Dystopian tales of our doomed future have been making the rounds in young adult literature for several years now, but I've seen very little of it for middle grade readers. There's Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember series, Dark Life by Kat Falls (which verges on YA) and then...what? The Lorax? I struggled to come up with any other titles and came up empty. This is partially why Leslie Connor's Crunch interested me, though I'll admit the bulk of why I picked up this book was due to Leslie's previous novel, Waiting for Normal, which I loved. I wanted to see what this author would do with a frightening future and kids left to fend for themselves.
In Crunch, fourteen year old Dewey and his siblings (older Lil, and slightly younger Vince and five-year-old twins Angus and Eva) are left on their own when their parents are stranded up north by a fuel outage. The country's pumps have gone dry, and Mom and Dad are stuck until their ration cards can buy them enough diesel to get the big rig home. In the meantime, Dewey takes over the running of the family business, the Bike Barn, a bicycle repair shop. And with cars off the road, everyone who can is taking out their bikes to transport, and the Bike Barn is suddenly buzzing. Dewey, feeling the weight of responsibility, attempts to help everyone he can, but he's hampered by lack of parts, help and lack of time. And then the thefts start. Just a few things go missing at a time, but before he knows it, Dewey realizes the danger.
What I enjoyed most about Connor's story is that it is not far removed from our own. In fact, it's a distinct possibility of a future. There are no fantastical elements, and everything is grounded in reality. This makes the crisis, or "crunch" as the kids call it, all the more upsetting. It's a very understandble and relatable conflict. Dewey's family is lucky. Lil is old enough to hold down the fort, Dewey can handle the pressure of the bike shop (to a point), and they have adult friends to help them, but it's easy to imagine all the ways things could go wrong. The best parts of Waiting for Normal were Connor's characters, and here again the characters are key. Dewey is funny, clever and realistically bull-headed sometimes. His next door neighbor, the sticky-handed Mr. Spivey is a wonderful creation; a character you can laugh at, suspect and somehow be endeared towards all at the same time. I found the drama of Crunch to be a little crowded. There's the crunch itself, the theiving, the missing parents, and the overflowing Bike Barn. It's a little much for a little book to handle, and I perfectly related to Lil when, in a rare outburst, she yells, "They are on their way home. Finally! Can we just hang on until then? Can we?"
Crunch doesn't have the emotional heft that Waiting for Normal had, but then again, it doesn't have the same kind of stakes. I knew Dewey and his family would be all right in the end, though the fuel crisis might not come to a neat and clean conclusion (which it doesn't). But Crunch does deliver a good story, with powerful punches and memorable characters. It's an interesting addition to the genre, and another impressive turn from Connor.
Crunch by Leslie Connor