By Mrs. McHugh
Rex Ogle’s memoirs may be deceiving. With cartoonish covers and less than 200 pages each, the books might seem easy or meant for younger readers. But the subjects he deals with – extreme poverty, homelessness and physical abuse – are for mature audiences. While his younger school self narrates the stories, readers in high school or older may be best equipped to handle the content. This isn’t meant to warn anyone off. It’s just to make clear that what may look like a short or easy book from the outside in fact deals with some pretty heavy stuff.
In Free Lunch, Rex struggles to fit in at the start of sixth grade. With his mother and stepfather unemployed and prone to fits of violence, Rex is desperate to hide signs of their poverty: he can’t sign up for football because there’s no medical insurance if he gets hurt; he sleeps on the floor in a bedroom with no furniture; he often skips breakfast so his younger brother can eat; he wears threadbare clothes and sometimes the same outfit two days in a row. Rex doesn’t understand why his parents can’t provide. By telling the story from his younger point of view, Ogle exposes not just the experience of poverty that is all too common in this country. He also reveals the confusion and anger of a child whose adults are unable to care for him.
Punching Bag follows Rex into high school, focusing on the physical and emotional abuse that were paired with his family’s poverty. Since he was little, Rex’s mom has blamed him for the death of his stillborn sister, although his stepfather’s violence is really to blame. While his parents wage war against him and with each other, in scenes often brutal to read, Rex struggles with the darkness rising inside him. Does he give in, resigning himself to repeat the cycle in his future relationships? Or does he break ties with his toxic parents? He reveals the answer in an afterword that provides hope and resources for others suffering from violence.
These books are similar to the series by Dave Pelzer, which begins with A Child Called It: difficult topics, honest and moving writing, incredible stories of resilience. Reading these types of books may be heart-wrenching, but they can also build compassion for others and understanding of the issues that many people face, often invisibly, in our communities.