This coming-of-age, unlikely champion book by Anne Ylvisaker is published by Candlewick Press, an imprint of Walker Books and is written for kids 8 to 12. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Harold Klein, known to most of the town as "Little Klein," is the youngest of four boys. If his brothers aren't leaving him out of their games, his mother is coddling him and reminding his brothers and mostly absent father how frail he is. Mother Klein reluctantly allows the boys to adopt a stray dog they name LeRoy, and the dog becomes Little Klein's best friend. When Little Klein's brothers fall off their raft and become trapped near a waterfall, Little Klein is the only one who can rescue them. After saving their lives, he gains the respect of his family and the townspeople, and he insists upon being called by his name, "Harold," instead of his diminutive nickname, "Little Klein."
Mother Klein, who seems to view faith as important, but perhaps not church attendance, sings numerous hymns by heart and frequently utters phrases like, Mercy, L--d! She named her first three sons Matthew, Mark and Luke — and though Harold's name is an anomaly, the text says he was baptized (presumably at birth). Mother Klein sometimes threatens God, saying she'll stop following Him — and even use her musical abilities to sing for Satan — if He takes Little Klein from her. She also prays for her boys' protection when they are missing. The Presbyterian reverend's wife, believing she's meant to help the Kleins with their garden, offers frequent, unsolicited advice. The boys call a giant fish they want to catch "The Minister" because they first saw him on a Sunday, and he pounds the water the way the minister pounds the pulpit.
Mother Klein loves her boys, though she often gets after the older three for delinquent behavior (such as shoplifting cigarettes or stealing a neighbor's pie) and coddles the youngest because she perceives him to be feeble. Mother Klein frequently requires the older brothers (Matthew, Mark and Luke) to take Little Klein with them, though they usually exclude him in their games or involve him in their criminal antics. Stanley, the father, is a traveling salesman who rarely appears in the story. He shows up long enough to complain about the dog and make several failed attempts to physically toughen up Little Klein. Widow Floam graciously offers to keep LeRoy for the boys until the Klein parents can decide whether to let their boys keep the dog.
Other Belief Systems
The narrator suggests that the nickname "Little Klein" may have jinxed the boy. Little Klein briefly ponders whether a spider is good luck and whether breaking a mirror is bad luck. In describing how a creek's water is pulled into the air and drops back down again in the form of rain, the narrator says the water is being reincarnated.
The mother frequently utters phrases like, Mercy, L--d!Darn appears a few times. When Little Klein says it, his mother chastises him. Luke cusses, though none of his actual words appear in the text. A neighbor girl says crap twice.
Midwest Booksellers' Choice Award, 2008; McKnight Artist Fellowship for Writers Loft Award in Children's Literature, 2005; and others.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- What skill does Little Klein develop to help others notice him when they don't hear his soft voice?
How does his strong whistle help Little Klein?
What abilities or talents do you have that many of your friends and classmates don't?
How did you develop it, and how does it help you?
- How does Little Klein's family, especially his mother, view him?
How do their opinions help or hurt him?
Do the words other people call you influence you or your actions?
If so, how would God want you to speak to and about others?
- How did Stanley Klein's long and frequent absences impact his family, especially his sons?
Why would it be (or is it) hard having a dad who is gone a lot?
What would you (or do you) miss the most about your dad?
Why is your father important in your family?
- Why does the narrator suddenly start calling Little Klein "Harold" at the end of the book?
Why does the boy himself demand that a neighbor call him by his real name?
Why is that significant?
How will Harold's life be different now?
- What would have happened if Harold had believed all of the things people said and thought about him?
Would he have been able to save his brothers? Why or why not?
Whose opinions should we listen to?
What does the Bible say about how much God values us?
Alcohol is mentioned briefly in a few places. Little Klein's brothers swig from a nearly-empty whisky bottle, and the narrator points out a bar where drunks are leaving at closing time.
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