Balzer + Bray
When impulsive middle schooler and underachiever Donovan Curtis accidentally causes thousands of dollars in damage to his school’s gym, he needs a place to hide from the superintendent bent on bringing him to justice. Donovan’s wish comes true when an acceptance letter from the Academy for Scholastic Distinction lands in his mailbox, a clerical error having sent him to a school full of geniuses. It’s clear from the beginning that he is not particularly gifted or even smart, but he brings some much needed levity to the Academy. He names the robotics team’s robot Tin Man Metallica Squarepants, joins the robotics team as Tin Man’s driver thanks to years of video game experience, and saves the geniuses from mandatory summer school when yet another oversight by the school district threatens to bring them up short on their Health and Human Development (basically sex ed) credit. Donovan can’t hide forever, but as the “normal” savior of his Academy class, he has the help of his new friends to stretch his time at the Academy out as long as possible. The story is told from many points of view – students, teachers, Donovan’s sister Katie – in alternating chapters, but the voices are not very distinct from one another, relying mostly on gimmicky chapter titles to differentiate which character is narrating. Narration issues aside, the story has a lot of heart and an imperfect ending that is just right for these characters.
While the book was so-so for me, I can see it really resonating with kids like Donovan – reluctant readers, underachievers, pranksters. Korman lays on the normal-kid worship pretty thick with Academy students and teachers claiming that Donovan “brought us to life” and “without him nothing worked” and even that they “don’t deserve Donovan” at the Academy. On the other hand, how often do you see an underdog kid getting so much praise and appreciation from teachers and the gifted students? Normally they are getting in trouble, being told no, or being didactically presented as someone who needs to change or who is not worthy of praise. Instead the reader is told that all kids have value, even the troublemakers, and that is a message I can get behind.
I also have to commend Korman for the way he wrote Katie, Donovan’s sister. She is in her 20s, pregnant, and living with her parents while her husband is fighting in Afghanistan. Some books have addressed the effects of the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but not nearly enough compared to the number of real life families actually affected. Katie was not the focus of the book obviously, but her presence and the story behind her character are an important inclusion that I really enjoyed and appreciated and that I think military families will appreciate too.
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Chomp by Carl Hiaasen
Hank Zipzer series by Henry Winkler (for a slightly younger audience than Ungifted)