Friday, January 27, 2012

Guy Friday-- Interpersonal Problems

Starkey, Scott. How to Beat the Bully Without Really Trying.

Rodney doesn’t have a lot of hope that life will improve when he moves from New York to Ohio. He and his friends had been bedeviled by the evil Rocco, who would give them wedgies, steal their lunch money, etc., and Rodney’s fears are immediately confirmed when Rishi, the first kid he meets, tells him that the local bully is Josh. Luckily, on their first encounter, a stray baseball breaks Josh’s nose, and Rodney is blamed for it. While this gets him in trouble with his teacher, Mrs. Lutzkraut, and his principal, Mr. Feebletop, it makes him a hero in the eyes of the students. Luck continues to follow Rodney, and every time Josh or his evil henchman Toby threaten Rodney or his new friends, something fortuitous occurs that inclines the bullies to leave him alone. This holds true even when Rocco arrives from New York. When he falls prey to Josh, Rocco warns his family to go back to New York. Rodney is even lucky enough to meet his principal’s baseball hero, Tom Seaver, on a visit to New York, so when his misbehavior catches up with him, his principal is willing to overlook it. The school year ends well, and Rodney hopes that he has put bullies behind him… but will this hold true at summer camp?
Strengths: As a humorous, realistic novel, this is pretty good. For some reason, it reminded me of older titles.
Weaknesses: BAD cover art (if this stays on the final version), and a rather unrealistic portrayal of bullying. The most prevalent form of bullying is not physical violence, but mean whispers and threats under the breath. The sort of bullying portrayed here is easier to stop because it is so overt. I was also bothered by the silly names and the ineffectual, unhelpful adult characters in the book.

Walton, K.M. Cracked.
Bull has a terrible home life. His mother got pregnant in a chance encounter, and his grandfather feels Bull’s birth killed his grandmother and ruined his own life. Both his mother and grandfather are sloppy, abusive drunks who don’t take care of Bull at all. The house is a filthy mess, and the inadequate food is often fouled with mouse turds. Bull takes out his frustration on children at school, including Victor. While Victor lives in a nice house with wealthy parents, his parents wish he was never born and quietly make his life unbearable. The only bright spot in his day (since school is awful thanks to Bull) is his elderly dog, Jazzer. When Jazzer dies and his parents take off to Europe without him to punish him for a poor test score, Victor tries to commit suicide by taking pills. This lands him in the same psych ward that Bull ends up in after an argument with his grandfather leads him to shoot himself. The two must work through not only their own problems, but their problems with each other as well.
Strengths: There are certainly students with this many problems, and it is helpful to understand that the behavior we see in school often has underlying causes that need to be addressed. Great cover.
Weaknesses: This is not suitable for middle school due to language (multiple f-bombs), and would have been, for me, a stronger novel if the abuse hadn’t been so bad. Both Victor and Bull have an offhanded tone about their abuse that made it seem somehow less serious. Hard to explain, but their tone made the suicide attempts seem out of place.

Palacio, R.J. Wonder
Alfred Knopf, 14 February 2012
August was born with severe facial deformities, and also enough health problems to lead to his home schooling. Now entering 5th grade, he has been well for some time, so his parents enroll him in Beecher Prep, near their NYC home. He is hesitant to go, because he knows all too well how people react to the way he looks, but he is somewhat comforted when the principal arranges a before school tour with several classmates. Once at the school, people are polite but occasionally surprised by Auggie’s visage, and he settles in fairly well. He makes friends with Summer, who sits with him at lunch to be nice at first, but grows to enjoy his company. The same is true of Jack, although Julian continues to be somewhat nasty. August has not only the struggles with his appearance, but with fitting in to middle school as well. The book is not all from August’s point of view- we also hear from his sister, Summer, Jack, Julian, and his sister’s boyfriend as well. While things don’t always go smoothly, especially on a class camping trip, August manages to survive his entry into public education.
Strengths: The thing I liked best about this was August’s struggles that were not related to his differences. He loves Star Wars, but doesn’t want that to be part of his persona, so he cuts off his Padawan braid and ditches his Star Wars duffle bag. This is what makes this more of a novel about a middle school student rather than a novel about a boy who is different.
Weaknesses: I would have preferred this to have been all from August’s point of view. Also, in the digital ARC, the boyfriend’s chapters lack capitalization and some punctuation. This was weird and vaguely annoying, since I couldn’t see any real reason for it.

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