By Rex Ogle
Instead of giving him lunch money, Rex’s mom has signed him up for free meals. As a poor kid in a wealthy school district, better-off kids crowd impatiently behind him as he tries to explain to the cashier that he’s on the free meal program. The lunch lady is hard of hearing, so Rex has to shout.
Free Lunch is the story of Rex’s efforts to navigate his first semester of sixth grade—who to sit with, not being able to join the football team, Halloween in a handmade costume, classmates and a teacher who take one look at him and decide he’s trouble—all while wearing secondhand clothes and being hungry. His mom and her boyfriend are out of work, and life at home is punctuated by outbursts of violence. Halfway through the semester, his family is evicted and ends up in government-subsidized housing in view of the school. Rex lingers at the end of last period every day until the buses have left, so no one will see where he lives.
Unsparing and realistic, Free Lunch is a story of hardship threaded with hope and moments of grace. Rex’s voice is compelling and authentic, and Free Lunch is a true, timely, and essential work that illuminates the lived experience of poverty in America
Some minor spoilers…
Quick summary: Rex Ogle’s Free Lunch is the true story of his life entering 6th grade. He looks forward to school but has many problems at home, mainly because he comes from a poor family who can barely afford to feed themselves. His mother can’t find a job, and his dad is pretty much nonexistent. Perhaps what’s worse is that his mother is bitter and treats him poorly.
In truth, Rex has a lot to be angry about; He’s often hungry, must fend for himself and care for his little brother without much support, and deal with a whole lot of unfairness in his day to day life. All he wants is to live a normal life, and to not be humiliated at school. As he struggles to navigate all the turmoil, Rex learns some life lessons along the way.
After reading a few reviews for this book, it was obvious I would need to read it for myself first before allowing my younger middle-graders to read it. Many people had flagged it ‘not middle-grade’ due to some of the profanity. I’ll admit I was quite shocked with some of the language use and content, but as I read on, putting this book down was impossible.
What I disliked:
Most of the issues I had with this book (as a middle-grade read which is listed at reading ages 9-12) stemmed from the language use. Some of the words used, including spic, wetback, retard, pussy, and various name calling totally turned me off. There’s mention of condoms and some other very mild sex-related content. Not only that, there are some very bad character traits in this book, especially from Rex’s mother who often calls him stupid and is abusive. There’s domestic violence between his mother and another adult in the home, and the story can be extremely negative at times. It appears that Rex’s mother views him as nothing but a nuisance quite often, and it’s so heartbreaking. As Rex deals with some of the unfairness in his life and heavy emotions, he contemplates hurting others. Could he do it? Should he do it? Also, in the end when certain things work out for the family, the issues that Rex’s mother had never seem to be addressed. Overall, some of this content just seemed too deep for younger readers.
What I liked:
The book is narrated by Rex himself. Because this story is true, it’s honest and realistic, and it shows how poverty affects families–especially children. Rex learns some major lessons in 6th grade. I liked that he was able to think for himself and figure out who his true friends were. Despite all the negativity, he wants to do good and tries to make the best of things. He often has to act as an adult caring for his younger brother, Ford, and he does it…because he knows it’s what’s right. There’s one particular moment in the book where Rex has to share something with Ford, and he does it, because he knows that his little brother needs it more than he does. It brought tears to my eyes. He also deals with bullying (at school and at home) and knows it’s wrong. When kids are acting up at school and doing things to hurt others, Rex is concerned about other people and their emotions. He truly wants to be considerate most times. I appreciated the attention to that awareness throughout the story.
In the end, I decided to have my two middle graders read this story. We read it together, and we had some in-depth discussion during and after. With guidance for younger readers who maybe haven’t been exposed to some of the content in the story, this is just an amazing, compelling book. It’s easy to point out bad character traits and create discussions about that. There are plenty of teachable moments throughout as well. A few funny moments had us laughing, and they ended up liking the book with only minor discomfort during the more violent or negative events. My younger daughter wasn’t convinced with the ending, but to mention why would spoil the book. My personal opinion is that this would still be best labeled as upper middle-grade. The reading age probably just needs to be moved up to match the recommended grade levels of 6-9 as listed.
- Publisher : Norton Young Readers; 1st edition (September 10, 2019)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 208 pages
- ISBN-10 : 132400360X
- ISBN-13 : 978-1324003601
- Reading age : 9 – 12 years
- Lexile measure : HL540L
- Grade level : 6 – 9
About the author:
From Amazon: Rex Ogle was born and raised mostly in Texas. He received the 2020 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award for his memoir Free Lunch. A former children’s book editor in New York City, Rex and his partner now enjoy much nicer weather in Los Angeles.
Thanks for reading my review! Have you read any good middle-grade books lately? What are your kids reading? Feel free to leave your thoughts below in the comment section.