Finch Goes Wild, by Janet Gingold (Perfect Paperback, 2007)
Harmon Finch’s life is getting ugly. He’s stopped trying for decent grades at his savage middle school— a place where turning homework in invites violent reprisals from bullies. His doctor tells him that he has to get his weight under control, or else. His mom is driving him mad with her constant fussing. On the plus side, he has a nice dad (and his mother does love him lots), a comfortable house, a good brain and musical talent, and most importantly, a chance to take time away from the chaos of school and find his way into a different kind of “wild.”
Home schooling doesn’t alienate Harmon from his friends, because he has none. But it does give him the opportunity to head out with his dog into the nearby park. He spends more and more of his time there, first as a volunteer for a home schooling assignment, and then because he has been drawn into the world of bird watching. I might be making it sound more facile than the book reads, but in essence Harmon “grows up” as a result of bird watching, and it enables him to start high school a new, more physically fit, more confident person.
Harmon is a very likable character—sincere and well-meaning. He happens to be African-American—a black person who has a supportive, well-off family and who ends the book by going to Cornell. His ethnicity is not an Issue, but does come up casually from time to time (for example, musing about why he is the only black birdwatcher at the Christmas Bird Count). It’s also good to read a book that talks matter of factly about teen weight issues, and about home schooling (which is described in interesting detail). This is a very clean read—not for Harmon the escapades of other fictional youth. Harmon’s story wasn’t one that thrilled me to the core, but I’m glad it ended happily.
Because Harmon is a loner, there is a paucity of supporting cast, and not much dynamic interaction. The only character who appears long enough to have a chance at characterization is his mother; unfortunately, she is pretty much defined solely by her nagging nervousness, and although Harmon is stuck with her almost the whole book, she never becomes a person. Also, the bird watching was at times too meticulously described--people that don't know birds might have trouble staying interested, and people that do know them might find themselves reading these parts of the book rather skimmingly.
But heck. A book about a bird-watching teenager made a nice change—it was good to go off into the wild with Harmon.
Finch Goes Wild was one of the 123 books nominated for the YA category of the Cybils.