Book Review: Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

Paul Romani

Because of Mr. TeruptBecause of Mr. Terupt is a terrific book for developing critical thinking and emotional sensitivity

Recently I reviewed Paul Yee’s books Shu-Li and Tamara (2008) and Shu-Li and Diego (2009), which are ideal for emerging readers and middle-school ESL students. In this respect, they’re pretty unique. Finding a book that takes these same readers to the next level is challenging, because of the lack of suitable books on the market. However, Rob Buyea’s Because of Mr. Terupt (2011) proves to be the perfect follow up!

In a city, like Vancouver, we have two immediate needs in terms of literacy: 1) to find books that require extensive critical thinking skills, 2) and for these books to be age-appropriate and easy enough for recently arrived immigrant children to understand. In this respect, Because of Mr. Terupt is up there with the best!
Because of Mr. Terupt tells the tale of a fifth grade class in an elementary school in Connecticut, USA. The story is told from the perspective of seven of the students. These students discuss their family lives, their feelings about their classmates, and the impact of their new teacher, Mr. Terupt.
Each of the characters has quite distinctive personalities with their own problems. Here’s a very brief overview of the seven students:

  • Peter doesn’t like school or teachers, so has always spent excessive amounts of time in the washroom scaring young kids.
  • Jessica is a new student having moved from California with her mother.
  • Luke is the class nerd.
  • Alexia is the class bully.
  • Jeffrey thinks he is stupid, so he hates school.
  • Danielle is bullied by Alexia because she’s overweight.
  • Anna is the class mouse: never seen or heard.

Then there is Mr. Terupt, whose character is described through his actions and through the eyes of these students. It is clear that Mr. Terupt is a very kind and understand teacher that believes in people being allowed to make mistakes so that they can learn from them. He uses monthly class projects to inspire the kids to make learning challenging and stimulating – even managing to engage kids that are normally not interested in learning. He is aware of the class dynamics and individual needs, and cleverly tries to bring about change.
One day, however, a tragic accident threatens to ruin all of Mr. Terupt’s efforts.
So, what makes Because of Mr. Terupt a good book?
I can think of three good reasons:
Firstly, since the book is written from the perspective of these seven children, it adopts the fleeting train of thought that kids have – in other words, each part is short and sweet. Despite being 350+ pages, it’s really not that long at all. As such, it gives confidence to weak readers that they can read bigger books.
Secondly, it is really nice story! There is so much heart and humanity in Rob Buyea’s writing – you’d almost say it was Canadian! There are many moments that will bring a tear (or more) to your eye, because it’s easy to feel for the kids, their families, as well as their teacher. Everyone in the story has their own problems. The point of the story is that solving such problems is easier when you have friends, whether those friends are adults or kids.
Probably the most touching moment of the story is when the class visit the ‘Collaborative Classroom’, i.e. the classroom for children with special needs. This is seemingly the first time that these fifth graders have come into contact with special needs children. This visit has an outcome later in the story, which I’m not going to spoil, which is very surprising and moving.
Thirdly, a deep reading and understanding of Because of Mr. Terupt requires using critical thinking skills. Because the story is told from the perspective of seven children, the narratives are flawed and incomplete. The characters are too young to fully understand everything happening to them. The themes of bullying, divorce, death, intolerance, loneliness, and personal responsibility – some of which are grown-up themes – all add layer of complexity to the story. Different characters notice different things about the same event. Some have good observation skills. Others have a deeper emotional understanding. The reader is left to piece together these seven perspectives, while also having to fill in some pretty glaring gaps. Nevertheless, as the story progresses, these gaps are mostly filled in by the development of the characters. In other words, it’s possible to enjoy the story without strong critical thinking skills, but it’s so much rewarding with them and spending the time to use them! Hence, it has value in the classroom!
Are there any negatives?
I have a couple of criticisms of the book.
Firstly, the characters are mostly stock characters, i.e. they represent archetypes and stereotypical personalities, like the bully, the nerd, etc. I don’t particularly like that aspect. Nevertheless, for the purpose of a kids book that takes different perspectives in its narrative, I can appreciate why Rob Buyea took this approach.
Also, I found it strange that the kids never once describe their classroom or school! As a teacher, Buyea is well aware of the impact of the learning environment, so I would’ve thought that Mr. Terupt’s classroom would be an inspiring room. The only student work displayed appears to have been put in the school corridor. Kids are very inquisitive, so they would ordinarily talk about things that they see. What is more, a book should include such imagery so that the reader can make a mental picture. That’s very challenging with this book, because we really only have mental pictures of people’s actions.
Overall, I highly recommend Because of Mr. Terupt for classroom use. Regardless of age or English level, the book has so much to engage with, so much to think about, and so much to talk/write about. It’s a book that can be used both with native speakers and ESL students together, which is a tremendously valuable asset in the modern classroom. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a movie adaptation about Because of Mr. Terupt in the near future!