. Benny's worried about his ailing grandfather, who's suffered two strokes and struggles to remember names. Another character's dog dies of old age. Benny categorizes the girls in his class as bossy or neutral but is confused by his mixed reaction to one particularly bossy girl. A poetry discussion at school turns into a boys-versus-girls showdown.

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What's the story?

Seventh-grader Benny Alvarez is known as Mr. Negativity. His mother frets that he's too pessimistic, but he's really just following in his family's footsteps. As with his politically indignant dad, he just thinks he's being realistic. At home, he's dealing with an aggressively positive mother, an emotionally explosive younger brother, and a beloved grandfather in poor health. At school, he's frustrated and bewildered by the girls in his class: Claudine is the worst of the bossy ones, but why does he feel so confused by her? Things come to a head when he and Claudine butt heads over the nature of poetry and Benny has to decide which stand to take.

Is it any good?

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BENNY ALVAREZ is a touching, character-driven book with rich themes. Some readers will be bored by the lack of action, but more patient readers will be rewarded with a contemplative look at family relationships and the complex dynamic between boys and girls in middle school. The characters are realistic, given considerable depth thanks to the compassion and empathy that infuse the story.

Benny is an authentic boy protagonist with richly developed family and friends, much like the characters in author Peter Johnson's The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr., aka Houdini. Benny is a rare find in books aimed at boys: He's smart without being overly precocious, and he has a warm, considerate heart despite his supposedly prickly nature. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the division between the boys and the girls in Benny's English class. Do you see a similar divide in your school? 

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  • Do you find Benny negative or realistic? How does his story compare with other books about middle school you've read? 

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  • Do you think Benny or Claudine is right about poetry? Try challenging your family to do the poetry assignment Benny's class tackles.

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