Friday, July 15, 2011

Back to School: Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson

Okay, so imagine the day your great-great-grandmother was born. Got it? Now go back a hundred years or so. And then another hundred. That's about when they built Hills Village Middle School.

Of course, I think it was a prison for Pilgrims back then, but not too much has changed.

Now it's a prison for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders.

For Raphael (a.k.a. Rafe) Khatchadorian, his unpronounceable, unspellable name is the least of his worries. Unlike the Wimpy Kid, who at least has Rowdy, Rafe doesn't have a best friend, unless you count Leo the Silent, who mostly draws instead of talking to him. His sister is a fourth-grade snoop who is only on his side when it comes to his mother's loutish and lazy fiance, who rouses himself from the couch only to issue orders to Rafe or raid the fridge. His mom Jules is great, but she's working two shifts at the diner since her boyfriend Bear moved in just to keep the family afloat, leaving Rafe mostly under Bear's thumb.

And as Rafe stumbles into his homeroom and tries to take his first seat for the first day of middle school, he runs afoul of the class bully, Miller the Killer:

"You're in my seat," said Miller.

"I don't see your name on it," I told him, and I was just starting to think maybe that was the worst thing to say, when Miller put out one his XXXL paws around my neck and starting lifting me like a 100-pound dumbbell. "Let's try that again," he said. "This is my seat. Understand?"

"SIT DOWN, NOW!" bellowed Mr. Rourke.

Since nobody else was stupid enough to sit right in front of Miller, that was the only seat left.

And because I'm the world's biggest idiot, I didn't look back when I went to sit in my chair. That's why I hit the dirt as I went down--all the way down--to the floor.

The good news? Given the way things had started off, I figured middle school could only get better from here.

The bad news? I was wrong about the good news.

The usual middle school stock characters are in attendance here--Dragon Lady Donatello for English, Principal Dwight with his 93 pages of school rules, Coach Lattimore, an apparent undergrad sadism major, the hair-netted lunchroom ladies with endless supplies of toxic meatloaf, and, to break the monotony of pain and boredom, the pretty and popular Jeanne Galleta, who occasionally gives our hero a smile.

But Leo the Silent has a plan: as Principal Dwight drones on at assembly, plowing through the HVMS Code of Conduct, Leo sketches out a way to make the misery fun--a challenge even. Can Rafe break every school rule and rack up a million points before the school year ends? Rafe hesitates, but then takes the Operation R.A.F.E. challenge. His first mission: set off the fire alarm in the middle of the reading of the rules. Rafe wheedles his way to a bathroom pass, doing his best whiny potential pants-wetter voice, and races to the nearest fire alarm box. Chaos! Success! 50,000 points already. And it's only the first day!

And the game is on. Rafe progresses from simple chewing-gum-in-class infractions, finally earning major points with a three-day suspension for burning his first failing report card. His sixth-grade year is going splendidly, game-wise, that is. And then his pranks hit the wall. He breaks his own rule, No One Gets Hurt, and inadvertently gets Jeanne sent to detention too.

Then disaster strikes. Miller the Killer seizes his notebook with the Operation R.A.F.E. scoring system and Leo's cartoons, and threatens to blow his cover unless Rafe pays him an ever-increasing price scale for each page. Rafe is forced to purloin soft drinks from Bear's hidden cache in the basement and set up a contraband trade out of his locker to make the payments. The game spins out of control, and Rafe becomes more and more desperate.

And then it gets worse! Jeanne points out that the consequences for Operation R.A.F.E. and the ensuing failing grades are going to qualify him for the booby prize--summer school--or even worse--repeating the whole sixth grade fiasco again next year! Help!

James Patterson's just published Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life (Little, Brown, 2011) uses the same devices--first person narration and kid-style cartoon illustration--as Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid series, and gives us the story of a kid with two strikes against him who nevertheless takes a futile swing at the one that is high and outside. But despite Rafe's eleven-year-old take on his first year at middle school, there are some adults who know how to offer him what he needs to break the loser mold. Dragon Lady Donatello is actually on his side, and working with his mother, who finally boots the Bear, finds a way for Rafe to get another chance at hitting it out of the park.

This is a highly-readable, very funny best seller which nonetheless slips in a lot of insight into the middle school mind. Middle readers can always do with a bit of self-understanding, and Patterson's and co-author Chris Tebbetts' dose of this rare quality goes down easy here, coupled as it is with Laura Park's cartoon illustrations which mix sixth-grade reality and fantasy well. As Susan Carpenter, reviewer for The Los Angeles Times, puts it,"Middle School" does a wonderful job of channeling the anxiety, and (il)logic, of the middle-grade mind. "Middle School" is a perfectly pitched novel exploring an important and under-covered topic: the unhealthy ways in which disempowered kids express themselves to obtain some sort of control over situations in which they find themselves helpless."

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