Skip to main content

Armstrong and Charlie

Review

Armstrong and Charlie

The story of ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE unfolds at the beginning of sixth grade at Wonderland Avenue, a public school in the Hollywood Hills where 99% of the students are white and live mostly in houses with yards and swimming pools. It is 1974 and the school has agreed to participate in the new Opportunity Busing Program, which will bus in students from Holmes School in South Central Los Angeles, where 99% of the students are black and live mainly in housing developments that are surrounded by concrete and dirt.

Charlie Ross has attended Wonderland with his neighborhood friends his entire childhood, but realizes just as summer vacation is coming to an end that most of his friends are leaving the school due to their parents’ unease with the new busing program. As if losing friends isn’t hard enough, he lost his older brother less than a year ago, and his family is broken with grief.

"ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE is the kind of heartwarming story that you cannot put down until all the parts come together."

Armstrong Le Rois will be one of the students on the first buses that cross the city. As the only boy in a family with five older sisters (he gets pink shirts for hand-me-downs), Armstrong is an outrageously funny kid whose greatest weapon is his sense of humor. When he finds out his parents signed him up for Opportunity Busing, the first thing he wants to know is, “What time in the morning will my alarm clock have the opportunity to ring?” Yes, 5:30 is early. And yes, he has to endure the awkwardness of standing out as one of the only black students at Wonderland. Yet when he comes to Wonderland, and into Charlie’s life, he brings change for growth, change for good.

ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE has the wholesome feel that is similar to an episode of “The Wonder Years” in that they are just going about their day as kids yet they are doing so during a time of major societal change. Since the boys take turns telling the story, the book reveals what it is like to have students integrate both into the classroom and into each other’s lives. It also illustrates why it is important to open your heart to students who don’t look like you, who aren’t from your familiar childhood circles, and who don’t fall within your comfort zone.

ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE is the kind of heartwarming story that you cannot put down until all the parts come together. With spin-the-bottle crushes, astrology reports, a Cuss Box and a weeklong school trip, it’s also a book about growing up, choosing the right friends, and standing up to racism even when you see it in someone you love. Its target age is around fifth or sixth grade, but I could see its message about inclusion reaching a much broader audience. Adults will reminisce about Ho Hos, Razzles, Wax Bottles, Pixy Stix, Baskin-Robbins’ Jamoca Almond Fudge and MAD Magazine --- the bits of nostalgia that help create the setting but also give this work of historical fiction a realistic feel. Further, the storyline features male protagonists that both guys and girls can relate to.

It has been three years since I had Mr. Frank as my sixth grade English teacher, but reading this book made me feel as if I were back in his class again. I could hear his voice in the captivating way that he built the dramatic parts (the spicy Ho Ho’s story is true!).  At a time when I was trying to find my place on campus, it was teachers like Mr. Frank who made sure that in the classroom, I never felt left out. A book like ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE reminds us that nobody ever should.

Reviewed by Alizé J., Teen Board Member on May 9, 2017

Armstrong and Charlie
by Steven B. Frank