105 pages • 3 hours readShelley Pearsall
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The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall (Penguin Random House, 2016) is a historical middle-grade novel. The book follows young Arthur Owens as he grapples with grief, discovers his own heaven, and learns how people, himself included, can surprise you. The Seventh Most Important Thing was nominated for 16 state awards and was an ALA Notable Book, an ILA Teachers Choice, and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year. Shelley Pearsall based the book on the art and life of folk artist James Hampton, whose sculpture of heaven is on display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This guide refers to the 2016 edition of The Seventh Most Important Thing.
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The story opens on a gray day in November of 1963. Arthur Owens (age 13) throws a brick at Mr. James Hampton, known in Arthur’s neighborhood of Washington DC as the “junk man.” Mr. Hampton recovers from the incident in a hospital. Meanwhile, Arthur spends three weeks in a juvenile detention center and wonders about his actions. Arthur’s dad died in a motorcycle accident three months earlier. The day Arthur threw the brick, he saw Mr. Hampton wearing Arthur’s dad’s motorcycle cap, which Mr. Hampton had plucked from the trash. Overwhelmed with anger and sadness, Arthur threw the brick. He didn’t really want to hurt Mr. Hampton, and he’s never been a violent kid.
At Arthur’s hearing, the judge isn’t interested in Arthur’s reasoning. Arthur’s dad had a criminal history, and the judge is convinced Arthur is going down the same path. Mr. Hampton intervenes on Arthur’s behalf. Rather than juvie, the judge assigns Arthur 120 hours of community service working with Mr. Hampton. Arthur returns home to his grief-stricken mother and younger sister.
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Mr. Hampton is not present at Arthur’s first community service session. Instead, Arthur finds a note telling him to collect the seven important things: lightbulbs, foil, mirrors, wood, soda bottles, coffee cans, and cardboard. Arthur collects items that are close to the items on the list, like a lamp instead of a lightbulb, and his probation officer reprimands for not following instructions. Mr. Hampton is still absent for several weeks. With the help of a tattoo artist, Arthur gains insight into Mr. Hampton and Arthur’s collection assignment.
At school, the vice principle has relocated Arthur’s locker away from the rest of the seventh grade to keep him from being a bad influence. When Arthur tries to rescue a fellow seventh grader (Squeak) from bullies, the principal blames Arthur because of his criminal history. No one but Squeak believes Arthur isn’t at fault, and Squeak starts sitting with Arthur at lunch. The two boys become friends. Squeak helps Arthur stay out of trouble and eventually starts helping Arthur at Saturday probation.
One Saturday, the door to Mr. Hampton’s garage is open. Arthur goes inside, where he finds a dazzling sculpture made of trash and Mr. Hampton lying on the ground. Mr. Hampton is dying from stomach cancer. Still reeling from his father’s death, Arthur refuses to continue probation. He doesn’t want to get close to Mr. Hampton only to lose him. Later, Arthur realizes he’s being unfair and resolves to complete his assignment because Mr. Hampton needs him.
Over the next few weeks, Arthur forms a close relationship with Mr. Hampton. They discuss the seven things on the list and Arthur’s dad, which allows Arthur to find closure. Mr. Hampton asks Arthur to continue building the sculpture if he dies. Arthur is hesitant but agrees. Mr. Hampton dies soon after, leaving Arthur shaken. With the help of his family and Squeak, Arthur comes to terms with Mr. Hampton’s death. He realizes the important things on the list aren’t just items to collect. Each represents something vital Arthur needed to change to progress as a person.
When the garage landlord comes to clear Mr. Hampton’s sculpture away, Arthur manages to buy three weeks to figure out what to do. He can’t let Mr. Hampton down, but he can’t afford the garage either. After seeing students using a coffee can to collect donations at school, Arthur realizes he can do the same for the sculpture. He and Squeak scatter coffee cans around the city. They don’t collect anywhere near enough money, but a reporter expresses interest in writing an article about the sculpture. People from the Smithsonian come to look at Mr. Hampton’s art. Finally, the museum decides to acquire the sculpture. Seven years later, the sculpture has an exhibit. Arthur helps at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and is enthralled by Mr. Hampton’s representation of heaven all over again. He’s happy that Mr. Hampton’s art is on display for the world to see because the world needs the sculpture’s beauty.
The novel explores themes concerning perception, like “One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure,” and “People Aren’t Always Who They Seem.”
By Shelley Pearsall