ROAST MULES?

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Way back in the dark ages–way before the advent of the iPhone, the iPad, or the iAnything–Scrabble was a popular pastime. Yes, we’re talking about the board game with its smooth little wooden rectangles of letters, pulled randomly from an opaque maroon velvet bag and used to spell out words crossword-style.

Kids today know this as Words With Friends, and we’ll admit it:  it’s still addictive. But the WWF app greatly simplifies the game of Scrabble. Gone is the requirement of having a bodacious vocabulary; the app itself will politely notify you if a word you’re trying to play is valid or not, and there’s no penalty for trying to play a completely frabjous word like jabberwocky. True Scrabble aficionados will tell you that Words With Friends is not Scrabble. But we digress.

Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, requires its reader to contemplate the game in its original form–using a combination of the luck of the draw and the calculated ability to manipulate letters, all without the outside help of a dictionary or an online monitor. An expansive vocabulary is a must, obviously, as is a working knowledge of the tricks of the trade–the “qats” and “hmms” and other acceptable oddities that help one rack up points. Scrabble is a brainy game for brainy people.

But what if one of those variables is taken off the table? What if you could plunge your hand into that velvet bag and read the tiles before you drew them? If you’ve mastered the other aspects of the game, then this seemingly impossible talent takes it to a new level. You can’t lose. And in the world of competitive Scrabble, this, of course, is the whole goal.

Seventh grader Duncan Dorfman has this power (or is it a weakness?). When the Drilling Falls Middle School Scrabble Club’s kingpin Carl discovers it, he knows he’s found his partner for the upcoming national Youth Scrabble Tournament. They will be a force to reckon with, on a one-way street to victory, even if Duncan is pretty terrible at anagrams and still hasn’t memorized the list of acceptable 2-letter words.

Across the country, teammates April and her best pal Lucy have their own unique plan to achieve victory in the Youth Scrabble Tournament. And there’s also Nate, a homeschooled loner forced to follow in some very, very big footsteps–footsteps made even trickier when he chooses the free-spirited grunge-girl Maxie as his partner for the tournament.

This triumvirate of pairings narrates the story in alternating voices, a technique Jack really enjoys because it provides multiple insights to all of the characters. (In kidspeak, it keeps things moving along quickly.) And the plot here does move quickly, especially considering the crux of the matter is a slow-paced chess match of vocabulary. Wolitzer manages to amp up the excitement of the competition while interweaving the rising action of the 3 plot lines; the resolutions are not what you’d expect. [Full disclosure from Laura: I’ve never been able to stomach Wolitzer’s other novels; I gave several–including recent best-seller The Interestings–a few valiant efforts, but just couldn’t stick it out; however, I flew through The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman in less than a day.]

There’s a lot more going on here than just the fantastical element of Duncan’s fingertips. Obvious conversation starters include questions of knowledge v. luck, teamwork v. individuality, rich v. poor, and reality v. illusion. Moral and ethical decisions are made by each character, and each character also tangles with some ugly yet contemporary pre-teen stereotypes; all of these concepts give rise to teachable moments through discussion–a discussion Jack really enjoyed. Talking about thorny, mature situations and how they actually exist in the life of a 4th-grader made Jack realize our book club project was legit.

In the end, young readers will learn that everyone makes mistakes, and close readers will even catch the author making one herself [here’s your hint: 210 and 237.] Somewhere between vowel dumps and a scaly alligator mascot, between the mystery of SETTLE MARS and Ms. Thorp, between the stories of overachievers and underdogs, Wolitzer lays down a bingo-bango-bongo of a story. Jack and Mom couldn’t have picked a better inaugural book for Quiet Down There.

(And as for the ROAST MULES? Better get to reading if you want to find out!)

The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer (2011)

Jack’s score: 9

Laura’s score: 9

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photo credit: Junior Library Guild

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