Henkes, Kevin. The Birthday Room. Greenwillow, 1999. ISBN 0-688-16733-0. $15.00. 152 pp. A 4-6 FI Reviewed by Nancy C. Evensen The two gifts Ben receives for his twelfth birthday-a room and a letter from his uncle-seem to change his life. Ben's parents are thrilled to present the room to Ben to use as an art studio, but Ben is uncomfortable with his parents' expectations of him as an artist. On the same day, he receives a letter from his Uncle Ian, whom he hasn't seen since he was very young. Ian was baby-sitting when Ben lost his pinkie finger in an accident; his mother still holds Ian responsible. The letter is an invitation for Ben to visit Ian in Oregon. Ben desperately wants to meet his uncle, and he finally persuades his mother to accept the invitation and accompany him to Oregon. Ian is married and his wife is expecting their first child very soon. Things are strained between Ben's mother and uncle. Ian feels guilty about the loss of Ben's finger and wants to see Ben before the birth of his child. He has to know that the accident hasn't ruined Ben's life. While in Oregon, Ben and a new friend innocently trick a young boy into believing there is a new leaf on a dead tree. The young child, trying to see the leaf, attempts to climb the tree and falls, breaking two of his limbs. Again, blame circles around-with Ben feeling his share; Ben now understands Ian's feelings of guilt. Ben discovers that total blame is a hard thing to pin on one person, and it serves little purpose. As Ben learns about himself and begins to understand the adults in his life, he can better deal with the birthday room and his parents' expectations for his success. In time, Ben convinces his parents to turn the room into a spare bedroom-a sign of the family's reconciliation. Although the book begins slowly, part two picks things up and they continue moving along. The characters we meet in Oregon give the story life and more action. Henkes is skillful in helping his characters grow and mature while allowing the readers to learn some lessons along the way. The story is an instructive one about healing and forgiving. Some people learn that while they are still twelve-for others it takes more time!
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