Steven is a pretty normal eighth grader with a pretty normal life, at least as the book starts. He has a talent for playing drums, enough that he’s gotten into the All-City Jazz Band the school system organized for kids with musical abilities. He’s started noticing girls, although he’s had a crush on Renee Jordan, the hottest girl in the eighth grade, since they were both in third grade together. He has an annoying little brother, Jeffrey, who’s always pestering Steven to play kiddie games and getting into Steven’s stuff (this is where the “Dangerous Pie”) comes in.
The day that changes Steven’s life begins typically: Jeffrey pesters Steven to make “moatmeal” while Steven’s trying to practice drumming–at three Jeffrey is too young to reach the microwave, much less be allowed to use it. Finally, Steven agrees, but when he’s stepped away from his little brother for a moment to take the ‘moatmeal’ out of the microwave, Jeffrey falls off the stool upon which he was sitting and gets a nosebleed. Not just any nosebleed: this one Will. Not. Stop. His parents panic and rush Jeffrey to the emergency room, leaving Steven home to wonder just how much trouble he’ll get into for letting his baby brother get a nosebleed bad enough to warrant a trip to the ER.
It turns out Jeffrey has leukemia, and an appallingly advanced case for parents who think they’ve been paying attention to their children’s emotional and physical needs. Jeffrey had been complaining about his “parts hurting” for some time, but neither the parents or Steven had thought this anything other than a quirk of vocabulary and description from an imaginative little boy who claimed he didn’t close his eyes when he slept, despite Steven producing film of Jeffrey, asleep, with his eyes firmly closed. (This was explained away as a very slow blink.) The parents plunge into the course of treatment with their son; bills mount, the mother seems to spend more time at the hospital with Jeffrey than she does at home with the family as a whole, the father withdraws into work in part to pay bills and in part because he’s not sure how to express his own feelings in the matter, and needless to say, Jeffrey himself struggles with both the physical side effects of the treatment itself, and the emotional disruptions hospital stays and the potential outcome of his leukemia.
Steven, who really does care for his little brother despite all the usual squabbles and pestering, is distraught, but has no idea how to express this to his own parents, much less anyone at school. His schoolwork suffers, and it isn’t until the teachers have a conference with Steven to discuss this perplexing drop in the work of a student who’s been otherwise good (though not brilliant) in school, that they find out why his behavior has so changed. While his schoolmates and teachers finding out about the upheaval in Steven’s home life is a relief, not to mention the more pragmatic plan they work out to ensure Steven catches up in his work, the ghastly horrid gooey sympathetic looks Steven gets from everyone at school are almost as oppressive as his worry about his little brother.
The book’s denouement is a benefit concert put on by the school’s band to help pay the family’s medical bills; Steven’s best friend, Annette, who has been sidelined from her piano practice as a result of smashing her arm, dragoons Cutest Girl Ever Renee into helping publicize the concert.
The fact that there’s a sequel to this book centering on Jeffrey’s own year in eighth grade should give readers a clue about whether Jeffrey lives or dies at the end of this book, but I don’t think that’s really the point of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie. Rather, as with Patrick Ness/Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls, it’s more about the process by which children and adolescents learn to handle potentially fatal illnesses in a family member, and in this case, how to express love for a pesky sibling. Steven and Jeffrey plague each other just as much as normal kids do, but in the end, they learn to say “I love you.” to one another, and not only mean it but not be embarrassed to say so in public. This book will probably appeal to kids who don’t like fantasy; unlike A Monster Calls, it’s very much set in the real world, without any fantasy elements whatsoever (not even the occasional daydream about what Steven would like to do with Renee.) It does include details of the treatment Jeffrey goes through, which A Monster Calls didn’t much mention, so might also be better for kids who’ve got questions about what cancer treatment entails.
Oh–the Dangerous Pie. This is one of Jeffrey’s experiments: he ‘cooks’ coffee grounds, raw eggs complete with smashed shells, Coke, uncooked bacon and three Matchbox cars, stirred thoroughly with Steven’s favorite drumsticks.