Sunday, July 31, 2011

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts. Illustrated by Laura Park (NY: Little, Brown, 2011).

Rafe Khatchadorian's life isn't that great, and middle school probably isn't going to help. His mom is working double shifts at the diner to support Rafe and her fiance, Bear, who sleeps on the couch all day except for when he goes to cash his unemployment checks. To beat the inevitable boredom of school and just add a dash of excitement to his life, Rafe decides to make a game of breaking every rule in the Hills Village Middle School conduct book, starting with pulling the fire alarm during the first day of school assembly. The game is fun, and his best friend Leo the Silent eggs him on. Not so much fun is getting threatened by the school bully, Miller the Killer, and going to detention with the Dragon Lady, Ms. Ruthless Donatello. Between the game and Rafe's rich fantasy life, amply illustrated by the talented Leo, Rafe doesn't have much time for his school work, which means more detentions and tutoring. And he would have continued this pattern indefinitely except his mom tearfully asks him to try to be normal for awhile. So he does. But then Miller steals his notebook and threatens to reveal all to Rafe's crush, Jeanne Galletta, who seems to like Rafe a lot more when he's being normal than when he's breaking rules. Too bad Rafe has to go back to dealing soda out of his locker to make enough money to get all the pages of his notebook back before he's utterly humiliated.

This novel starts out seeming like an obvious derivative of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but it soon become clear that it's not. Rafe has some serious issues in his life, not least of which is his mother's brutish fiance and their precarious finances. The illustrations are wonderful, and Rafe's Thurberesque fantasies are hilariously hyperbolic. This book's structure, with supershort chapters and torrential pictures, will appeal to reluctant readers of both genders. Highly recommended for ages 9 and up.

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