Steel Trapp: The Academy is the second book in Ridley Pearson's Steel Trapp series of middle grade / middle school spy novels. HIgh school freshman Steven "Steel" Trapp has a perfect memory (hence his nickname) and a father who is a covert spy. When Steel's father encourages him to enroll at an exclusive, and strangely secretive, Connecticut boarding school, Steel is optimistic about having a fresh start. When he learns that his father has also pulled strings to enable his friend Kaileigh (introduced in the first book, Steel Trapp: The Challenge) to attend, too, Steel starts to feel suspicious. And when Steel and Kaileigh observe students and teachers engaged in clandestine behavior, Steel's curiosity is fully engaged. Being a tenacious kid, he won't rest until he learns the secret of Wynncliff Academy
The Steel Trapp books are aimed squarely at the kids who love Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series (starting with Stormbreaker) and Charlie Higson's Young James Bond books (starting with Silverfin). They are perfect for middle school boys and girls who want to read about kids their own age having adventures as spies. I think (as does Kate Coombs) that the Steel Trapp books are an excellent addition to the genre.
Steel is a likable character. His computer-like memory and athletic skills make him border on being too good to be true. However, his lack of experience when it comes to girls and his knack for gift for evoking jealousy among his peers keep him human. And I personally found the idea of having a photographic memory, one with total recall, fascinating. It's like a superpower, but one that you can imagine someone actually possessing.
Kaileigh is a good character, too. She's smart, with gifts for languages and mimicry that make her a formidable ally. As Steel concludes, she's actually brighter than he is, though without the crutch of perfect memory. Kaileigh and Steel together make a good investigative team, with believable boy-girl relationship issues floating in the background (and at a quite appropriate degree of maturity for middle schoolers).
Pearson's experience in writing adult mysteries, as well as adventure stories for kids, comes through in his clear writing style, and the book's fast-paced plotting. These aren't books for which the reader will be stopping to flag lyrical passages. These are books that the reader will fly through, jumping from cliffhanger to cliffhanger.
Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for the book:
"What he'd seen had momentarily paralyzed him: four boys, posed down on one knee, facing four mannequins across the gym. There was a coach standing slightly behind them. All four boys were holding long stainless-steel tubes to their mouths. On the coach's cue, they fired darts at the mannequin targets...
He gasped, drawing attention to himself, but wasn't embarrassed to be seen: he would sign up for Blowguns 101 in a nanosecond." (Page 7)
"He spotted his roommate, Verne, at a nearby table with other African Americans; a number of Asian students were also sitting together. It struck him as odd that when left on their own, students showed no desire to cross the lines that separated them; but he didn't challenge it. He was as guilty as the next guy of not wanting to draw attention to himself. Such attention at this school meant harassment ... days, sometimes weeks of it." (Page 156)
There is a bit of long-term series setup going on in The Academy - I think that the real payoff in global adventures is going to come in later books. But The Academy is still engaging in its own right. We have a boarding school novel, complete with an unusual team sport, academic pressures and hazing by upperclassmen. But there are also secret tunnels connecting the campus buildings, students learning to use blowguns, and hints of covert government operations. Fun stuff all around! Highly recommended for dormant middle school readers, or anyone who can't get enough of kid-driven spy novels.
© 2010 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).