Children's & Middle Grade · Queer

Review: The Manny Files by Christian Burch

The Manny Files cover“Be interesting.”

That’s what the manny tells Keats Dalinger the first time he packs Keats’s school lunch, but for Keats that’s not always the easiest thing to do. Even though he’s the only boy at home, it always feels like no one ever remembers him. His sisters are everywhere! Lulu is the smart one, India is the creative one, and Belly . . . well, Belly is the naked one. And the baby. School isn’t much better. There, he’s the shortest kid in the entire class. But now the manny is the Dalinger’s new babysitter, and things are starting to look up. It seems as though the manny always knows the right thing to do. Not everyone likes the manny as much as Keats does, however. Lulu finds the manny embarrassing, and she’s started to make a list of all the crazy things that he does, such as serenading the kids with “La Cucaracha” from the front yard or wearing underwear on his head or meeting the school bus with Belly, dressed as limo drivers. Keats is worried. What if Lulu’s “Manny Files” makes his parents fire the manny? Who will teach him how to be interesting then?

The Manny Files just made me so happy. It’s a hidden gem from 2006. Every time I picked it up, I was smiling the whole time, and it even made me laugh out loud, which books rarely manage. It’s sweet and joyful, but also includes some of the real frustration children experience when so much of life is out of their control. I remember that, and it was horrible, but here Burch creates a world where kids can learn to be who they want. It really reminds me of an elementary-level version of Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan   in a lot of ways — there’s enough realism to give the book weight, but it’s fundamentally about happiness and acceptance.

The manny is indeed gay or queer, and I think reviewers aren’t giving kids enough credit when they say kids won’t be able to tell. The point is that the whole book has casual, gentle queerness, and more importantly a little boy who’s implied to be queer. Most books shy away from that, but here it’s perfectly natural — it’s all about how Keats feels safe and happy with the manny, about who Keats likes to be around and what he wants to be like, without the plot having to be about a crush or anything like that. Basically the whole book is about a kid’s positive relationship with an older queer role model, which practically never happens in fiction, especially for younger readers.

Of course Keats is more coherent than the average 8-year-old, most of them aren’t out writing novels, but he still feels like a real kid. The book reads like a (longer, more orderly) story any kid would tell, with all the humorous asides and misunderstandings about what things are the first time he hears a term and all of that. He can get overstimulated, tease his sisters, and all that, but he’s also sensitive and smart and basically adorable. His big sister is bitchy in the way most of us are as early teens, his little sister is a grubby little toddler doing the stuff grubby toddlers do, and it’s all just really warm and wonderful.

I’ve seen some other reviewers complain about a lack of plot, but I thought it was perfect… I was genuinely concerned about what would happen at the end and if Lulu would be able to get rid of the manny, but it was just enough, not so much that reading was anxiety-making. It’s a curious and happy experience, not a thriller. I should note though that Keats’s grandmother’s death is an important point too, but it’s handled gently, just like the rest of the book.

It seems like The Manny Files struggled to find a wide audience ten years ago, but I’m super glad it exists for the kids who want and need it. I, for one, will be re-reading it any time I need a little pick-me-up. I’ve already ordered the sequel, and I just wish there were more.

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