Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Top 6 1/2 Worst Things about Middle School: How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephart

The first day of summer vacation is important, because what you do that day sets the tone for the rest of the summer.

David Greenberg's hopes for a great post-sixth-grade vacation turn out to be a bummer of a prophecy. He can't wait for his best friend Elliott to come over so that they can video another episode of TalkTime, a comedy series David bases on his idol Jon Stewart's Daily Show. Hammy the hamster is ready for his Hammy Time skit, and teen sister Lindsay is sure to furnish an unsuspecting appearance in his "Daily Acne Forecast" segment.

But Elliott would rather head for the mall and hang around hoping for a glimpse of the suddenly fascinating Cara. David's summer days turn into lonely solo appearances on TalkTime without his sidekick Elliott, as their time together is totally taken up with interminable conversations centered around anguished (to the as-yet unsmitten David) discussions of "Does Cara Epstein like me?" David misses his agorophobic mother who abruptly left the family months before, and even at a family pool party finds his cousin only too willing to scare him spitless with tales of the upcoming terrorizing trials of "Harmone" Middle School, most of them ending with some poor kid getting flushed in the boys' room by the perennial, ever-flunking, ever-flushing school bully Tommy Murphy.

It's a bummer summer. But, then, on the first day of school, David is devastated when Elliott assures him that school uniforms are verboten on the first day, and David is the only kid who shows up looking like a loser in a ratty tee. But before he can even let Elliott know how he feels about this prank, Elliott snubs him for the "Neanderthal table" at lunch presided over by the hulking Tommy Murphy.

Short and small for his age, David has to take refuge with the lunch nerds for the first time in his life, and as the weeks go by barely manages to escape Tommy Murphy's promise to beat him up. His only bright spot are his TimeTalk videos, especially the one in which, lacking Elliott, he uses a magazine cover Jon Stewart as straight man. Despite his loneliness, David senses that this one is a winner and uploads it to YouTube along with the others. Then, amazingly, David does make one friend, the curly-haired charmer Sophie, who chooses him as a project partner and loves his comedy videos, enthusiastically emailing links to her former home-schooling friends network.

Suddenly David's YouTube videos go viral, and he finds himself a local media phenom, being interviewed by the local newspaper and a sort-of famous writer from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Still David feels like a nobody. What use is a million hits on YouTube while everyone at Harmon Middle School calls him by Murphy's nickname, "Lameberg." Even his sister, finally moved by the publicity to look at his uploaded videos, is embarrassed and outraged by her "acne forecast" role and isn't speaking to him. His dad orders him to take all the TalkTime video down immediately. And then, the final coup de grace on what seems the worst day of David's life, he finds Hammy dead, and almost loses it in science class, rushing out to hide his tears in the boys' bathroom, where he is ambushed by none other than Murphy, who finally submits David to that adolescent rite of passage, the "twirlie" in the latrine. To make the humiliation even worse, another kid gives the alarm to his teacher and David emerges, dripping with filthy toilet water and still weeping, to see his whole science class with their teacher watching outside the bathroom door.

It looks like things couldn't get worse. But then, Jon Daly sees his videos and loves them, even scheduling "his future replacement's" clips for an upcoming show. Will coast-to-coast media glory save David Greenberg's middle school years?

Donna Gephart, author of 2008's very funny and timely As If Being 12 3/4 Isn't Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President!, has in her latest How to Survive Middle School (Delacorte, 2010) a poignant yet hilarious tale of early adolescent angst which flows like a feature film script. All the characters are believable, and David himself is a particularly appealing character, confronted by the often incomprehensible mores of middle school, as a "wimpy kid" who uses his special talents to find his own place in both the middle school and the wider world as best he can. Kids, er, looking forward to their first days in the middle-school milieu will especially enjoy Gephart's story of how one boy makes it.

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