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.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Grant, Michael. The Magnificent 12 Book One: The Call. Katherine Tegen Books, 2010. 243 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-06-183366-3. This book is for grades 5 to 8, or ages 10 to 14, depending on reading level (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

There is no shortage of fantasy on the YA shelves in late 2010. The Harry Potter/Twilight phenomenon has spawned a whole cast (all puns intended to the work of P. C. Cast, one of the most popular fantasy authors in my middle school library) of second generation wizards and vampire-wolf-zombies, and I would speak more about them if I knew more. However, frequent readers of this column know that I do not review much fantasy because I do not like it. I comprehend fantasy’s popularity, I respect its quality authors, and I buy a healthy amount of new and classic fantasy for my students, but like ballet and cooked spinach, I understand their importance but I do not appreciate them. I make no apologies for my likes and dislikes, but I try my best to be fair when a new series comes along that I could review. I am always surprised when I like a fantasy, but The Call, the first book of the new series The Magnificent 12 by Michael Grant, is the kind of work that everyone can like: it is funny, its characters are charming even when they are unsuccessful, and an unlikely hero a la The Karate Kid gets to be a star, even though he is seemingly an ordinary kid.

David “Mack” MacAvoy does not want or need to be a hero. Frankly, he does not believe he could handle it anyway; he is mediocre in every way, surely not the stuff of heroes. However, even though he is medium regular in seemingly every way, there is another side to him that will eventually save his life: “His eyes were brown, too, which is the most common eye color in the world. But there was something else about his eyes. They were eyes that noticed things. Mack didn’t miss much” (3). After nearly getting killed by the guild of bullies at Sedona’ Arizona’s Richard Gere Middle School, he saves the life and arm of Stefan Marr, king bully, who misses Mack with a punch and instead punches a window. Shortly thereafter, a strange man named Grimluk informs Mack that he is actually a member of the Magnifica, a group of twelve guardians who have kept the Pale Queen and her minions trapped for 3,000 years. Grimluk is the last of the old guard, and Mack is charged with finding and assembling the new twelve so they can re-defeat the Pale Queen, aka the Dread Foe, and her evil but alluring daughter, Princess Ereskigal. Stefan the bully decides that Mack is now “under his wing” and he becomes Mack’s protector. Mack is mysteriously provided a replacement for himself at home, a Golem made of mud that looks and sounds exactly like Mack, so Grimluk implores Mack to enlist his newfound brethren around the world: “‘You must go! Now! For the enemy has your scent, and although the Dread Foe is still bound within her subterranean lair, her minions [six races of monsters] run riot” (87). Mack must save the world from an enemy he does not know with a group of people he has never met, traveling with his former bully across the world at age twelve. Who know life could be so exciting for “ordinary” people?

This book is a funny, clever romp and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It is clearly the first in a series that could get as prolific as the Series of Unfortunate Events. Mr. Grant has Lemony Snicket’s love of language and sarcasm, two passions students have demonstrated they enjoy. The Golem starts a great feature about halfway through the book in which he begins a journal of his experiences that the audience gets to see; it is dramatic irony at its most hilarious, and one can just imagine what will happen to Mack when he attempts to return to his “normal” life and replaces his Golem. Mack is a perfect Everyman, a regular guy asked to be extraordinary and trying his darnedest to not let the world down. Cliffhangers and/or the Golem’s journal entries help to propel each chapter end, while colorful enemies dot the book’s landscape and give Mack a reason to feel more empowered; each day he lives, he figures he just might be better than the bad guys. The back story is effectively woven into the story with humorous flashbacks of Grimluk’s childhood so that the insanity Mack feels is not as insane in the mind of the reader. Also, if an elegant and sophisticated website is the sign of a good book (www.themag12.com) then this is the best work of the millennium; the website is very cool. Michael Grant has created a winner in The Magnificent 12; I hope he can maintain the pace and humor levels enough to last through all twelve participants.

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Barnes, Derrick. We Could Be Brothers. Scholastic Press, 2010. 164 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-13573-3. This book is for grades 6 to 8, or ages 12 to 14, depending on reading level. This is an excellent high-low selection, rated 4.4 reading level (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

I have frequently lamented our lack of good high-low fiction, especially for boys and especially for people of color, but last month’s The Cruisers by Walter Dean Myers and this month’s We Could Be Brothers by Kansas City’s Derrick Barnes have given me hope. However, I had an intriguing problem while reading Mr. Barnes’ engaging short novel: I did not know all of the slang. I was suddenly back in college English class, reading the first page of James Joyce’s Ulysses and trying to figure out what “Chrysostomos” is. When the two main characters in We Could Be Brothers talk about giving each other “dap,” I have no idea what they mean. I assume my students know what they mean, but it bothers and intrigues me that I do not. I could probably infer the meaning of it, but I found myself caught off-guard; Mr. Barnes either has his laptop firmly on the pulse of the youth of America, or he is using last year’s “in” words and comes across as corny. I like the experience of treading on new linguistic ground, and I will ask some of my middle schoolers if “dap” means what I think it means. I applaud Mr. Barnes for giving his characters authentic voices; at least, they sound authentic to me. Although their actions are sometimes too pat and pleasing to the continuity and message of the storyline, at least they do not sound like me trying to sound like I am an urban 13-year-old.

Robeson Battlefield wonders if he will ever see Kansas City’s Alain Locke Middle School again after his bad fortune: Robeson has been assigned to dreaded Post-School Suspension for three days. He must travel down the Bermuda Hallway to a dusty, dingy room in which he must sort papers for the unpleasant and insensitive Mr. Patt. However, it turns out that one of PSS’s mainstays, tough-guy-type Pacino Clapton, may not be as street as he seems. And Rosilyn, who shares her Literature class, is fine, in the most attractive sense of the word. When the three middle schoolers start to know each other, they discover that one thing separating them is language. For example, Robeson refuses to be called the N word and substituting “brotha” seems plastic to Pacino; however, he agrees: “Pacino looked at me like he couldn’t care less. ‘Whatever, brotha. That just ain’t the way I get down. But if you want me to call you brotha, I will. Nobody will believe we’re really brothas anyway’” (59-60). Difficult at first, and coming from “different sides of the tracks” the boys nevertheless begin to form an unlikely friendship, partially because of a mutual enemy, the troubled and dangerous Tariq Molten, bad news even to the street-wise Pacino: “‘Tariq’s mama’s an alcoholic. He’s had about ten stepdaddies, and I hear that almost all of them whupped his butt on the daily . . . Every now and then, his grandma will come get him, I hear. But then he’ll do something stupid again and end up right back in trouble. I think even his granny has given up on him’” (65). Although neither young man will admit his fear, both of them know that tangling with Tariq is not in anyone’s best interest, and both of them know the confrontation will eventually occur. However, Robeson may have a surprise or two up his sleeve, rendering him less helpless than he appears, and Pacino may not be as tough and fearsome as the image he portrays to the world.

Mr. Barnes’ new effort is a solid read, drawing readers into the characters’ very different worlds seamlessly. Character development is a bit slow, but the action is fast-paced and exciting. The themes of empowerment, personal and neighborhood responsibility, and staying true to oneself are modeled well, and refreshingly, with the exception of Tariq’s family and the PSS teacher, the adults act like adults you would want to hang out at the barber shop and kibbitz with. They form an action group to assist in the community and are respected by most folks in town. They are parents to emulate, not fear or abhor. Although I feel that the story wraps up a little too nicely and the once imperfect parts by the end seem a little too new and improved, We Could Be Brothers by Derrick Barnes presents an excellent model for an exemplary way to live and lead: take care of yourself and take care of your brothers, and remember that everyone is your brother.

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