Stories about schools are always fascinating. Be it Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or the Welton Academy of The Dead Poet’s Society, there’s something intriguing (and voyeuristic) about encountering a school from some place other than one of its desks. Although he’s just a 4th grader, Jack already tends to agree. So when we found a story about the fictional Academy of Scholastic Distinction, a school for the extremely gifted and talented, we were sold. Little did I know that the schooling in this book would be mostly figurative.
Jack flew through Ungifted by Gordon Korman and asked me each morning if I’d finished it yet. When I asked him if he liked it, his eyes flew open wide and his head nodded excitedly as he said, “DEFINITELY!”
While the premise sounded interesting to me, I just couldn’t get into it. The main character, Donovan, takes the role of the Puckish prankster to new levels when he–in effect–vandalizes his school, Hardcastle Middle, and then runs. Yes, I know kids will be kids, but Donovan’s shenanigans at the onset are obnoxious and not what Jack or I would find funny or entertaining. Jack’s glowing support of Ungifted boggled me.
That is, until I got to the meat of the book. Before I knew it, Ungifted took a sharp left turn into the unchartered waters of true adolescence: puberty.
Jack treated his copy of Ungifted as if it were a modern day version of Judy Blume’s Forever. Don’t worry; ‘tweeners won’t be dog-earing pages and passing it around covertly. It’s not that juicy. In fact, it’s not really juicy at all, but I really wasn’t ready for the entire Human-Growth-and-Reproduction-Complete-with-Real-Live-Pregnant-Sister plot line which took up half the book. I’m guessing neither was Jack, based on the speed with which he gobbled up this book.
The other half of the tale? A nerdy, math-y robotics story. (I give Korman mad props for aiming high and trying to speak to his entire audience of awkward pre-middle schoolers.)
The mash-up of story lines yanks the book back and forth from the generic tale of a band of misfits to a page-turner filled with what an almost-10-year-old would deem to be inside scoop on procreation. And as the entire 4th grade of my son’s school anxiously awaits the all-important viewing of The Movie later this month, I’m sure my son was relieved to get a bit of a sneak preview of what’s to come. (What’s The Movie, you ask? Oh, come on; it’s that movie…the birds and the bees one. Blushing yet? Jack is at any mention of the upcoming screening.)
Ungifted flips around among narrators, each with a strong, confident, unique voice. Korman does a nice job of fleshing out his characters and portraying pre-teen angst, uncertainty, and confusion with a prickly, uncomfortable perfection. Grown-ups will shake their heads at some of the choices made by Donovan and the others, but this will most likely be because they remember making such mistakes themselves.
Nerdy English teacher note: the neatest elements of Ungifted are the multiple allusions to the great film, The Wizard of Oz. Jack and I had a wonderful time discussing (and uncovering) all of these connections. Ungifted‘s characters search for courage, a heart, and a home (even though they seem to have that brain thing down pat). Like that other 7-lettered, D-named protagonist, Donovan certainly endures his share of an uprooting. There’s even a Tin Man and a (somewhat) beloved dog.
If our end goal is to get our kids reading more, then Ungifted is a G-rated success. I’m willing to write off that giggle-inducing (yet basic and innocent) “where-babies-come-from” plotline because I have to accept that our days here in Kansas are numbered, whether I like it or not. To see and hear a young reader’s reaction when he or she figures out Beatrice’s plight? That’s the sweet stuff that growing up is made of, and I was happy to be along for this ride.
As for what’s behind that curtain? Or over that rainbow?
Hand this book to your young person and then ask that question. You might be just as surprised at the answer as Dorothy was.
(Or in other words: growing up is a lot harder than it looks.)
Ungifted by Gordon Korman (2012)
Laura: 5.5 (but it still made for a great discussion)