'Death by Toilet Paper' is a poignant story with just enough bathroom humor to captivate kids

This heartfelt and thoroughly readable story about a boy coping with the loss of his father is more than just a delightful end-of-summer read.

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    Death by Toilet Paper,
    by Donna Gephart,
    Random House Childrens,
    272 pp.
    Recommended for readers ages 9-12
    View Caption

What to say about a book with the words toilet paper in the title? Kids will line up for it, yes.  When teachers read aloud that beginning sentence – “Inside my best friend’s kitchen, blood spatters cover every surface” – their students will refuse to move till they hear the rest. Based on the eye-catching cover alone, librarians and booksellers will have no trouble convincing patrons to take it home.

But then there’s the surprising story. Surprising because with a title like Death by Toilet Paper and a cover that pops, you might expect light-hearted comedy. And while it’s not always laugh-out-loud funny, humor does prevail. But there’s a poignant story here, elevating this new middle-grade novel (recommended for readers ages 9 to 12) to much more than a delightful end-of-summer read.

Benjamin Epstein is a “serious sweepstakes guy” who enters every contest he can. Maybe he’d be a "sweeper" even without his current motivation, but now the seventh grader has a goal. He and his hard-working mom are in danger of being evicted from their apartment. Ben is determined not to sleep anywhere except in his room adorned with glow-in-the-dark stars and planets created by his dad.

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As his dad was dying of cancer last year, Ben made him a promise. Now, he’s the man of the family. Their family has a Grand Plan. Mom will pass her accounting exams and leave her job at a pancake house. If he can dream up the best slogan for Royal-T Toilet Paper or create the winning costume with his best friend, an aspiring film maker whose passion is fake blood and gore, then Ben could take home the grand prize. Not only will he help his mom and accomplish their plan, he will also honor his dad’s memory.

Donna Gephart’s compelling characters – from a realistically awful bully to the fragile, funny grandfather Zedye who becomes Ben’s roommate – make for a heartfelt and thoroughly readable story. The plot takes just the right twists and turns, has exactly enough episodes of bodily grossness for kids to deem this one a page-turner. And despite the death of Ben's father, the novel is never maudlin. Rather, Ben’s reactions to the memories of his dad’s illness show his process of healing, from being angry that they’ve had to give up so much to acknowledging what an amazing person his father was.

To make "Death by Toilet Paper" even more attractive to young readers, at the head of each chapter is a fun bathroom fact. A personal favorite? “Psycho was the first movie to show a toilet flushing. That scene caused scores of indecency complaints.”

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