Over the last week, we’ve taken a deep dive into the plot, characters, and underlying themes of The Next Great Paulie Fink by author Ali Benjamin. Today, we bring this series to a close, but not without a simple but comprehensive look back on why this novel matters and why it deserves a place on your family bookshelf.
Here are 10 reasons to read The Next Great Paulie Fink and to share it with the kids in your life.
1. The Allegory of the Cave
Benjamin both perfectly encapsulates the nontraditional learning environment of Mitchell School and sets up the journey of self-discovery undertaken by its seventh-grade students early on as homeroom teacher Mags present the kids with Plato’s Cave. This allegory about the importance of education sets our young protagonist, Caitlyn, on her way to discover her own brand of tween enlightenment.
2. Shakespearian Insults
Caitlyn’s first challenge in the contest to be grade seven’s new class clown sees her classmates hurling Shakespearian insults at each other. It makes for an endearing setpiece in a book that continually reinvents the stuffy tenets of classical education: “You base dunghill villain.”
3. Celebrating Disruptors
From Paulie himself to reality star turned pop diva Jadelicious, The Next Great Paulie Fink is packed with characters that shirk convention and challenge the status quo in the search for their true selves.
4. Constructive Rule-Breaking
Unsurprisingly, all this call for disruption necessitates an examination of mores, rules, and genuine morality, and our characters find a fair bit of daylight between the three. It’s a weighty subject, to be sure, but the meek and studious Henry manages to distill it down to understanding the difference between being funny and being mean.
5. Exploring Small-Town America
Mitchell, VT is a small town with small-town problems, primarily a thinning population and all the economic woes that come from a shrinking tax base. Despite these struggles, there is a sense of purpose, a sense of community, a sense of togetherness. Ali Benjamin manages to highlight the very best aspects of rural America at a time where many writers typically employ it only to illustrate our cultural divisions.
Though Mitchell is a close, cohesive community, it is far from homogenous. This inclusion of various cultures and family types also serves to paint a more accurate picture of rural, working-class America.
7. A Kid’s Guide to Self-Awareness
It’s Caitlyn who, after countless interviews with her classmates and the faculty, comes to the realization that what we remember about others is always imperfect, incomplete. Homeroom teacher Mags turns this revelation into one of the book’s most important lessons:
“Everything we know is always incomplete […] In the end, we get to fully know exactly one person only: ourselves. And that’s only if we work hard at it.”
8. On Truth, Memory, and Hero Worship
It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that, in the end, Mitchell School’s seventh-grade class realizes that Paulie Fink was at the same time both a trickster and a fool. Like all of us, there is more to him than most remember, and a satisfying third act twist helps to drive this home.
9. Proper Parenting
Disinterested and/or bumbling parents are a dime a dozen in children’s literature, but The Next Great Paulie Fink is not afraid to sidestep this unfortunate meme. Not only is Caitlyn Breen’s own mother, Wendy, painted as competent, caring, and courageous, but so are Caitlyn’s educational caregivers. This is reflected in her own interactions with Fuzzy, the kindergartner assigned to Caitlyn’s table at lunch.
10. An Unexpected Ending
Hopeful without being sappy and ambivalent without being coy or noncommittal, The Next Great Paulie Fink ends much the same way it begins, with heart and humility. I shouldn’t have been surprised, given Ali Benjamin’s mastery of pre-teen prose, and yet I was—pleasantly so.