Cover image for The seventh most important thing
The seventh most important thing

First edition.
Physical Description:
278 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Reading Level:
760 L Lexile
"In 1963, thirteen-year-old Arthur is sentenced to community service helping the neighborhood Junk Man after he throws a brick at the old man's head in a moment of rage, but the junk he collects might be more important than he suspects. Inspired by the work of American folk artist James Hampton"--


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One Kid. One Crime. One Chance to Make Things Right. It was a bitterly cold day when Arthur T. Owens grabbed a brick and hurled it at the trash picker. Arthur had his reasons, and the brick hit the Junk Man in the arm, not the head. But none of that matters to the judge-he is ready to send Arthur to juvie for the foreseeable future. Amazingly, it's the Junk Man himself who offers an alternative- 120 hours of community service . . . working for him. Arthur is given a rickety shopping cart and a list of the Seven Most Important Things- glass bottles, foil, cardboard, pieces of wood, lightbulbs, coffee cans, and mirrors. He can't believe it-is he really supposed to rummage through people's trash? But it isn't long before Arthur realizes there's more to the Junk Man than meets the eye, and the "trash" he's collecting is being transformed into something more precious than anyone could imagine. . . . Inspired by the work of American folk artist James Hampton, award-winning author Shelley Pearsall has crafted an affecting and redemptive novel about discovering what shines within us all, even when life seems full of darkness.

Author Notes

A former teacher and museum historian, SHELLEY PEARSALL is now a full-time author. The idea for this novel began many years ago when she first saw outsider artist James Hampton's amazing work at the Smithsonian. She was disappointed that so little is known about Hampton and was intrigued that his work was brought to light by anonymous sources. It was the perfect foundation for this redemptive, inspiring historical novel. Her first novel, Trouble Don't Last, won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. To learn more about the author and her work, visit

Reviews 4

Horn Book Review

After hurling a brick at the "Junk Man," thirteen-year-old Arthur is sentenced to community service helping the local trash-picker rummage for items for his artistic masterpiece. The punishment not only helps the dying artist, but also helps Arthur cope with his father's death. Set in 1963, Pearsall's semi-biographical story of little-known folk artist James Hampton delicately addresses redemption through art, friendship, and understanding. (c) Copyright 2016. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Gr 4-7-A middle school student learns the meaning of redemption in this excellent coming-of-age story. For the rest of the country, it was the year President Kennedy was assassinated. For Arthur Owens, it would always be the year his Dad died. Arthur is struggling to adapt. When he sees his Dad's hat being worn by the neighborhood "Junk Man," it is just too much. Arthur isn't a bad kid, but he picks up that brick and throws it just the same. The judge pronounces a "highly unconventional sentence." At the behest of the victim James Hampton, the "Junk Man," Arthur must spend every weekend of his community service helping to complete Hampton's artistic masterpiece. Inspired by real life artist James Hampton's life and work, "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly," the plot avoids overt religious tones and sticks with the exploration of friendship, love, and life's most important lessons. From the "Junk Man's" neighbor, Groovy Jim, to no-nonsense Probation Officer Billie to Arthur's new best pal Squeak, and even his family, Pearsall has struck just the right tone by imbuing her well-rounded, interesting characters with authentic voices and pacing the action perfectly. Give this to fans of Wendy Mass's Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life (Little, Brown, 2006) and Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts (Penguin, 2004). Reluctant readers may be intimidated by the page count, but a booktalk or read-aloud with this title should change their minds. VERDICT A recommended purchase for all libraries.-Cindy Wall, Southington Library & Museum, CT © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Pearsall's latest historical novel, set around the time of JFK's assassination, shifts its focus away from the familiar topics, instead focusing inward on the main character's redemption. When Arthur T. Owens hurls a brick at the local trash picker, James Hampton, whom he spies wearing his recently deceased father's hat, he receives a most unusual sentence: 120 hours of community service with the Junk Man himself. Toting Hampton's list of the seven most important things, Arthur reluctantly scavenges, unsure of the purpose of wood, lightbulbs, coffee cans, foil, mirrors, glass bottles, and cardboard, until he discovers what James does with them. In the garage is the Junk Man's shiny, thronelike masterpiece, which he calls The Throne of the Third Heaven. Readers will be moved by Arthur's growth, as he forms an attachment to the man to whom he initially gave so little thought, as well as by his dedication to saving the folk artist's prized work after his death. Though fictionalized, Pearsall shines a light on Hampton, an amazing, lesser-known artist whose pieces are housed in the Smithsonian Museum, with an author's note detailing the true story. A moving exploration of how there is often so much more than meets the eye.--Barnes, Jennifer Copyright 2015 Booklist

Kirkus Review

Traumatized by his father's recent death, a boy throws a brick at an old man who collects junk in his neighborhood and winds up on probation working for him.Pearsall bases the book on a famed real work of folk art, the Throne of the Third Heaven, by James Hampton, a janitor who built his work in a garage in Washington, D.C., from bits of light bulbs, foil, mirrors, wood, bottles, coffee cans, and cardboardthe titular seven most important things. In late 1963, 13-year-old Arthur finds himself looking for junk for Mr. Hampton, who needs help with his artistic masterpiece, begun during World War II. The book focuses on redemption rather than art, as Hampton forgives the fictional Arthur for his crime, getting the boy to participate in his work at first reluctantly, later with love. Arthur struggles with his anger over his father's death and his mother's new boyfriend. Readers watch as Arthur transfers much of his love for his father to Mr. Hampton and accepts responsibility for saving the art when it becomes endangered. Written in a homespun style that reflects the simple components of the artwork, the story guides readers along with Arthur to an understanding of the most important things in life. Luminescent, just like the artwork it celebrates. (Historical fiction. 10-14) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.



One On a bitter November day in Washington, D.C., when everything felt metallic--when the sky was gray and the wind stung and the dry leaves were making death-rattle sounds in the alleys--thirteen-year-old Arthur Owens picked up a brick from the corner of a crumbling building and threw it at an old man's head. It wasn't an accident. The brick didn't topple off the decrepit building. It didn't fall from the heavens. Arthur Owens grabbed the brick with his own hands. He held it for a minute, noticing the cold weight of it--and then he raised his arm and flung it at the old trash picker known as the Junk Man, who was pushing a rusty grocery cart down the street. Lucky for Arthur Owens, it was a windy day and his ability to see things at a distance had never been good. Also, the front wheel of the grocery cart wobbled off the sidewalk at precisely the right moment. As the old man leaned to straighten the cart, Arthur's brick slammed into his shoulder, sending him crumpling to the ground and the grocery cart skidding into the street. If it hadn't been for the wind and the wobbly cart and Arthur's bad aim, it could have been a lot worse, everybody said. In the hospital later, the Junk Man told a newspaper reporter he believed it was an act of God. "You being saved?" the reporter asked, already jotting down the answer he expected to hear. "No" was the Junk Man's odd reply. "Me being hit." Those were the facts. On November 9, 1963, the story ran in all three of the city's newspapers. One headline read: THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD BOY ATTACKS CITY MAN. Then, in smaller type below, it said: Man Saved by Good Samaritan. Most people didn't care much about the facts, though. They didn't care about the particular place where the crime happened--not a bad neighborhood, but not a good one either. Or how a newspaper delivery truck driver who'd taken a wrong turn spotted the injured man on the sidewalk and rushed him to a nearby hospital. What everybody wanted to know was why. Arthur Owens spent three weeks in the Juvenile Detention Home, better known as juvie, asking himself the same question. Two A lot happened during the three weeks Arthur was locked up--the worst being that President Kennedy was killed. Then the guy who killed President Kennedy was killed. And then the Thanksgiving holiday passed by without much mention in juvie or anywhere else. Arthur didn't mind missing it. Along with the rest of the world, he didn't have much to be thankful for. Four days after Thanksgiving, Arthur was brought to the courthouse for the hearing that would decide his fate. He was seated in a long row of bad kids, so he figured it was going to be a while. Unfortunately, the judge assigned to hear Arthur Owens's case was not a listening sort of man. Judge Philip Warner liked his billowy black robe and the sound of his own voice too much. He reminded Arthur of those big horseflies that get stuck in your window in the summertime and buzz like mad and won't quit no matter what you do. As the morning dragged on, the temperature in the courtroom rose. If Arthur had ever wondered what the fires of hell were like, Judge Warner's courtroom was giving him a pretty good idea. People who had come in wearing their winter coats and wool suit jackets were down to their shirtsleeves. Arthur kept his suit jacket neatly buttoned and his sleeves down. He knew it was what his mom would want. Doing his best to stay awake, he tried to focus on the walls of the courtroom, which were covered with vertical panels of grooved wood. Arthur thought maybe the design was supposed to make the room appear sleek and modern, but the longer he stared at the panels, the more they seemed to ripple in sickening waves. He began to believe that even the walls had been designed as a kind of punishment. The combination of all these things--the swimming walls, the heat, the sweat, and the judge's endless voice--made him feel as if he just might puke when his turn finally came. "Arthur T. Owens, approach the bench," the bailiff called out. It was only a few steps from his chair to the judge's bench, but to Arthur it felt like miles. He could sense the breathing, sweaty mass of people behind him the way you sense the weight of bullies right before they're about to smash you into a wall of lockers at school. There had been a lot of bullies in juvie--it was practically a bully vacation spot. No doubt some of the people in the courtroom were surprised to see what Arthur Owens looked like as he walked to the front. He wasn't your typical juvie thug. He didn't have meat slabs for hands, or full facial hair, or an insolent grin. He thought he could hear a few whispers behind him. "That's him?" Arthur Owens was slender, pale, and moody-looking. Maybe he was a little taller than some thirteen-year-olds--his father had been tall--but mostly, he was someone who wouldn't get noticed walking down the street. When his brown hair flopped over his eyes, Arthur had the bad habit of leaving it there, which drove his mother crazy. He also didn't smile much. As Arthur glanced nervously at the long row of juvenile delinquents, he could tell he was one of the youngest of all the young criminals waiting on the judge that day. And from what he could see, he was the only person who was wearing an almost-new funeral suit that didn't fit him very well. Three Judge Warner took a moment to study Arthur Owens when he reached the bench. It was his way of making the kids squirm. As the judge glared at him, Arthur tried to decide what to do with his hands and feet, which suddenly seemed to be completely useless objects. He crossed and uncrossed his arms, shifted from one foot to the other, and did his best to ignore the sickening flip-flopping in his stomach. Sweat made his undershirt stick to his back. The judge finally spoke after glancing down at a piece of paper handed to him by the bailiff. "You are Arthur Thomas Owens?" "Yes," Arthur thought he said. "I didn't hear you, young man." "Yes, Your Honor," Arthur replied, slightly louder. "Look up at me when you are speaking." Arthur swallowed. He hated looking at people when he was speaking. It made him feel like they could X-ray every thought in his head. Usually, he had his hair to hide behind, but that morning his mother had taken a pair of scissors to the front of it. "To make you look less guilty," she'd told him. Arthur didn't think his hair had anything to do with his guilt, but there was nothing left now but a jagged fringe high above his forehead. He tugged at it with his fingers. "Okay," he mumbled, glancing up at the judge's thick round glasses and oddly magnified eyes, then looking back down at his feet. There was a long pause, as if the judge was trying to decide if he was entitled to more respect than he was getting. The room was quiet, expectant. When the judge's gaze finally returned to the paper in his hands, Arthur held back a loud sigh of relief. "According to what I've read about your case, I understand you attacked a man named James Hampton in a vicious and unprovoked manner on November eighth. Is that correct, Mr. Owens?" Arthur blinked, momentarily confused by the name. James Hampton? Who was James Hampton? It took him a minute to figure out the judge was talking about the old Junk Man. Arthur tried not to look surprised by the fact that the man had a real name. Everybody had a name, of course, but he had to admit he'd never thought about the Junk Man having one. He couldn't recall anybody in the neighborhood ever using it--especially not a name as formal-sounding as James Hampton, which could have belonged to a school principal or somebody's grandfather. It definitely didn't make Arthur feel any better about what he'd done. It also didn't make him feel better to find out that the Junk Man--James Hampton--had come to court that day to watch what happened. He was seated in the crowd only a few rows back from where Arthur stood. The judge pointed him out. A shocked breath caught in Arthur's throat. He didn't even look like the same person. The Junk Man's gray-white hair, usually disheveled, was now close-cut and carefully trimmed. He wasn't wearing his familiar raggedy clothes and foggy eyeglasses either. Instead, he had on a neatly pressed brown suit and striped orange tie. Somehow he appeared taller. And less crazy. But you couldn't miss the heavy white cast covering one arm and the sling of fabric that formed a triangle, almost like the letter A for Arthur, across the old man's chest. Arthur swallowed hard, staring at the cast, staring at what he'd done. The A seemed to get more visible, more accusing, the longer he stared at it. "Mr. Owens, I'll repeat my question. Are you the one who attacked Mr. Hampton?" "Yes, sir," Arthur whispered. "Then I want you to look at this innocent man you injured--and, quite frankly, could have killed," the judge continued. There was a murmur of outraged agreement in the courtroom. "And I want you to tell me what was going through your mind that afternoon," said the judge, his voice rising. He was proud of his intimidating, kid-shaking baritone. "I want to know exactly what could have compelled you to throw a brick at Mr. Hampton as he was minding his own business walking down the street." Arthur was silent. He looked at his feet. The too-long funeral pants made pools of black fabric over his polished shoes. He noticed how the orange carpet below them was nearly the same shade as the Junk Man's tie. He wondered if he'd be sentenced to jail for life if he refused to give a reason for what he'd done. "Did you attack Mr. Hampton because he looked like a helpless old man--pardon my choice of words," the judge added apologetically, glancing in the direction of the Junk Man. "Did he seem like an easy target to you?" "No, sir," Arthur heard himself answer reluctantly. "Were you attempting to rob him?" Arthur shook his head. Robbing the Junk Man would have been an almost-funny statement in any other place, but he didn't dare laugh, not even inside his own head. "Was it his color that caused you to attack him?" Color? Confused, Arthur turned to look at the Junk Man again, not sure what color the judge was referring to. Was he talking about the white cast? The orange tie? The judge grew more impatient. "I am asking you, young man--and this is a very serious question--did you throw the brick at him because he is a black man?" What? Arthur's stomach gave a sickening lurch. This was a possibility he'd never thought about. Never in a million years considered. He could feel his heart thudding wildly, his mind racing. The Junk Man wasn't a color. He was just the Junk Man. But the man's skin was light brown. That was a fact. And Arthur's was peeled-onion white. That was a fact too. He'd just never put those two facts together. Arthur knew people's race wasn't something you messed around with. There were marches and protests about it on television all the time--and Arthur didn't even pay much attention to the news. Could the judge truly believe he'd been trying to stir up some kind of trouble by hitting the Junk Man? Although he had sworn to himself that he would say nothing--that he would never talk about what had made him so angry on that November afternoon--Arthur had no choice. His father wouldn't have wanted him to stay silent and be accused of something far worse. So Arthur licked his dry lips and spoke. "Your Honor," he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. "It wasn't his color." The judge's reply was icy. "Then what was it?" Arthur knew the answer would sound crazy to everyone in the room. He knew no one would understand, and it would probably earn him a permanent bunk in juvie with nothing but olive-green clothes and bad food and lukewarm showers for the rest of his life. Looking down at the floor, Arthur said in a barely audible voice, "It was because of his hat, Your Honor." While this might have seemed like a smart-aleck answer to the judge, to the courtroom, and to anyone who heard it, it was, in fact, the truth. Arthur had thrown the brick because of a hat. Four The hat in question had been missing from the hall closet, along with everything else that had belonged to his father, when Arthur got home from school that November day. It was November 8, just as the judge had said. A Friday. Arthur remembered opening the closet to hang up his stuff. He'd just taken off his coat and tossed his shoes inside when he realized something was different. The closet was tidy and half empty. It smelled like Murphy's oil soap. With his heart hammering in his chest, he began pushing through the coats that were left, searching for his father's old corduroy jacket. It was a big, faded coat that held the shape of his father's shoulders and smelled of stale cigarette smoke and beer and motor oil, as if he'd just taken it off after getting home from work. (Arthur still liked to imagine that he had.) Nothing. Arthur's eyes darted toward the row of hat pegs, looking for the motorcycle cap that had belonged to his father. It was one of those slick Harley-Davidson caps--black leather with a silver chain and the orange-winged logo on the brim. If you wanted to find Tom Owens in a crowd, all you had to do was look for that cap, sitting slightly to one side--never straight, always jaunty. He was wearing it in nearly every picture the family had of him. But except for the one with his little sister's pink knit hat, all of the pegs were empty. Feeling more and more uneasy, Arthur pounded up the stairs to his parents' room, making the walls of the small house shake. He and his sister shared one room at the top of the stairs. His parents shared the other. Both rooms were shabby. Arthur's family had never had a lot of money. The door to his parents' room stood open. Arthur saw that the old radio his dad used to listen to ball games on was missing. The wedding picture that had always been on his parents' wall was gone. Even the ashtray on the windowsill--the one he'd made for his dad in art class in third grade, a hideous green-and-blue swirl of clay--wasn't there. Excerpted from The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.