Over the weekend, I finished The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander. A friend had recommended it as an engaging book for middle grade boys and I would agree with this recommendation. The main character, Mac, and his best friend, Vince, run a lucrative business out of an unused bathroom in the school. The student body knows that these two boys are generally able to provide relatively benign favors--gaining access to an R-rated movie, obtaining a homework pass. However, the pressure and stress level skyrocket when a fourth grader asks for protection against a known hustler who has been swindling students and physically threatening them.
The plot is fast moving and highly engaging with (spoiler alert) a few violent scenes that graphically describe characters being beaten up. There is much more to the book, though. The Fourth Stall provides opportunities to discuss stereotyping, loyalty, ethical decision-making and the convolution of perceptions and realities. Because there is also an element of crime solving, I found myself constantly predicting and second-guessing my judgments and the characters' assumptions. I also found myself wondering about the plausibility of some of the situations. Working in a suburban elementary school probably shields me from some of the realities in today’s public schools. Would adults on recess duty really not notice a gang beating up a younger student on the outskirts of the playground? Would parents really not question a pair of black eyes as the result of a biking tumble? Would a custodian really facilitate students using a defunct bathroom as an office?
We are always looking for great read alouds and I do think that The Fourth Stall is a high impact book for upper elementary students. Empathy is a critical 21st century skill and this book forces characters, and therefore readers, to examine perspectives and motivation. Another important skill that children must learn is how to apologize and right a wrong. This is a great book for discussing and teaching retribution.