Pay It Forward
Catherine Ryan Hyde, 1999
Simon & Schuster
Pay It Forward is a wondrous and moving story about Trevor McKinney, a twelve-year-old boy in a small California town who accepts the challenge that his teacher gives his class, a chance to earn extra credit by coming up with a plan to change the world for the better—and to put that plan into action.
The plan that Trevor comes up with is so simple—and so naive—that when others learn of it they are dismissive. Even Trevor himself begins to doubt when his pay it forward plan seems to founder on a combination of bad luck and the worst of human nature.
What is his idea? Trevor chooses three people for whom he will do a favor, and then when those people thank him and ask how they might pay him back, he will tell them that instead of paying him back they should each pay it forward by choosing three people for whom they can do favors, and in turn telling those people to Pay it Forward. It's nothing less than a human chain letter of kindness and good will. But will it work?
In the end, Pay It Forward is the story of seemingly ordinary people made extraordinary by the simple faith of a child. In the tradtion of the successful and inspirational television show Touched by an Angel, and the phenomenally successful novel and film Forrest Gump, Pay It Forward is a work of charm, wit, and remarkable inspriation, a story of hope for today and for many tomorrows to come. (From the publisher.)
• Currently—lives in Cambria, California
Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of the best selling novel Pay It Forward and numerous short stories, including the collection Earthquake Weather. She lives in Cambria, California. (From the publisher.)
Catherine Ryan Hyde s an American novelist and short story writer, whose novels have enjoyed bestseller status in both the US and UK, and whose short stories have won many awards and honors.
Hyde is the author of the novel Funerals for Horses (1997), a collection of short fiction, Earthquake Weather (1998), the novels Pay it Forward (1999), Electric God (2000), and Walter’s Purple Heart (2002). More recent novels include Becoming Chloe (2006), Love in the Present Tense (2006), The Year of My Miraculous Reappearance (2007), Chasing Windmills (2008) and The Day I Killed James 2008).
The 1999 novel, Pay It Forward, has been translated into 20 languages for publication in more than 30 countries, and chosen among the Best Books for Young Adults 2001 by the American Library Association. Its 2000 film adaptation starred Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment.
Her 2006 novel, Love in the Present Tense, enjoyed bestseller status in the UK, where it broke the top ten, spent five weeks on the list, was reviewed on a major TV book club, and shortlisted for a Best Read of the Year award at the British Book Awards.
More than 45 of her short stories have been published in The Antioch Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sun, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and many other journals. Her story "Bloodlines" was reprinted in the bestselling anthology Dog is my Co-Pilot (2003).
Two of her stories have been honored in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. She received second place in the 1997 Bellingham Review Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. Nearly a dozen of her stories have been nominated for Best American Short Stories, The O’Henry Award and The Pushcart Prize. Three have been cited in Best American Short Stories anthologies.
She has served on the 1998 fiction fellowship panel of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and on the editorial staff of the Santa Barbara Review and Central Coast Magazine. She teaches workshops at the Santa Barbara, La Jolla and Central Coast Writers Conferences.
She is founder and president of the Pay It Forward Foundation. As a professional public speaker she has addressed the National Conference on Education, twice spoken at Cornell University, and met with Americorps members at the White House. (From Wikipedia.)
The story is a quick read, told with lean sentences and an edge.... Hyde pulls off a poignant, gutsy ending without bathos.
Los Angeles Times
The philosophy behind the book is so intriguing, and the optimism so contagious, that the reader is carried along with what turns out to be a book that lingers long after the last page is turned.
Eighth-grader Trevor is challenged by his social-studies teacher to do something that will change the world. And he does. His rule is to do one very good deed for three different people, telling them that rather than paying him back, they are to "pay it forward" to three others. When the numbers grow exponentially, The Movement starts and the world is changed. Hyde uses a variety of writing styles and techniques to present the story: a first-person account by Chris, the journalist who writes about The Movement; excerpts from his books; transcripts of his interviews; entries from Trevor's diary; and a third-person narration. The central character changes in these chapters as the story moves forward but these shifts are clear enough that most readers should not be confused. A short, unsavory sexual episode results in a violent, sacrificial ending that is softened somewhat through foreshadowing. (Young Adults) —Claudia Moore, W. T. Woodson High School, Fairfax, VA
School Library Journal
An ordinary boy engineers a secular miracle in Hyde's winning second novel, set in small-town 1990s California. Twelve-year-old Trevor McKinney, the son of Arlene, a single mom working two jobs, and Ricky, a deadbeat absentee dad, does not seem well-positioned to revolutionize the world. But when Trevor's social studies teacher, Reuben St. Clair, gives the class an extra-credit assignment, challenging his students to design a plan to change society, Trevor decides to start a goodwill chain. To begin, he helps out three people, telling each of them that instead of paying him back, they must "pay it forward" by helping three others. At first, nothing seems to work out as planned, not even Trevor's attempt to bring Arlene and Reuben together. Granted, Trevor's mother and his teacher are an unlikely couple: she is a small, white, attractive, determined but insecure recovering alcoholic; he is an educated black man who lost half his face in Vietnam. But eventually romance does blossom, and unbeknownst to Trevor, his other attempts to help do "pay forward," yielding a chain reaction of newsworthy proportions. Reporter Chris Chandler is the first to chase down the story, and Hyde's narrative is punctuated with excerpts from histories Chandler publishes in later years (Those Who Knew Trevor Speak and The Other Faces Behind the Movement), as well as entries from Trevor's journal. Trevor's ultimate martyrdom, and the extraordinary worldwide success of his project, catapult the drama into the realm of myth, but Hyde's simple prose rarely turns preachy. Her [Frank] Capra-esque theme, that one person can make a difference, may be sentimental, but for once, that's a virtue.
It started with a school assignment that a 12-year-old boy embraced, and it changed everything. When Reuben St. Clair wrote on the blackboard "Think of an Idea for World Change, and Put It Into Action," Trevor McKinney (who understood the concept of compounding) came up with the idea of Paying Forward. That is, he'll do something really good for three people, who, instead of paying him back, will be asked to pay it forwardAby aiding someone else. (And so on, and so on.) But hard as he tries, Trevor's projects seem to fail: a down-and-out stranger, financed by Trevor's paper route money, buys drink and drugs; widowed Mrs. Greenberg, whose beloved garden Trevor tends, dies; and Trevor's attempts at matchmaking his lonely teacher with his feisty single mother sparks then fizzles. But then, things take a turn for the better: provisions in Mrs. Greenberg's will keep the movement going and saving lives, and then a tenacious reporter tells the story. Even if the seed for this concept came from Lloyd Douglas's Magnificent Obsession, Hyde's (Earthquake Weather) book is still an uplifting, tear-jerking, and inspiring modern fable, with an extremely appealing young protagonist. For all reading audiences. —Michele Leber, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA
The buzz is big for this heartwarming, funny, and bittersweet story from Hyde (Funerals for Horses, not reviewed) about a teenager's plan to better the world. It all starts with a man and a boy. The man, Reuben St. Clair, a social-studies teacher who believes in positive thinking but whos also a badly disfigured, black Vietnam vet struggling daily with the way people look at him, assigns the following for extra credit: "Think of an idea for world change, and put it into action." The boy, Trevor McKinney, takes the assignment to heart, not only because his mother, Arlene, is battling with alcohol and his father's gone missing, but also because he likes Reuben and begins to think maybe his mom would too. Trevor develops a pyramid payback scheme of good deeds, with the flow of payment reversed, and starts by finding three people he believes he can help, each of whom pledges to help three others. The first, a homeless addict/mechanic, receives Trevor's paper-route earnings and a place to shower before a job interview, but then blows his first paycheck on cocaine and ends up in jail. The second, an elderly woman on the paper route, receives all the yard- and garden-work she needs for free, but later dies in her sleep. The third, Reuben and Arlene considered together as a dysfunctional unit, are brought together by Trevor so they can help each other out of loneliness and just maybe give him a dad in the bargain, but they mix like oil and water. Apparently negative results prove to be just the opposite, however, and, unbeknownst to Trevor, his project snowballs into a national phenomenon with no end in sight. Invited to Washington to be honored by President Clinton, Trevor decides to do one more good deed, a selfless act that again succeeds beyond his wildest expectations. A quiet, steady masterpiece, with an incandescent ending.
1. When Trevor first presents his Pay-It-Forward plan—as a way to change the world for the better—many dismiss it. Why? What does their dismissal say about Trevor's plan and what does it say about those wrote it off? Would you have dismissed Pay-It-Forward? (Be objective—pretend you've just learned of Trevor's project for the first time. What would have been your initial reaction?)
2. Eventually, Pay-It-Forward begins to work, creating a chain reaction and becoming a Movement. Why does the concept take hold? What is it about the plan that inspires people? Describe its basic idea and give it another name (rather than pay-it-forward).
3. Talk about Reuben St. Claire. What kind of teacher is he...and what kind of human being? Why might the author have created a character with a severe facial disfigurement? And what's the irony behind the name, St. Claire? Does he live up to his name?
4. What about Arlene, Trevor's mother? What kind of character is she? What does Trevor see in her that makes him believe, at heart, that she's a worthy individual who deserves better than she's got.
5. The story is told through various point-of-view devices: first- and third-person narrators, book excerpts, interview transcripts, journal entries, and central character shifts. Do Hyde's narrative techniques work? Do they enhance the story or make it confusing? Why might she have chosen to structure the novel in the way she did?
6. What about the book's ending? Sad, yes, but satisfying? Does Trevor become a martyr? Would you have preferred a different ending?
7. The figure of Chris, the journalist, and his role in the Movement is curious. Given our media culture, would Trevor's Pay-it-Forward plan have become a Movement without media attention? Will people recognize the inherent goodness of something, give it significance, unless it's surrounded by hype or media saturation? (A cynical, but perhaps an important, question.) Can you find examples either way?
8. If you were asked to come up with a project to make the world a better place...what ideas would you come up with?
9. Do you personally follow the Pay-it-Forward philosophy? Does this book inspire you—make you more aware of what you, individually, or all of us, collectively, could do—to improve the world?
10. Is this a religious book?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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