Reviewed by Julia Nelson
I have to admit, I was immediately concerned about reviewing Community Service on Planet Weirdo after reading the first couple chapters. I was worried that this book would feel out-of-touch and be one of those young adult books that I couldn’t find any value in as a person in her twenties. Fortunately, I was proven wrong for the most part. I can’t tell you what a twelve-year-old would think of Community Service, but I found a lot of heartwarming moments and reflections of my own middle and high school days echoed throughout the book.
This book is about Jennifer Shaw, a high school freshman who is having a rough time dealing with her dad’s abandonment of the household and her inability to understand algebra in school. Her struggles lead to her befriending a delinquent named Sammy, who sympathizes with her feelings and tells her that she shouldn’t let her parents and teachers control her life. On one occasion, Sammy convinces Jennifer to help him steal an old lady’s purse, and Jennifer is the one who Is caught and sent to court. The majority of the book focuses on Jennifer’s experiences at Pine Rest, the nursing home where she is ordered to volunteer, as well as her relationships with Sammy and a variety of other people. As for the titular “Planet Weirdo,” it’s a made-up place that Jennifer uses to make fun of one of her classmates, who ends up playing a much bigger role in the story than she anticipated.
One of my favorite aspects of Community Service was the portrayal of Pine Rest. When I was a couple years younger than Jennifer, I also volunteered at a nursing home (although it wasn’t because I committed a crime). Because of this, a lot of what happens at Pine Rest feels familiar to me. I could vividly picture the long, straight hallways with railings and the sleeping residents sitting outside their rooms in their wheelchairs. I felt nostalgic when Mrs. McNeer, Jennifer’s boss, “refused to pass a single resident without giving some greeting, and even worse, stopping to have a chat with several as well” (22). All of the residents I met in this book felt like someone I’ve met before, even the less important ones. Mr. Weber is the crude, ornery man who likes complaining and picking on the old women at Pine Rest. Mrs. Mueller is the woman with dementia who thinks Jennifer is her granddaughter and smiles every time she arrives to help her play cards. Finally, there’s Miss Gates.
Miss Gates, a retired algebra teacher who ends up tutoring Jennifer, is the most important resident in the story. She is one of my favorite characters in Community Service because her story teaches lessons that are important for the book’s target audience to hear. First, you’re not dumb if you’re having trouble learning in class. Jennifer had thought she hated math, but she finds that she enjoys it after being exposed to a teaching method that better corresponds to her style of learning. To her friend who is also struggling with math, she passes on this knowledge: “You will be fine, Tracy, you are just as smart as the rest of this class. I think it’s just the way Mr. Matthews teaches” (163)… Second, elderly folks are entitled to just as much of a life as young ones. I think it’s often easy to forget about the older people in your life, especially if they live far away or in a retirement home, and you’re a middle or high school student with a busy life. In this book, Jennifer learns that tutoring her helps Miss Gates a lot. This woman had retired quietly and has no family left, and her limited mobility means she isn’t usually able to go out and about. Getting to be useful and forming a bond with Jennifer makes Miss Gates feel like she is a valuable human being instead of a waste of space. Plus, Jennifer gains a new appreciation for the elderly as well. As Mrs. McNeer says, “We warehouse people too much: there’s daycare for babies, school for children, workplaces for adults, and retirement and care centers for the elderly” (159). This book advocates for bringing different generations together, which can benefit each party involved.
The last topic I want to touch on is Jennifer’s turbulent relationship with Sammy because it is also relevant to my younger years. I never dated anyone during grade school, but I saw several of my friends have relationships with boys who were not good people because they were the ones giving my friends attention. This is just like how Sammy is the one who appears to support Jennifer, although he is revealed to only be using her for his own gain. The line that rings the truest for me is, “But Jennifer could not remain angry with [Sammy] even though he constantly disappointed her in so many ways” (85). That single line feels exactly like the relationships I have witnessed, and I appreciate how this book acknowledges that it’s easy to grow attached to someone who isn’t good for you. What I wish the book had done is to better show Sammy’s emotional support for Jennifer, which is why she began to like him in the first place, aside from his good looks and “tough city boy” appeal. Sammy spends most of the book following his own goal of making it big (in an illegal gambling ring) and trying to attract Jennifer’s attention via material things, such as tickets to a big basketball game. We only get a couple of explanatory paragraphs on page 16 of Sammy truly being there for Jennifer versus several chapters of him trying to push his own agenda. Maybe it’s because I’m disconnected from the dating habits of young people, but I would have loved a bit more emotional content.
There are several other wonderfully endearing moments in this book that I don’t have the space to cover, such as the Planet Weirdo school dance and the rescue of Mrs. Mueller. The fact that I could keep going shows how much there was to like and connect with in this book. I can honestly say that despite its flaws, I enjoyed reading Community Service on Planet Weirdo and think it has a lot to offer for younger audiences.
Julia Nelson is a senior majoring in theatre arts and double minoring in creative writing and arts management. She loves playing video games, becoming too attached to fictional characters, and obsessing over anything cute and pink. Julia hopes to pursue a career in editing in the future.