A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
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.
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?
Do you find Benny negative or realistic? How does his story compare with other books about middle school you've read?
Do you think Benny or Claudine is right about poetry? Try challenging your family to do the poetry assignment Benny's class tackles.
Themes & Topics
Browse titles with similar subject matter.
For kids who love books about school and coming of age
Our editors recommend
Top advice and articles
Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.