As a former teacher of middle school students, I am often disappointed by the portrayal they receive in modern children’s literature. Certainly those years are confusing and stressful, but somehow we adults seem to make it worse by constantly telling these pre-adolescents how miserable they are supposed to be. Personally, I love that combination of child and struggling young adult and appreciate authors who demonstrate how powerful a positive adult role model can be for that age group. As in her first story about the Button Family, Anne Ylvisaker does just that with realistic, endearing characters in Button Down.
Ned Button, whom we saw briefly in The Luck of the Buttons, wants nothing more than to be allowed to play football like all the other boys. Unfortunately, he can’t run, he can’t catch, and he’s so scrawny that anyone can knock him over. In spite of all that, he manages to catch Lester Ward’s football as Lester tosses it to the local kids before heading off to play for the University of Iowa. Lester’s younger brother, Burton, is the town bully and has no intention of letting an undersized Button keep that ball. A battle of brains vs. brawn ensues, and Ned’s friends are convinced he is crazy to think he will ever retrieve the prize he rightfully won. Ned needs to find someone who can understand that there is more to this conflict than just a football. And that person is his Granddaddy Ike.
The Button Family is close-knit and almost all live in town. Ned and his cousins take turns caring for their aging grandfather and his house and yard. In spite of his years, Granddaddy Ike seems to know a lot about being a boy and about playing football. He also looks at Ned with a grandfather’s eyes and heart: eyes that see potential, and a heart that knows when and how to give advice. Before long he evolves into the hero the little guys in town need to lead them to victory.
Anne Ylvisaker has, once again, created a charming story filled with believable characters and reverence for family relationships. The adults are all healthy, normal people with strong values, and the children respect them as a result. Ned is a likeable kid, as are his friends, with typical, but not exaggerated worries about who he is and how he relates to his peers. In the world of middle school literature, Ylvisaker’s stories about the Button Family should definitely appear on recommended reading lists.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher living in Ridgewood, NJ.