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Book Review

The Pinballs by Betsy Byars has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Carlie, Harvey and Thomas J are all placed into foster care and sent to live with Mr. and Mrs. Mason. Carlie was put into foster care because her stepfather was physically abusive. One time he hits her so hard that she received a concussion. Carlie isn’t allowed to return home until the situation with her stepfather stabilizes. Harvey is in a wheelchair because his father accidently ran over Harvey with the car and broke both his legs. His father was drunk at the time of the accident.

Thomas J was abandoned when he was 2 years old. The Benson twins, two elderly ladies, took him in and raised him. They never told the authorities about him because they liked his company and his help. Both ladies fell and broke their hips, which lead to the authorities discovering Thomas J. He is in foster care until his identity can be discovered and adoptive parents found for him.

The first day at the Masons, all three kids struggle to adjust to the change. Carlie is rude to everyone and is convinced that someone stole one of her earrings. Thomas J finds the earring in the bathroom and returns it. When asked how he broke his legs, Harvey lies and says that he broke them playing football.

Thomas J misses the Benson twins, especially while watching a TV show he used to watch with them. That night, Mrs. Mason tells Carlie that everything might seem wrong and the first night in foster care is the hardest. Mrs. Mason has had 17 other foster kids who have all gone on to do well. She promises Carlie that things will get better.

The next day, Thomas J tries to write a letter to the twins but can’t get beyond the first line. Carlie writes a letter to her mother asking to come home. Harvey wants to write a letter, too, but he doesn’t want to send one to his father. His mother abandoned the family to join a commune, and Harvey doesn’t have an address for her.

Instead of a letter, he starts writing a list of all the bad things that have happened to him. He enjoys writing lists. Mrs. Mason buys him a notebook to keep all his lists in. One of his lists is of gifts that he wanted but never received. He tells Carlie about how he always wanted a dog but was never allowed to have a pet.

Mr. Mason takes Thomas J to visit the Mason twins. The twins aren’t affectionate, so Thomas J has a hard time knowing what to say during the visit. Both twins eventually die in the hospital. Mr. Mason brings Thomas J to pay his respects and tells him about a funeral he attended when he was young. The coffin was bumped during the viewing and the dead man’s mouth fell open. Mr. Mason said he was so scared that he ran all the way home.

Harvey’s father comes for a visit and takes Harvey out to eat. At dinner, Harvey asks his father what he did with all the letters his mother sent since she left the family. His father reveals that he wrote to her about Harvey, but she never replied.

Harvey is devastated and falls into depression. He tells Carlie he doesn’t think he can continue. Carlie vows to find a way to cheer up Harvey. She offers to put nail decals on Harvey’s toes since that cheers her up. When she looks at his feet, she notices that his right toes look red and swollen. She tells Mrs. Mason who brings Harvey to the hospital.

Harvey’s leg has become infected and he must stay in the hospital. His depression worsens, and he refuses to eat or speak to anyone. Eventually the nurses have to give him a feeding tube. Carlie and Thomas J are determined to cheer up Harvey.

Carlie sees an ad in the paper listing free puppies to good homes and remembers how Harvey always wanted a dog. She and Thomas J get Harvey a puppy and sneak it into the hospital. The puppy cheers Harvey up and his depression begins to lift.

Harvey is released from the hospital, and the Masons allow Harvey to keep the puppy. Summer is coming to an end, and the children have bonded during their time together. Life doesn’t seem as bad as it did when they first entered foster care.

Christian Beliefs

The Benson twins taught Thomas J to kneel beside his bed and say prayers before going to bed. His first night at the Masons, he’s confused about how to kneel since he is given the top bunk on a bunk bed. He eventually kneels in the bed and says his nightly prayers there. Thomas J received a book of Bible stories for Christmas one year. The story of Moses being sent adrift in the basket is his favorite because it reminds him of how he was abandoned, too.

Other Belief Systems

Carlie wants to be a nurse when she grows up. She says none of her patients will ever die, and she will be known as the good-luck nurse.

Authority Roles

Mr. and Mrs. Mason are foster parents to Carlie, Harvey and Thomas J. When they couldn’t have children of their own, the Masons decided to become foster parents. Both are kind and caring people. Mrs. Mason teaches Carlie to sew and invests time in creating a relationship with her. She encourages Carlie to be a help to Harvey.

Mr. Mason bonds with Thomas J when he takes the boy to visit the Benson twins in the hospital. Mr. Mason tells Thomas J that his own mother wasn’t a very affectionate woman, and he, too, has a hard time expressing his emotions.

Little is mentioned about Carlie’s mother and stepfather, though it is clear that her stepfather is abusive and her mother doesn’t seem to care about what happens to Carlie. Her mother doesn’t respond to the letter Carlie sends her.

Harvey’s parents are both dysfunctional and selfish. His mother abandoned the family and moved to a commune. She never wrote to Harvey, even when she was given news about what was happening in Harvey’s life. Harvey’s dad is a drunk and a gambler. He doesn’t consider Harvey’s needs.

Harvey mentions that he had to get fast food most nights because his father didn’t provide dinner. The night of Harvey’s accident, his father refused to drive Harvey to school to receive an award. Instead, he was drunk and wanted to go gamble. Thinking his car was in reverse, Harvey’s father accidentally ran him over.

The Benson twins treat Thomas J well and are kind to him. However, they never alerted the authorities to his existence because they selfishly enjoyed his company and his help in the garden. Neither woman expressed her affection toward Thomas J. As a result, he didn’t learn how to express his emotions. When he visits the women in the hospital, he doesn’t know what to say and is surprised when they want to hold his hands.


Harvey’s drunken father accidentally ran over Harvey’s legs. Both legs are broken in the accident. The right leg was broken so badly that a bone was sticking out. That leg later becomes infected, and Harvey is hospitalized for treatment.

Carlie’s stepfather is abusive. She is sent to foster care because he hit her so hard that she received a concussion.



Discussion Topics

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Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

8 to 12


Betsy Byars






Record Label



HarperCollins Publishers Inc.


On Video

Year Published



Children’s Book Award, 1977; William Allan White Children’s Book Award, 1980


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