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, September 28, 2010

Feldman, Jody. The Seventh Level. Greenwillow Books, 2010 (3 stars out of 4).

I have long been disturbed by the idea of secret societies. From powerful ones like the neocon-based Federalist Society, to secret ones like the Masons and Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code-inspired Illuminati, to potentially fictional (but real-sounding) ones like Thomas Pynchon’s Tristero from the modern classic The Crying of Lot 49, I am disturbed by people’s need to publicly meet secretly. After all, I meet with my friends for board games every Thursday, but we don’t wear robes and perform time-honored rituals, unless mocking each other’s bald heads and lack of elegant, jet-setting lives can be considered ritualistic and not just corny, middle-aged attempts at humor. When Jody Feldman, author of The Seventh Level, introduced The Legend, a secret society at the protagonist’s middle school, I got nervous. However, Ms. Feldman makes it clear that she intends only good works and feelings to emanate from her quest to belong to the most secret (and cool!) society a middle school would ever want or need.

Travis Raines is used to trouble. He is not a bad kid but problems seem to follow him like a bad penny. After being blamed for a prank he did not do, one of his two best friends Matti explains to him why he always seems to be under suspicion: “’You know why,’ she says. ‘You draw attention to yourself, so you’re a perfect target. And you never get into big trouble, so people don’t feel guilty about aiming at you’” (105). So when this pre-growth-spurt 7th grader at St. Louis’s Lauer Middle School (he’s still 4’6” while the rest of the world seems to be growing faster) gets a note from what looks the super-secret organization The Legend, he is both excited and suspicious. The Legend mysteriously sponsors and organizes the coolest activities ever conducted at a middle school, like cash grabs in glass booths, appearances by rock stars, and most importantly, fun but necessary food drives for those in need. The Legend seems to be sending him math and critical thinking puzzles to solve and offering him a road to membership, but unfortunately, when he makes progress on these challenges, Randall the school bully makes things tough on Travis, and every time Travis tries to follow the Legend’s directions, he seems to land in Mrs. Pinchon the disciplinarian’s office. However, as Travis gets more involved in his application for the Legend, he starts wondering if this “application” is actually the school bullies setting Travis up to get punked and in some real trouble he cannot cleverly talk his way out of, despite Mrs. Pinchon’s warnings that things are not always as they appear.

I like Travis Raines, and I know several shining examples of Travis at both of my schools. He is likable because his heart is pure despite his actions being somewhat less pristine, and he is charming in both his defeats and his victories. The plot’s pace picks up well as the story continues, and I am confident that my middle schoolers will appreciate the way Travis both solves the critical thinking problems (after, I hope, my students solve them on their own) and gradually discerns the truth about his future path. Also, there are enough twists and turns in the storyline to keep interested middle schoolers reasonably occupied as Travis contemplates whether he is capable of and worthy of the honor that seems to be bestowed upon him. However, do not look for creativity and originality in this work: Travis’s story is not unique, and his charm and charisma do not completely lift this pedestrian plot out of its mediocre design and execution. Like The Princess Plot by Kirsten Boie, The Seventh Level by Jody Feldman is fun and occasionally exciting, but seldom original or challenging.

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