Book Banter: Playful Conversation: What the Board is Reading
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

Janet Matthews, February 2024

Dear Mr. McBride,

As memorable as the dilapidated Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, PA is with its vignettes of big personalities of Black, Jewish and immigrant residents, it is the last line of the novel that made me pause: “Thank You, Monkey Pants.”

From the first chapter, I anticipated that a mystery would be solved with the unearthing of a human skeleton and a mezuzah found at the bottom of a well. To be honest, I forgot about this incident as I encountered your tapestry of characters, some transient and some rooted in a small town, some the epitome of goodness and some purely wicked. Very much like the intent of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, you captured the essence of each person. The critics have praised you for this and rightfully so.

While Chona, the partly crippled but formidable shopkeeper of The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store remains an exemplar of virtue, it is the touching relationships between a 12-year-old deaf orphan named Dodo and his companion nick-named “Monkey Pants” that transcends the subplots. Mr. McBride, you made me feel like a helpless witness to the abuse and neglect of these boys in the mental ward of Pennhurst. Their frustrations at thwarted communication and isolation became my frustrations. It wasn’t until Monkey Pants in all his contortions from cerebral palsy contrived a form of Morse Code with Dodo using one finger that I had the true understanding of what you were trying to do.

So, I thank you for a wonderful read but more importantly for advocating for those with disabilities and for advocating for all those who are marginalized in our society.

Janet Matthews, NYSEC Executive Board

Janet Matthews is a National Board and National Geographic Certified Teacher, Fulbright Scholar and recipient of several National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships. Her career spans over three decades during which she served as a middle and high school English Department Curriculum Leader and classroom teacher in the Mount Pleasant Central School District. Her interest in global education has included study programs in all seven continents including a science expedition to Antarctica and a TEACH Fellowship in the Middle East where she had an opportunity to work with the Ministries of Education in Bahrain and Qatar. Currently, Janet works as a learning specialist and STEAM developer for her district. Her academic background includes degrees in Reading, English, and Administration. As a member of the NYSEC Executive Board, she serves as the Friends of Excellence chair and shares her passion for reading as a frequent contributor to Book Banter. Putting tennis aside a little bit this summer, Janet will be exploring the monasteries of Bhutan.

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