Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review: 8th Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich

Ah, the 8th grade book. Where to shelve it? Kids? Young adult? I think once kids are in 8th grade, they want to read about high school, so a book like this really has more appeal to 6th graders. But this is a looooooooong one.

The force driving the plot is Reggie McKnight's campaign for president at a progressive school in New York city. To win, he has to overcome the mental image everyone has of him throwing up on stage on the first day of school.

However, Reggie doesn't declare his campaign until page 178 of 324.

That's because the author also wanted to cover Reggie's "big brother" relationship with a troubled kindergarten kid, his community service project at a homeless shelter, his worries about his dad's unemployment, the rift between him and his sometimes-clueless white friend, the spiritual questions his youth pastor raises, and his sister's attempted transformation from basketball queen to cheerleader.

I was genuinely interested in how these issues would work out, but I tended to lose one thread as another one was woven in. And a lot of the issues never got worked out. But I think that was intentional. The author is showing us real life: a messy tapestry full of loose ends. The feeling of completeness at the end of the novel comes from Reggie finding peace with himself--not from him fixing anything. That, I like. But I did feel like the author could have left a few threads out, and the story would have had more shape. It started to feel really spread out.

Now, as soon as I wrote "community service project at a homeless shelter," I felt like I was doing the novel a disservice. I'm going to go back to the weaving metaphor, because Reggie tries really hard to weave the shelter into his everyday life. He treats the people there like family, not just a project or a campaign slogan. And he acknowledges that he's getting something out of it as well as putting something in.

Reggie tries hard throughout the novel to do the right thing, when the "right thing" isn't a single bold act but a way of approaching things. I'll be honest: I did get a little tired of the discussion of what-exactly-is-the-right-thing and how-can-I-integrate-these-part-of-my-life. I think 8th graders do worry about these things, but I think Reggie had, like, 15 personal revelations in this novel, while 3 might have been more realistic and more interesting.

That's my inner-eighth-grader talking. She's a punk, I know.

Things I liked: I like how the story is told in short bursts with time stamps at the top of each section. I like how the bad guy stays the bad guy. I like how the references to poets and political leaders aren't over-explained, so kids will be inspired to look them up. I like the one moment when Joe C. asks Reggie to go on a hip-hop tour of NYC, and how that spotlights the difference between how white kids experience hip-hop and how black kids do. I like the shout-outs to geek culture, like comics and LARPing.

So I just wish it was a little bit more condensed. I've gone back and forth but decided to buy it, because it's a great suggestion for teachers looking for books that relate to civics education. On the other hand, it has a strong Christian message, so I don't know if it should be required reading. But it's a strong book list choice. And there are definitely kids out there who could relate to Reggie's struggles, so I hope they find this book at the right time.

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