Don’t be a truck! Reading The Pushcart War

pushcart war I live in Iowa, where you can occasionally find presidential candidates eating Vietnamese food or having a cup of coffee with a table of supporters at your local restaurant, or even in some guy’s back yard on the east side of Des Moines. In the last election cycle, I kept ending up at the same events as the animal rights activists and the guy who was mad about how poorly divorced dads are treated. It made for an interesting question-and-answer period if the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers also showed up and asked about the candidate’s position on political issues in Africa or the Mideast.

The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill was first published in 1964, but it’s a time and a story we can still recognize. (Presidential candidates might even benefit from a quick read of it.) The Trucks want to take over the streets and believe that since they are the biggest and strongest, everyone else should get out of their way. They are willing to do this by any means possible – demonizing the other side, pulling dirty tricks, lying and making threats. They think that having seen them bump and crush some Pushcarts, people will remember who’s in charge when the Trucks decide that taxis and cars should get off the road, too. The Trucks think no one will care about the Pushcarts, but they’ve underestimated the Pushcarts and the rest of the community.

The Pushcarts start standing up and speaking out instead of giving in, and though it doesn’t happen quickly, change does happen. A resistance movement of pea-tack shooters springs up to puncture the Trucks’ tires, and people start saying, “Don’t be truck,” because no one likes a bully. When public support swings to the Pushcarts, the mayor suddenly realizes that he might not get reelected, and that makes him see the whole situation much differently.

Other than some kids who take on pea-tack shooting after Frank the Flower is arrested, children don’t actually figure much in the story. That’s not to say the story isn’t interesting to kids. It is. It’s a war novel where no gets killed — although a few people might go missing. Children understand the complicated strategies and use of public relations, and they connect with the underdogs. They can read it as a great story, but be ready — they might also make connections to what’s happening in the world around them.

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