The cover of Gail Gauthier's A Year With Butch and Spike doesn't make it look like the kind of book I would love, even as a kid. A boy with blond hair slumps gloomily between two sneering bullies with devilishly pointed eyebrows, skull-and-crossbones sketches underscoring their bad-to-the-bone villainy. I'm eternally grateful that I gave the book a chance, though — it might be possible to guess from the cover that these troublemakers have hearts of gold, but there are sharper discoveries waiting, too.
The book's protagonist is Jasper, a character for whom the phrase "goody two shoes" was invented. He's smart, and he has spent his whole life not only excelling academically, but also filling his time with elaborate projects and extracurriculars, getting excited about new school supplies, racking up awards and competing with the other overachievers in his class. He cares about doing well, and he cares about being liked by his teachers. Jasper's plan for a smooth, accolade-filled sixth-grade year (his last year of elementary school) falls apart when he's assigned a seat in class between Butch and Spike, a pair of cousins who are known for being loud, crass slackers and class clowns.
Jasper despises Butch and Spike, and they're derisive towards him, too. But over time, he's gradually drawn into something like friendship with them — through group projects and sports, and through them showing up uninvited at his house. Eventually, Jasper begins to see that Butch and Spike are smart and talented, even if they've never been recognized that way. He realizes that they're being treated unfairly by the teacher, Mrs. McNulty, whose authority he has unquestioningly accepted. And he comes to understand that Mrs. McNulty is self-important and spiteful, caring more about her own power than about the students' well-being or success.
What I love about the book's characters is that they're so familiar as twelve-year-olds. They swagger around confidently until their facades crack and they burst into tears. The boys ogle the school's attractive young principal; at other times, they burp loudly and make fart jokes. On a field trip to the historical home of a Revolutionary War figure, they ask off-script questions that make the tour guide uncomfortable. They're clever and articulate but are still learning how to look out for each other, how to comfort a friend who's been hurt or stand up to an adult who belittles them.
That tension of getting older while not quite wanting to let go of childhood pulses beneath the entire story. Mrs. McNulty's demanding assignments and rigid rules are paired with constant reminders that she's doing it all to prepare the students for the tough world of middle school. An early indicator that McNulty's not just a strict teacher but a real asshole comes when one of the students asks if the class can have a Halloween party, and she snaps, "Grow up!" Though recognizing Mrs. McNulty as a bully is part of Jasper's process of maturity, Butch and Spike have to grow up a little, too, and realize that doing well in school can be a good thing, not a sign of selling out. At the end of the book, Jasper, Butch, and Spike share a giddy and bittersweet moment when they ride their bikes to the elementary school for a last goodbye. It all feels realistically complex — the characters are gaining wisdom that's necessary, but it's painful, too.
One of the reasons I love returning to Butch and Spike every couple of years is that its lesson, while aimed at preteens, is one I can still do well to relearn: Doing the right thing is more important than following the rules or succeeding as an individual. Though I was never quite as overachievingly perfect as Jasper, I was one of the kids who loved the first day of school, who compared grades with classmates and tried to show off how much I knew. At the same time, I was often bossy with my friends, quick to spread gossip, and happy to go along with whatever I thought the "cool kids" was doing (in fifth grade I got detention because I passively joined some girls doing the "Bloody Mary" thing in the bathroom mirror). When I went against the grain, it was usually because I wanted to be "different," sourly scorning the popular crowd, not because of any genuine sense of self.
And maybe that's normal for a girl in elementary and middle school. Even now, though, I can feel my worst tendencies in my hesitation to go out of my way for other people's sake. When I see on Facebook that someone's having a hard time but hold back from sending sympathy because I can't take the time to find the right words; when I laugh along with mean-spirited gossip; when I fail to speak up for something I know is important because I don't want to be socially awkward — when I know what I should do, but hold back because it's safer and easier to do nothing, I'm being a Jasper. A beginning-of-the-book Jasper, anyway: By the end, he's motivated to stand up for Butch and Spike not because he's made a careful decision, but because he truly cares about them and knows they deserve better. He does the right thing instinctively, generously. That's the kind of person I want to be. I'm grateful for A Year With Butch and Spike's example in getting there.