Shelley Pearsall’s The Seventh Most Important Thing sneaks up on you. What starts out as a story about a 7th grade boy who is assigned by a judge to help the local junk man turns out to be a story with themes as profound as redemption. It also approaches the topic of outsider art, which is unusual for children’s fiction, and subtly suggests the existence of fine lines between mental illness, creativity and spiritual inspiration. Then, just as the reader has settled into this quasi-philosophical realm, he is shifted back into the world of realistic fiction, with a protagonist who has matured, and whose family situation has improved.
Arthur Owens’ father has recently died in a motorcycle accident. Spotting the elderly neighborhood junk man wearing his father’s hat, Arthur takes out his anger with the world on the man by throwing a brick at him. Hearing about the boy’s motivation, the junk man, whose name is James Hampton, convinces the juvenile court judge to assign Arthur the task of helping him in his junk collection, instead of a more traditional disciplinary choice. It turns out that James Hampton is collecting very specific types of junk, the seven most important things referred to in the title, some of which go on to hold symbolic meaning for Arthur. Arthur eventually discovers that the junk man is using these seven things to assemble a work of art entitled The Throne of the Third Heaven, in a rented garage. This part of the story is based on a real artist of the same name, whose masterpiece is now housed in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Arthur’s nerdy sidekick, Reginald, and probation Officer Billie are likeable seconday characters.
This book will appeal to a wide audience of children and younger teens who enjoy realistic fiction and stories of friendship, including those featuring male characters such as Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy. It will also appeal to readers of books with a mild fantasy element such as Wendy Mass’ series that began with Eleven Birthdays. The plotline and theme of redemption bears strong similarity to Neal Shusterman’s young adult novel, The Schwa Was Here. Recommended. 2015