Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Making the Grade: The Scandal by John Grisham

Theo tucked himself into his sleeping bag, warm and comfortable.

He was thirteen and unwilling to grow older. The entire week had been about the future, about testing for placement in high school and the mysteries of ninth grade. Theo liked where he was in life. He loved camping, he liked his school and friends and teachers. He liked being a boy on a bike, zipping around town. If he got into trouble his excuse was always, "Hey, I'm just a kid."

Why couldn't a kid stay thirteen forever?

But time and tide wait for no kid, and when the ever-optimistic Theo's test score misses the benchmark for high school honors classes by one point, he finds himself unwillingly in the middle of the simmering issue of state-mandated tests and college-track exams for eighth graders. And then his best friend April drops a bomb on him.

"I have something to show you," she says. "I couldn't sleep, so I decided to do this. She reached into her backpack and removed a plain white envelope. "Just read it." Theo removed a letter:

To Dr. Carmen Stoop, Superintendent of Strattenbury City Schools

I am a concerned citizen. The rise in scores at East Middle School is very impressive. But you should know the real story, On the Saturday after the tests, a group of eighth-grade teachers met at the school and behind a locked door began replacing wrong answers with correct ones....

Suddenly, Theo finds himself in an ethical dilemma. As the son of two lawyers, the complete kid insider at the local courthouse, he has become the de facto "kid lawyer" for his classmates, but Theo can't help wishing April had never written that letter or "consulted" him about her involvement in the scandal. And when the school system examines the actual tests, they find clear evidence of substantial tampering. As the news of scandal spreads through town and the controversy widens to the validity of state testing to determine placement in classes at high school becomes fierce, April is seized with whistle blower's remorse. And yet she has a point: if cheating at East Middle can put certain students unfairly into the magic top ten percent, aren't students like Theo and herself being cheated out of the best classes and teachers at high school? Is using one test to lock the other students out of advanced high school classes even fair? And then, has an actual felony been committed by the guilty teachers?

And when Theo's parents take on the defense of the five accused teachers, the usually cheeky Theo finds himself a somewhat unwilling insider and potential witness, in John Grisham's latest in series, Theodore Boone: The Scandal (Dutton Books, 2016). Although this latest in Grisham's Theodore Booneseries lacks the danger of investigating a murder, rescuing a kidnap victim, or helping the FBI capture a killer as he did in earlier books, the subject of mandated testing is one in which his 'tweener readers have a real stake, willingly or not, and the real-world ethical dilemmas that the author lays out for Theo, the informer April, his lawyer parents, and even his friend Judge Gantry are all too real. Grisham's blithely corner-cutting young legal eagle seems to be taking a turn toward more mature ethical sensibilities as the move to ninth grade comes into sight. Still, this teen sleuth tale has the page-turning suspense that his readers require and is already a near best-seller. Will "Kid Lawyer" Theo survive a fourteenth birthday and graduation from middle school and go on to solve more cases? That's one mystery John Grisham doesn't reveal.

For middle readers who haven't yet met the irrepressible Theo Boone, the previous books in this series are Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, Theodore Boone: the Activist, Theodore Boone: the Abduction, and Theodore Boone: The Accused. (Read my reviews here)

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