Sunday, September 12, 2010

Schooled, a book review

, by Gordon Korman, is a middle school book with humor and heart. Cap and his grandmother Rain are the last two members of a sixties-style commune named Garland, where they live without money, television, or other trappings of the competitive, materialistic life Rain disdains. Homeschooled, Cap hardly knows any other people until the day Rain breaks her hip falling from the plum tree and he drives her to the hospital. While she’s recovering in a rehab facility, he’s taken in by a social worker and attends a school named Craverage (or, as the kids prefer, C Average) middle school.

Cap’s pacifism, trustfulness, and general naivete make him completely unprepared for the social jungle of middle school, where the cool kids immediately target him as the greatest loser ever. Bullying can get to be a tiresome theme in middle school fiction, but these bullies have some imagination: besides lodging spitballs in his long hair and leaving disgusting things in his locker, they arrange for Cap to be elected school president. Once he's elected, they continually summon him to bogus press conferences to explain how he’s going to solve class problems.

Earnest and friendly, Cap never takes offense. Told the president’s job is to learn the name of all 1100 kids in the school, he sets out to do so. He wears tie dye shirts and corn husk sandals, practices tai chi in the courtyard, endures the disgusted insults of his foster sister, and watches a TV soap opera for clues on how school really works. Before long, he starts to win other students over, but that’s before he gets hold of the student activities checkbook and starts giving away all the money meant for the Halloween dance.

The story of a na├»ve, good-hearted homeschooled student entering the fishbowl of public school may remind readers of Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl, and with good reason, but there are differences. Cap is really something of a holy fool, transforming the people around him. Instead of having a single narrator, Schooled has multiple narrators taking different chapters: Cap, the social workerwho takes him in, her daughter, the tormentor and head jock, the former dweebiest kid in the school, a popular girl, and even the principal. Second, while Stargirl’s popularity rises and falls, Cap’s travels pretty much in one direction, without Spinelli’s overtones of loss and regret.

I know a teacher who read this book aloud to her seventh grade class. It’s a good choice. Funny, thoughtful, and cleverly observed, Gordon Korman's Schooled is well worth the time of a reader 10 to 14 years old.

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