Review Detail

Kids Fiction 273
"Stupidball games always ended badly. "
Overall rating
Plot/Characters/Writing Style
Illustrations/Photos (if applicable)
Of COURSE, Stupidball games always end badly, but this doesn't stop friends Hogue, Jared, Pratchett and our narrator Nick Rhodes from playing them. While the middle school friends would rather spend their days playing video games, their parents have gotten together and forced them to spend an hour a day outside at the local park in their western town of Leonardville. This leads to all manner of innovative things to take their time, including the water balloon canon Cold Vengeance and pool games like Death Squid Versus Machine-Gun Shark. At school, the boys are on the robotics team, which is loosely supervised by their science teacher, Mr. Easton. The boys generally spend fifteen minutes on robotics, and then use the school computers (which are in a lab that used to be a basement boiler room, exactly like my daughter's elementary school lab was!) to play their games. The other member of the team, Karla Woo, soldiers on, annoyed at the boys but not quite willing to work with them to improve their behavior. When Mr. Easton's latest science experiment ends in an explosion, he is taken away by the police and put on a leave of absence. Nick and his friends start to torture all of the substitutes who come to take Mr. Easton's place, since he is the only teacher that they find interesting. One of their epic pranks get them suspended for five days, and all of them lose their computer privileges. Officer Jim, the school resource officer, has always been somewhat supportive of the boys, but has understandably been more aggressive in keeping them in line, so the boys figure out his schedule by hacking into the school secretary's e mail, and are able to still go to the park and cause mild, unobtrusive trouble. They are eventually caught, expelled from their school, and sent to the True North school, where they are taught to "apply high-tech solutions to real-world problems in real time, on a going-forward basis, with best practices and full-redundancy" (from the E ARC, but MUST be quoted!), which ends up with them spending the days in a document storage facility scanning records in order to save them digitally. But that's not all! Once they find Mr. Easton's birth certificate and realize he might be related to the town founders, and therefore might be heir to their park that a local developer wants to ruin, Nick and his friends get involved in high stakes espionage in order to save their teacher, their park, and themselves.
Good Points
There is a lot going on in this novel, but the thing that amazed me most was how willing I was to believe all of the questionable activities in which the boys were involved. I have a fine radar for things that are unlikely to happen in middle schools, but something about the writing convinced me that sure, Officer Jim was a decent guy... until he wasn't. And that the boys and Karla were allowed to work on robotics club alone. And that Mr. Easton was allowed to blow things up and let students play with liquid mercury... okay, no. I didn't believe that part. But the rest... for whatever weird reason, I believed.

And that's no small feat. This had a Gordon Korman McDonald Hall vibe to it because while the concerns were clearly very middle grade (it has taken me many years and many awkward conversations with adult men to understand just how much middle school boys talk about their privates), it was well-written and believable. Could the boys hack into the surveillance system? Probably. Could they then discover the code to get into the local men's society building? Yeah. Would they get caught? Of course. Could they have been set up by the son of the construction company owner who knew a lot of town secrets and wanted to use these for his own financial gain? The author holds our hand and walks us down the path with such certainty that I could believe all of this. It didn't hurt that I was constantly distracted by all the pranks the boys pulled.

One of my favorite characters was the quiet and shady Karla Woo, who has awesome tech abilities and knows more about the boys and their activities than they probably know themselves. Not only is she working assiduously on the robotic arm, but she is hacking into the boys' hacks, and ultimately saving the day! I would have like to see her be a more active part of the group, and would be more than happy with another book where this happens!

Readers who like the comic minor crime novels like Johnson's The Great Green Heist, Rylander's The Fourth Stall, and Ferraiolo's The Big Splash and generally humorous novels like Richards' Stu Truly and Acampora's Danny Constantino's First Date will absolutely adore the antics of these exuberant friends who are just pushing the envelope to see what happens, and end up triumphing despite their Stupidball ideas.
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