Arthur, age 13, lives in Washington, DC, in 1963. When he picks up a brick and throws it at a black homeless man people call the Junk Man, everyone assumes it's racially motivated violence, and the judge is prepared to send him away to juvie for a long time. But it wasn't race that motivated him. His father died three months ago, and he saw the Junk Man wearing his father's old motorcycle cap, not knowing his mother had thrown it away.
But at the hearing, the Junk Man, whose real name turns out to be James Hampton, asks the judge if instead of being sent to juvie, Arthur can be sentenced to help him with his work, since his arm is broken and he can't do it. The judge agrees to the unusual idea, ordering Arthur to work for Mr. Hampton for 120 hours of service. When Arthur shows up on a snowy day at the address the court gives him, he finds an old garage with the Junk Man's cart outside it. Taped to the cart is a sign on cardboard asking Arthur to collect the seven most important things: lightbulbs, foil, mirrors, pieces of wood, glass bottles, coffee cans, and cardboard.
What does the Junk Man do with these things? What's in the garage? Why, whenever he sees Arthur, does the Junk Man refer to him as St. Arthur, and to himself as St. James? And will Arthur be able to finish his sentence so he doesn't have to go to juvie?
An added bonus for me is that the book is set in Washington, DC, so there are references to local sights like the Smithsonian and the Washington Senators baseball team. But it takes place in a working-class neighborhood, so we get a glimpse of how real Washingtonians live. And the mystery of what James Hampton, the Junk Man, is working on, turns out to be tied to a real Washington location--although I won't reveal any more than that.
The Seventh Most Important Thing, a YA by Shelley Pearsall, would be good for any kid from 10 up to read, and many adults as well, I think. It's attention-grabbing from the first page, the characters are realistic and well-drawn, and despite offering some deep lessons, there's a lot of humor throughout. In fact, I think I'm going to go hand it to my own 12-year-old son to read tonight.