Uncle Charlie is weird—that much is made evident in the first pages of SCHOOL OF THE DEAD. Despite that, he and Tony form a bond in the hours after school when Tony’s parents are at work and the two only have each other to pass the time. Tony’s friends begin to keep their distance because of Uncle Charlie, but Tony doesn’t mind because Uncle Charlie is fun. He tells great stories, enjoys doing kid stuff, and gives good gifts—like the slackline (similar to a tightrope) he gives Tony for his twelfth birthday.
When Uncle Charlie dies and Tony and his parents move to San Francisco—something Uncle Charlie pressed them to do—the weirdness in Tony’s life goes far beyond anything he experienced while Uncle Charlie was alive. As he starts seventh grade at the creepy-looking Penda School, Tony starts seeing ghosts, there are stories of kids having disappeared from Tony’s new school, and kids who try to befriend Tony from the moment he arrives are pretty strange themselves.
SCHOOL OF THE DEAD is an action-packed middle grades novel of a normal pre-teen boy plunged into a very abnormal existence. As expected from a book by the award-winning author Avi, the writing is excellent. The opening pages are a clinic on how to set up a story and introduce characters without relying on paragraph after paragraph of explanations and descriptions. Although the first half of the book is dense with similes and metaphors, the number of them is only noticeable because they are creative and will appeal to the intended audience of 8 to 12 year olds.
Tony’s character hits the mark for authenticity. Although the subject matter asks the reader to suspend belief when it comes to the supernatural, Tony is a believable 11/12-year-old boy with regard to his relationship with his parents and how he handles friendships and the challenge of a new school. The descriptions used throughout the book will appeal to readers of all ages: organ music at Uncle Charlie’s funeral is “gooey,” and Tony reflects on his status as a new kid with no weekend plans by thinking he’s “like a weed in a fancy garden.”
There are a few slow moments in SCHOOL OF THE DEAD as Tony mulls over the many dilemmas he faces, but the last half of the book is scary and fast-paced with many plot twists–but a rather abrupt ending.
All in all, this is a solid middle grades novel that will appeal to both boys and girls and it would be an excellent addition to a classroom bookshelf.
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy of the book in exchange for my unbiased review.