Cover Image: The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster

The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster

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Member Reviews

I read this book on December 23rd, 2019 and gave it four stars. If there were a half-star rating system, I would've probably given it four and a half stars. The main character, whose name I can't remember, lives in a middle-of-nowhere-town and isn't having a great time in life considering his older brother ran away from home. His family is trying to settle as best as they can with this, so their life is pretty uneventful until our main character goes to the public library and finds this artsy card with a quirky message and a number one. 

The main character sets out to collect the other ones, and we all know I love a quest plot. He doesn't really have much of a quest, considering that Gretchen Oyster, the artist behind the cards, lives in the same town and goes to high school with the main character's older siblings. We get some chapters from her perspective and it's interesting to see the process behind the creation of the postcards and what they entail for Gretchen. 

I think one of the reasons why I read this book so quickly was the narration style. Think John Green or Adam Silvera; the main character/narration is telling the events as if they were talking to a friend, and I love that because it makes me really connect to the story. The chapters are super short, so they left me wanting to keep going and before I knew it, I was done with the book. I also really liked that we got inserts of the postcards made by Gretchen and since I had a digital copy they were in full color. It added to the experience of reading this novel. 

While there are positive aspects to the story being short, you also as a reader have to consider that it will be lacking some depth and development. There's stuff that's glossed over, there are situations that resolve too easily or too quickly or none at all.  The characters don't really grow or change in any way, but then again, I don't think that was the purpose of this novel. The main character is thirteen years old, so I would say this is a good transition between middle grade and young adult since the contents are hard-hitting and raw at times.
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“what i’ve realized is you never know what will happen next”

Thirteen-year-old Hartley Staples’s mysterious, troubled brother, Jackson, disappeared nine months ago. It isn’t the first time he’s run away. Jackson made previous escapes when he was eleven and fourteen, but those attempts, being of shorter duration, did not shake the family’s foundations the way this one has. Jackson’s twin sister, Heather, has withdrawn from the world. The youngest Staples child, George, is the least troubled. His quirky imagination helps him bob along, like a cork in a river. Hartley’s parents are so distraught over their eldest son’s disappearance, they barely notice Hartley exists.

Hartley is cast still further adrift by the aloofness of his best friend,  Zack Mirani. Like many people, Ms. Mirani, Zack’s mother, thinks other people’s misfortune is contagious. The Miranis were initially supportive of Hartley’s family in its trouble, but then they abruptly distanced themselves. Hartley had phoned over for his friend one day and got Mrs. Marini instead. “Zack is a special boy,” she told Hartley, “he needs to surround himself with positive influences.” For people to succeed in life, she’d gone on to say, they have to cut out all the negative influences in their lives—and even be ruthless about it. Still, she really did wish Hartley’s family the best: the Staples would remain foremost in the Marinis’ “positive thoughts.”

The story proper opens one Saturday afternoon when Hartley slips unnoticed out of the Staples home. With nothing better to do, he goes to the Whirton Library, housed in a mobile home presented to the town by one of its many eccentrics. The Whirton Library, aka “the Place Where Books Go to Die,” has no budget. Its stacks are filled with cast-offs, donations direct from musty basements of family homes: lots of paperback romances, true crime, and an almost complete set of a magazine called Funeral Service Monthly. Looking for something in teen fiction that isn’t “about a kid whose mother was dying or father was dying or whose mother, father, or girlfriend . . . [has] been turned into a zombie,” Hartley finds, sticking up from the pages of a book, the first of nine post-card sized artworks, each a small collage with enigmatic poetry formed of cut-out type produced by an old IBM typewriter and signed. “g.o.”. This one reads—all in lower case: “i hate all kinds of flags except pirate flags.” In the following weeks, the last few of the school year, Hartley finds more of these cards—stuck in trees, between bicycle wheel spokes, and in fences. He carefully stores them in a small tin box, with a view to presenting them to his missing brother, should he ever return. Hartley also does his best to search out the identity of the elusive artist poet who is planting to them.

Another of Hartley’s challenges in these last days before he graduates from elementary school is to come up with and research a topic of his own choosing. Ms. Gorham, Hartley’s sensitive and sympathetic grade-eight teacher, is willing to allow him to forego this assignment (of going deep into a topic he feels passionate about). She is as aware as the next person in Whirton that it is hard for Hartley to feel passionate about anything given the worry over his brother’s disappearance. However, the boy will accept no special treatment. When pressed for the subject, he is as surprised as his teacher to hear the word “tractors” escape from his mouth. What?! Where did that idea come from?

Hartley’s only real passion at this point is, of course, finding “g.o.” who, as the title of Fagan’s book announces, is actually Gretchen Oyster. Gretchen has a story of her own, which the reader gains real satisfaction in eventually coming to know.

I love Cary Fagan’s unconventional writing, the unique sensibility and sensitivity that informs it. I don’t quite know how he does it. His books for children are works of some depth, yet they are also characterized by humour and a remarkable lightness of touch. They are probably not for everybody, but they are special gifts to those of us who appreciate something different.

I loved this book and I’m very grateful to the publisher for providing me with a free copy of it to review.
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3.5
Things I loved -
The art / collages/ zones what have you. I was just as enamored with them as our MC. 
I appreciated that this was a boy MC voice considering the ups and downs of navigating friendships, mental health, and home life and feeling compelled towards art. Really grateful this is a boy for this voice.

The mental health stuff / pain of the family was palpable and done decently well for MG level feelings and poignancy (and staying in confusing in between sin realistic ways at times). 

Things I thought were eh:
I usually love a shifting perspective piece but this one fell a bit flat on that front for me. 
Our MC could’ve used a little more about him as so much of the focus was about his brother (which he is fixated on so it’s realistic but still he’d be a whole kid with a bit more to him).. the story is really simple in that it is just him finding these cards and wondering about his brother being gone. I could’ve used one more piece or just something more. 
The choices for when to leave things murky or provide resolution might not have been the spots I would’ve done for the arc, vibe, and messaging of the story. 

All of that being said, this one did strike me as a bit more original than a lot of MG, I adored the art and the plot pieces that were involved were compelling, underrepresented, and felt relevant. Also there was a feeling of being in this family that I think speaks to good writing. Especially in such a short piece. 

Súper curious to see what kids think of this one ??  
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Given the protagonist's age, this skews towards middle graders. The writing, though, is more artistic and experimental, more literary. You might expect this format from a teen novel. The themes are obscured, left to interpretation. Unless it's read very carefully this can come across as messy and unfocused. It's a bold experiment.
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Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with a DRC of this title for review. All opinions are my own.

I REALLY wanted to like this one more. And, what is especially heartbreaking to me is that this book has all the potential in the world. Struggling family dynamic? CHECK (older brother ran away). Quirky narrator? CHECK (narrates as a person telling an actual story, jumps in to give eccentric details, has anxiety, decides to do a report on tractors). Interesting side character? CHECK (Gretchen Oyster-secret artist who leaves postcard style poems and pictures around town). BUT-this book is only 188 pages long. In order to do all of these awesome ideas justice, it could have easily been another 100 pages. I would have gladly read that much more about Hartly and his family. I wish I could have known more about Gretchen (her own family dynamic was complicated, including a mother we never see, a disabled father, and a group of girl bullies who chase her through town). Even the main plot point about Hartley's runaway brother Jackson, a boy who must have been troubled since he had already run away two other times, is glossed over. Because of all this, I had to knock my rating down.

Recommended as a second purchase for large collections where patrons are interested in quirky realistic fiction and family dynamics. Appropriate for grades 6-9.
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This short yet poignant middle-grade novel has me swooning!  I love the characters, I love the authentic adolescent voices present in the storytelling, and I love the quirky and vibrant illustrations of the mysteroius handmade postcards featured in the novel’s central plot.

The initial discovery of one of these postcards in a mobile hole turned community library sets the stage for readers and introduces main character Hartley - who finds solace in the postcards as a means of distraction from trouble at home.  From here, the story moves quickly with a well-paced rhythm of delivering information about Harley & his family while also introducing more postcards and building greater mystery.  

Readers are certain to connect to Gr. 8 student Harley as he makes he way through the often bumpy path towards high-school.  He feels disconnected from his lone friend at school, is doing his best to navigate a collective sense of loss weighing on his family and has a huge end of year project looming.

Shout out to any middle grade teachers: This book would be amazing to use in class as a read aloud and to practice comprehension strategies such as prediction, inference and questioning.  I plan on using it this year with my Gr. 6 class!

Sincere thanks to @penguinteenca and @tundrabooks for the advanced readers copy.  Release date is Sept. 17th, 2019.
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This was cute, but it didn't do much for me personally. I didn't particularly like the writing style, though perhaps a child may connect to the odd, conversational direction it was in. The postcards were neat, especially the art we got to see in the book, but they were the most intriguing part for me. There was a note of whimsy with the oddballs in the town and the weird trailer-turned-library that gave it a certain charm that I think readers will enjoy.
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A short, sweet little book about coming to accept the strangeness of everyday life. 

This is a quintessential example of a three-star book. The writing was great, the characters were endearing, and I particularly enjoyed the Staple family dynamics as they navigated the difficulties of having a runaway brother. However, there was nothing particularly memorable about it. The voice occasionally slipped into an adultish pretension, the ending didn't subvert any expectations, and overall ... not a whole lot happened. 

I really, really wish the author had delved deeper into the relationship between our hero, Hartley, and the everyday philosopher Gretchen Oyster. The cards were FANTASTIC, and I appreciate how the publisher included graphics! So cool! But it never goes anywhere. There's no mystery (we get a Gretchen POV section early on) and no impact. Hartley just collects the cards (somehow never finding duplicates?) and ... keeps them. The conflicts in the story (Jackson's disappearance, the friendship fallout with Zack Mirani, the end-of-school project) are all resolved without much action from Hartley, and I wanted the cards to SOMEHOW tie in. Yes, Hartley's conversation with Gretchen convinces her to address her bullies, but we're in Gretchen's head for such a short amount of time, this doesn't feel very cathartic. Gretchen is sort of a middle grader's Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, without much dimension of her own. As a result, the whole plot felt like a snapshot of a normal life rather than a story. What did any of it matter? Maybe Gretchen knows. 

Nevertheless, an enjoyable read with some touching moments, for fans of slower-paced realistic books. 3/5.
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The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster
by Cary Fagan

Penguin Random House Canada

Tundra Books

Children’s Fiction , Middle Grade

Pub Date 17 Sep 2019

I am reviewing a copy of The Collected Works Of Gretchen Oyster through Tundra Books and Netgalley:

Hartley Staples, who is a near graduate of Middle School has a lot to grapple, like the fact that his older brother has run away from home, when he finds a handmade postcard that fascinated him. And soon he finds another card.

Despite loosing interest in pretty much everything since Jackson ran away, he finds comfort in those postcards. But his searching for the cards gets in the way of everything else including choosing a final topic before he graduates.

Will Hartley graduate with his class?

I give The Collected Works Of Gretchen Oyster four out of five stars!

Happy Reading!
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An odd book. Strong character development and little-to-no plot.

I liked the main character, though at times he seemed to vacillate in maturity level. (And not in the way kids do. Not even in the way that children who've experienced trauma do. Rather, in the way protagonists do when the author doesn’t know what kids are like.) 

My biggest problem was, the MC had no agency. He wasn’t driving the story. Things just kept happening to him. When he finally takes action at the end of the story, it happens abruptly. At no point does he experience some revelation or learn the lesson that brings on his drive to act. Just, poof! It's like we skipped directly from the opening of the story and the set up for the protagonist's goal, directly to the climax, without all the important character growth in the middle. It was really unsatisfying as a reader. 

A big element of the book is the fact the protagonist’s older brother ran away from home nine months ago. Well, spoiler alert: he comes back. Out of the blue. With no effort on the part of the protagonist (which is true to life but felt like another big, convenient occurrence for the author). And with only a glancing reference to therapy, he slips right back into the family seamlessly.

Most worrisome, is the fact that the representation of a family experiencing the abrupt loss of one of their members did not seem reflective of the experience of kids who have lost a family member. Trauma-informed therapy would likely have been very different than what was depicted in the story. The reunion was weird and anti-climactic. If a kid runs away from home, there’s a problem somewhere. I’m not blaming anyone here, but it’s an extreme action, usually precipitated by something: a mental health crisis, addiction, abuse, something. So if you create a reunion, as an author, you can’t just have all your characters act like unblemished, mature, healthy, fully functional people. It’s just not true to life. It’s another thing which felt way too convenient. 

Finally, the most interesting character in the book, the one who generated the artwork and whose name is in the title, is just given the barest attention. I would have liked a story told by her. It felt like her presence in the story was to serve as a vehicle for the protagonist’s emotional development. Which is a shame. 

Clearly the author is good at developing backstory for his characters. We got lots of asides, with interesting history: the library which was a guy’s trailer he had to donate to the city after he exploded his homemade rocket and damaged city property; Gretchen Oyster’s dad’s tragic backstory about how he came to be paralyzed; former-best-friend Zack’s reasons (totally implausible, btw) for ditching his best friend after his brother disappeared... We just never got a fully fleshed out plot.

I read a lot of middle grade. Middle grade stories are shorter than YA or adult, but they're still fully realized stories, with complicated characters and a fully developed plot and characters who experience the full range of emotions and growth. This book did not have those things. It was an interesting idea and the characters had potential, but the story itself was seriously lacking. 

I will not recommend this book. I will actively steer kids away if they're looking for stories that reflect their experience of family trauma. It was too tidy an ending to be helpful to kids coping with that experience.

I received a free eARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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I was really hoping to like this book more than I did. I guess I didn’t find it unenjoyable, just a bit slow and sorry to say, boring. The characters felt a bit superficial and I just couldn’t find common ground to really feel a connection to the story.
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3.5 A quiet but powerful read. The young narrator’s voice is so compelling, he draws you into his story and makes you part of his life. I likes the writing style for the added bonus that it teaches writing skills as the reader moves through the book because Hartley describes why he says certain things in particular ways which I found clever. The illustrations are captivating. A half star was deducted for a hasty conclusion, but otherwise this was a most enjoyable book.
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Hartley Staples' older brother Jackson ran away from home several months ago, and his family hasn't been the same since. He's lost interest in most of the things he used to enjoy, and his best friend isn't talking to him anymore. When he finds a handmade, numbered postcard with the initials "g.o.", he wants to track down the mysterious girl with the blue hair that he thinks is leaving them for people to find. 

Although I enjoyed this story, it felt a little bit slow to me, and I wasn't really invested in the story.
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This is a thoughtful middle grade novel about Hartley. Hartley’s family experiences significant stress and sorrow because his older brother Jackson ran away from home. Hartley misses his brother. One day he comes across a card that intrigues him. The cards are clearly written by someone else who understands what it is like to experience hardship. A new bond is formed. I enjoyed this novel overall, but will note that the writing is a little sporadic at times, and a few times it took me a moment to realize who the narrator was. I received this book for free to give my honest thoughts and review.
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This is such a quirky, unusual book. And by that, I think I’m probably talking more about the writing style than the story. But that doesn't in any way mean I don't like it. It's more of an observation.

Hartley finds himself at a loss when his older brother, Jackson, runs away from home. It seems each family member is trying to handle the loss in their own way and not finding much time for each other. But when Hartley finds a strange postcard, and then another, and another, his life begins to slowly change. Each postcard is a bit artsy, there is a picture, a typewritten message, and a number. They are signed “g.o.”

Between some of the chapters are thoughts from Gretchen Oyster. A blue-haired, skate-boarding, high school girl with an artistic project. You can take it from there. This story is original and allows for deeper thinking. The illustrations of the postcards add quite a bit to the story.

What Concerned Me:
I felt the story ended a bit abruptly.  I didn’t ever feel that “aha, that was a really good book” moment.

What I Liked Best:

The writing caught my attention immediately. It’s unusual and even the formatting is unique. The story caused me to realize that even the small things in life can touch others.

Don’t let my rating of this book scare you off. I liked it, it’s just that it didn’t hop to the top of my list of good books.
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Hartley Staples, near-graduate of middle school, is grappling with the fact that his older brother has run away from home, when he finds a handmade postcard that fascinates him. And soon he spots another.

Despite his losing interest in pretty much everything since Jackson ran away, Hartley finds himself searching for cards in his small town at every opportunity, ignoring other responsibilities, namely choosing a topic for his final project. Who is G.O. and why are they scattering cards about the town?- Goodreads

I was surprised with how much I liked this book. It is a simple read that packs a lot of punch. 

Hartley is going through the motions since his brother left. But the thing about it is, he doesn't exactly talk about his emotions per say. He states the obvious. This is not to say that he did not care for his brother. As I stated before, Hartley is going through the motions but they are stubble. For instance, losing interest in everything, feeling left out by his family and dealing with a fairly mean sister. Hartley is going through it but he doesn't exactly say that he is feeling some type of way about what is happening with his family. The way he describes it is that he is stating the obvious. Although some emotions come out, it isn't until the end of the book that he really lets somethings crack. 

I actually like the fact that this book wasn't dripping in emotion. Not every child deals with grief emotionally or even acting out. It is refreshing to see. How Gretchen Oyster comes into play is that she proves Hartley something different without even realizing that she is doing anything. 

See the author introduces Gretchen Oyster through the cards and then gives her a voice. Her voice is brief but just like Hartley, she is going through the motions too but completely different from Hartely, Did I want more of her? Nope. This book isn't about her; due to what she was going through, she became a catalyst for Hartely and his story. Gretchen plays an important role in this story but as a reader, you need to understand she isn't the story. 

Moving forward, the author could have went really deep with this book. There are a lot of questions that could have been answered. However, due to the way it was written, the reader finishes this book without wanting those questions to be answered. I know that this may sound a little weird but hear me out. The questions that arise within this novel do get answered b but it isn't for the reader to see.

Because this book is told through a middle schooler, there are things, in real life, that a child would not know. This book stays true to that. Hartley isn't that child that has to know everything; he just needs to have his questions answered and that is perfectly okay. It makes the book much more realistic and it gives it heart. 

This book has a lot of heart and care and as a reader there is an appreciation that goes directly to the author. The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster is a well written book . Its a slow read that is not only a great filler in between larger reads but it keeps your attention. 

Overall, this is something that should be on your radar. 

3.5 Pickles
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It was such a pleasure to dive into Cary Fagan’ new middle grade story The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster.  I have always loved Cary Fagan’s writing and was especially drawn to the design of this story first, curious how John Martz and Cary Fagan together created such an interesting cover design along with the illustrations inside.   As a young person I loved to make collages.  I feel like making collages of all the things you love were the 90s version of the vision board.  There is something so relatable to cutting out various pictures and combining them into beautiful art as Gretchen Oyster does in the story.

Initially captivated by the voice in the story, I grew very fond of Hartley Staplesad I read this lovely story.  It is an easy read in the sense that it flows so beautifully from one moment to the next.  I believe Cary Fagan captures the true voice of an eighth grade person and all of the uncertainties of being at the end of the tween years, almost in high school but not quite, almost feeling grown up but not quite. Hartley’s older brother Jackson has run away from home and has been gone for several months.  It’s taken a toll on all of Hartley’s relationships: his relationship with his family, with his friends, with school but Hartley is strong and contemplative.  When he finds a card with a picture and a message on it he is intrigued and makes it his mission to collect every card in the set not really understanding the drive behind the desire.  We then meet the artist, Gretchen Oyster, who speaks in a very different voice and is facing her own set of difficulties and hard knocks.  I love the choice by designer John Martz to change the font to reflect the character whose story is being told, it helps to visually distinguish who is the focus and to help the reader follow along in an easy way.

Cary Fagan does an impeccable job of bringing into focus some harsh realities faced by youth today such as mental health and bullying in such a way that is far from preachy but supportive and honest.  Through this story tweens will find comfort in knowing even if they think the adults in their lives have too much on their plates they are always available to help navigate and advocate for them
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I liked this well enough, but in some ways, it did fall a little flat for me.  I liked the writing style, and was pulled in, but do not feel totally satisfied by it.
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This is a beautifully written middlegrade about a boy searching for answers. Why did his brother go missing? Where did his brother go? Who is making these postcards? 

This is a quick and easy read. I was fully engaged right from the start and loved the added reading pleasure this book has been given via the addition of pictures of the postcards.

The cover is beautiful and I look forward to seeing a finished copy.

*spoiler*
The only criticism I would have for this story is that we never learn why Jackson disappeared. I would have loved the story to have been a little longer so that we could learn why. It made the ending feel rushed and incomplete.

I will be recommending that we stock this in our shop when released.
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I received an arc of this book from netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

What I liked:
-This was a pretty quick story, so I didn't lose interest.
-Cool cover!
-It had an air of mystery to it, but it wasn't really ''a mystery'' book.

Overall, it was a pretty good story, but not one I would read again.
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