Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart Book Review

Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Release Date: August 5, 2014

Benjamin has had a really rough year. Almost a year ago, his father died of cancer. The grand plan was for his mother to pass her CPA exams and work as an accountant, but with tips not coming in from her waitress job, they have hit on some very difficult financial times and they could really use that CPA money. With hardly any food in the fridge and a looming eviction, the only comfort Benjamin finds is at his friend Toothpick's house. Not even Pick's house is refuge though when Ben's grandpa comes to live with them and is experiencing worrying signs of Alzheimer's. If only Ben could win the Grand Prize of one of the sweepstakes he has entered. Everything would be okay then.

With a string of terrible tragedies, this is one very heavy-hitting book. Too heavy--at least for this age group. Ben is dealing with a lot and although I think that there are a lot of kids out there who deal with many of these issues, I think that this book is too much for two reasons. *Spoiler Alert* First, this book has a rather tidy happily ever after ending. Ben's mom passes her CPA without a hitch, has a job already lined up, and they get to stay in their (obviously rent controlled) apartment in NYC because they were able to find the money somehow. The kids who would be able to relate to this book are often not so lucky. It is understandable that Ben and his mother have just fallen on some hard times, but it all felt so neat and tidy. Second, the target audience for this book would be intermediate readers ages 8-12 and I definitely think that a nine-year-old is just not going to be able to handle the psychological heaviness of this book. I am an adult and I had a hard time with it.

Let's make a list here of the awful things in this book:

  • Dead father from cancer (anniversary of death quickly approaching)
  • Mom has a low-wage waitress job
  • No money for food
  • Having to take charity food from neighbors and friends
  • Grandfather with early Alzheimer's
  • Ben feels compelled to try to make money to help his mom
  • Ben has hundreds of dollars stolen from a bully that was meant for rent (never tells his mom) 
  • Mom is fired from her job
  • Eviction notice/pending court date
  • Best friend knows absolutely nothing about Ben's situation
  • Ben's grandfather kills his fish Barclay

Oh, and let's not forget the two bits of added flavor--sweepstakes and Jewish culture.

Don't get me wrong now, this book was well-written and the author managed to weave a story together that felt true to her characters as well as the story she was trying to tell. I did wonder at some of the choices however. Ben should have told someone about the bully that stole all his money. I know he doesn't want to get into trouble, but they are about to be evicted and I would imagine that a kid like Ben would do anything to save his family, including getting into trouble, if it meant that they would not be kicked out of their home. I was also baffled by how hard this family was trying to stay in their apartment. They kept shelling out what little money they had, not knowing if they would even be able to stay. Financially speaking, it would have been a much better option to stop paying the landlord and set that money aside for moving somewhere else. I kind of wanted this to happen. Ben is so wrapped up in that apartment and the memories within it and I wanted him to learn that memory is held within us, not a place.

There were times where I also felt emotionally manipulated. I cried on four separate occasions and each time I thought, this author really knows how to create some tearjerker moments. These moments only added to the weightiness of the book and when I finished, I was a bit relieved. There were moments of levity, but with such intense drama, it wasn't enough. If that is how I felt afterward, I am curious as to how a nine-year-old will feel. Reminiscent of Sure Signs of Crazy in tone, I think there is a definite audience for this book, but I think they are far older than who this book is being marketed towards.