David can eat an entire sixteen-inch pepperoni pizza in four minutes and thirty-six seconds. Not bad. But he knows he can do better. In fact, he’ll have to do better: he’s going to compete in the Super Pigorino Bowl, the world’s greatest pizza-eating contest, and he has to win it, because he borrowed his mom’s credit card and accidentally spent $2,000 on it. So he really needs that prize money. Like, yesterday. As if training to be a competitive eater weren’t enough, he’s also got to keep an eye on his little brother, Mal (who, if the family believed in labels, would be labeled autistic, but they don’t, so they just label him Mal). And don’t even get started on the new weirdness going on between his two best friends, Cyn and HeyMan. Master talent Pete Hautman has cooked up a rich narrative shot through with equal parts humor and tenderness, and the result is a middle-grade novel too delicious to put down.
Yes, I'll have fries with this!
David is interested in competitive eating-- he can eat a pizza pretty quickly, and he's watched a lot of competitions and thinks he could probably do pretty well. When he accidentally bids $2,000 on a half hot dog and his bid wins, he turns to several local competitive eating events to try to earn back the money before his mother sees the charge on her account. He wins a White Castle-type challenge, but only receives a gift card as a prize. This is somewhat helpful as he trains for the Super Pigorino Bowl at the local pizzeria, but he needs the money that winning the competition at the Iowa State Fair will provide. He embarks on a training regimen that involves insane amounts of food, including entire heads of cabbage, for building capacity. In the meantime, he parents aren't thrilled. It's not the academic success that David's older sister, Bridgette has in college, and he doesn't require the care that his younger brother, Mal does. If his mother labeled things, which she doesn't, Mal would be on the more serious end of the autism spectrum. David is very good at caring for Mal, so when David's parents think he needs more of a summer job than choking down pizzas, they have him tend Mal while the his mother teaches a class. David makes some headway with Mal's increased socialization-- Mal travels further, with fewer meltdowns, when he is wearing sunglasses, and David also thinks critically about the charateristics that make food appealing to Mal, and gets him to add several new things to his diet. Eventually, David's parents find out about the credit card bill, so the eating competition becomes even more important. Will David be able to use his skills, as well as his smarts, to figure a way out of his financial and personal crises?
I've also never seen a novel about competitive eating! It's not a topic that interests me personally, but I can see it being appealing to ever hungry middle school boys who are enthralled by the idea eating fifty slices of pizza or several dozen sliders. The research into training strategies, famous eaters, and different types of competitions is well done, and the creation of a couple of less-than-honest competitors is clever. I especially liked how David got the better of "The Gurge" on more than one occasion!
Of course, the most brilliant thing about this book is the way that it takes a very serious facet of David's life-- his brother Mal-- and frames the relationship the two have with the amusement of competitive eating. David is stoic in the way that many children who have siblings with issues can be, and he is kind and helpful to his brother while being a tiny bit annoyed, but he does feel a lot of pressure to be less of a problem to his parents because of the issues his brother faces. Readers will pick up this book because of the premise and the appealing cover art work, and learn some important life lessons in a way that slips down as easily as pizza crusts dipped in water.
For readers who like Jordan Sonnenblick, John David Anderson, and Gordon Korman and other humorous titles that also include messages of social importance, Hautman's Slider is two delicious and nutritious all beef patties of humor on a sesame seed bun of humanity.