Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Daneshvari, Gitty. School of Fear. Little, Brown & Co, 2009. 339 pages (2 stars out of 4)

There is something exciting about the release of a new Pixar film. I particularly like movies such as Toy Story, Ratatouille, and Finding Nemo because I know I am part of the target demographic, not just my kids. When Mr. Potato Head rearranges his face and shouts, “Look at me, I’m a Picasso,” the joke just flies right past my kids’ heads while I give a knowing chuckle. Beavis and Butthead may have been funny, but not to me. I was an outsider to the marketers’ intended audience; the characters were not versatile enough to appeal to teenagers and me. Unfortunately, School of Fear by Gitty Daneshvari strikes me as more like our “heh-heh-heh” growling friends than like Ed Asner and that boy scout in Up: the novel’s predictable plot and spoiled, hackneyed characters do not resonate in my literary sensibilities. However, like many books reviewed here, that does not mean that your students will not like it.

Madeleine, Theo, Lulu, and Garrison are all super-wealthy kids with a problem: each possesses and clings to a paralyzing phobia. When each of the families are told, in great secrecy, about an exclusive, expensive, guaranteed school to cure their children, the parents are generally elated, but this school is unlike any other. When Madeleine Masterson’s parents are told about the fabled School of Fear, Maddie’s school counselor privately describes the most unusual school: “Mrs. Kleiner explained that School of Fear is an exceedingly exclusive program run by the elusive Mrs. Wellington; it is actually so select that few people are even aware of its existence . . . rigorous background checks are performed on both candidates and families. These background checks are so thorough that Mrs. Wellington often learns information that belies logic” (17). At first, Maddie’s fear of spiders and bugs, Lulu’s fear of closed spaces, Theo’s fear of mortality, and Garrison’s fear of water not only seemingly cripple the students, they also create conflict among them. However, to survive the school’s eccentric headmistress, her odd assistant Schmidty, and the mysterious Munchauser, the 12- and 13-year-olds must find a way to work together to conquer all of their fears and shared problems, not only their phobias.

I hesitate to criticize this book too harshly because I know that its target audience has not seen and read this story as often as I have. Students may appreciate the perceived peril of the characters, and they may feel the characters’ discomfort as they struggle through their problems. Also, the author cleverly lists the words for different phobias at the beginning of each chapter with a picture hinting at the new chapter’s action. However, I did not feel the desire to share the characters’ journey. The four young adults are spoiled brats until the end, and even then, three out of the four are not particularly likable. Of course, I do not have to like characters to appreciate them (I don’t like Steinbeck’s George, but I never question my appreciation for his sacrifice or Of Mice and Men’s greatness as a novel), but these characters are not developed enough to become important to me. Their pampered lives are never at stake (we know rich kids don’t die in today’s novels; think of the legal ramifications!) and their change is too formulaic. Maybe my students watch Karate Kid and are shocked by the ending, but I expected the crane kick all along. School of Fear by Gitty Daneshvari is not poorly-written, just uninspiring. It may appeal to Lemony Snicket or Spiderwick fans, but I will not strongly recommend it to on-level sixth or seventh graders. This novel may be best used as a high-low selection for upper middle school or high school.

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