An 8th grade teacher, Ms. Kirkpatrick loves all things British, yoga, and the outdoors.
The book’s protagonist, Kate Tyler, is a bookish thirteen-year-old girl navigating the challenges of high school amid some significant family struggles. The book opens at Arlington National Cemetery where the Tylers and their kin gather to bury Kate’s father, a war veteran, chicken farmer, and cancer victim. Conspicuously absent from the funeral in Kate’s older brother, JT, who we learn is in juvenile detention for the accidental death of a young child (the pivotal event which is the focus of the book’s prequel, Red Kayak). The remainder of the book is Kate’s recounting of her thoughts, feelings, and choices as she deals with her father’s death, her mother’s resultant depression and anxiety, and her brother’s complicated homecoming. Because her family has suffered a huge loss, Kate, only thirteen, is forced into the role of caregiver, preparing meals and grocery shopping for her family while still attending to her academic and social life as a teenager.
When Kate’s brother returns home from juvie and re-enters the inhospitable world of high school, Kate’s burden increases as she witnesses the brutal bullying of JT by classmates, both in school and online. Usually a stellar student with a black and white sense of ethics, Kate finds herself making increasingly gray decisions as she attempts to shield her brother from the ruthless cruelty of classmates who will not allow his past to die. Kate wages an intense internal battle as her loyalty to her brother comes into conflict with her personal ethics and goals for her future.
Cummings writes with clarity and honesty about the internal struggles of teens as they stand with one foot in childhood, the other in adulthood. She deftly depicts characters through the use of dialogue, artifacts from character journals, essays, and phone texts, convincingly capturing the voices of her predominantly teen characters as the story unfolds. The characterization of Kate, her best friend, Jess, and her frenemy, Curtis Jenkins, are made real by Cummings’ strong and frequent description of physical gesture to indicate the emotional content of dialogue. Cummings also succeeds in capturing the physical realities of the chicken farm and the physical relationship which exists between farming families and their environment. In Cheating for the Chicken Man, Cummings achieves what I consider one of the primary goals of realistic fiction: she has created an engaging, believable story which raises timely questions about family, friendship, and personal ethics that are immediately recognizable to readers. Its world, the familiar world of classrooms, school buses, sports fields, and teen bedrooms, is one that invites young readers to see themselves in the text, positioning them to consider, “What would I do when presented with this situation?”