24 September 2013, Disney Hyperion
E ARC from Netgalley.com
Theo, who has gotten very tall over the summer and has been approached to be on the basketball team, is taunted with cries of “Bigfoot” and “Sasquatch” during one game, but it is the comment about his skin color that makes him pay attention. He is one of a few black kids at Orangetree Middle School in Palisades Park, and is sensitive about it. His best friend, Brian, is Jewish, and is on the Brain Train academic challenge team with him. Theo’s mother has passed away, and his father, a police officer, is very concerned about keeping Theo on the straight and narrow. Theo tries to improve his basketball skills by joining in pick up games of basketball, but because he is not very good, these do not go well. He meets “Crazy Girl”, Rain, and watches as she is accosting by a very violent cousin. Theo’s poser cousin, Gavin, who lives with his grandmother while his mother is providing wells in Africa, makes a demo CD of his music, which irritates Theo by being good. Theo struggles both with basketball, where his coach is trying to use his height as the center of the team’s strategy, and on the Brain Train, where his lack of preparation is letting his perfectly multicultural team down (other members are a white girl, a Vietnamese boy, and a Hispanic boy). Things become difficult when someone has stolen Gavin’s CD from Theo and sold the song to a band, whose performance of the song goes viral. Theo figures out this mystery, as well as a mystery involving Rain, and things go fairly well for him.
Strengths: I liked this one far more than I thought I would, because it involved a lot of good details that I have not found in middle grade literature. Theo talks about race with his father, and there is even a family “Because I’m Black” jar, to which Theo must contribute if he uses his race as an excuse. Rain is a great spunky character. There are some great lines, like the one about the Brain Train coach, Mr. Jacobsen: “Rumor had it that he had taught at a famous university but he’d accidentally killed a student during a failed time-travel experiment.” (Page 93). Lots of good basketball details, of course!
Weaknesses: The multicultural aspect of the team seemed a little unrealistic, although Theo does describe his neighborhood as a multicultural paradise, so maybe it reflects reality. I also don’t believe that any 6th graders read Dumas’ Three Musketeers—it took me two weeks to read that. Dense.