I must admit that I chose to read Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life because the main character, Rafe Khatchadorian, has an Armenian name. And I, wife to and mother of people with Armenian names,was intrigued. I was a bit disappointed to find not a single reference to Rafe being Armenian in the text (beyond people having trouble pronouncing his last name). I think it was a missed opportunity. Why give a character a name that clearly identifies with a particular ethnic background, and then include absolutely nothing in the text about that background? Anyway, moving on...
It feels a bit redundant to review a book by James Patterson, since he's such a publishing juggernaut. But I have to say that I enjoyed Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life. I laughed out loud on multiple occasions, and was surprised by a couple of plot twists. I think that kids, particularly boys in or approaching middle school, will like the book, and will be able to identify with Rafe.
When Rafe Khatchadorian starts sixth grade (his first year of middle school), he is overwhelmed by the enormous list of rules in the Hills Village Middle School Code of Conduct. A list which the Vice Principal, Mrs. Stricker, reads aloud, slowly and painfully, during the first school assembly. That's when Rafe, egged on by his best friend Leo the Silent, gets his Big Idea. He's going to break every single rule in the book (with extra points for the really difficult ones, or for escapades performed with particular flair). He's going to try to make sure that no one else gets hurt, but he, Rafe, is going to have fun with his project/game. And he does have fun with it. At least for a while...
Rafe isn't a bad kid. He's never been a troublemaker before. But he does have some challenges at home. His mother has just gotten engaged to Carl "the Bear", an unemployed oaf who spends all of his time hogging the television set and yelling at Rafe and his little sister. Money is tight, and Rafe's mother works long hours at a diner. Mom and Bear both disapprove of Leo, who prefers drawing to talking and who pushes Rafe to continually take his rule-breaking to new levels.
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is heavily sprinkled with comic book style illustrations by Laura Park. The text/illustration mix is reminiscent of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, though Middle School is aimed at a slightly higher age level. The illustrations are sometimes there for comic relief, but often they tell part of the story (the rest being told by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, in Rafe's words).
I found the illustrations hilarious. For example, when rule-breaking Rafe sneaks into the teacher's common room, there's a box shown containing four donuts, each with a bit taken out (and the appropriate point total for Rafe's rule-breaking game displayed beside them). There's a cafeteria scene in which, among other chaos, a girl says: "Umm, my meat loaf melted my tray" (picture of tray with large hole in the center). Doodles around each chapter number indicate the mood of that chapter (stormclouds, etc.). The sketches look like they were done by a kid (which I believe is hard to do well - Park pulls this off flawlessly).
Parts of the text are funny, too. I laughed out loud on more than one occasion. Here are a couple of examples:
"By the time we got to Section 6 ("Grounds for Explusion") my brain was turning into guacamole, and I'm pretty sure my ears were bleeding, too." (Page 26)
"After attendance, Donatello told us that we were going to read parts of Romeo and Juliet aloud in class. It was written by Mr. William Shakespeare, who I believe is famous for writing the most boring plays in the history of the universe." (Page 58)
"I wasn't naked!" I yelled.
Just in case you're wondering, that's not a thing you want to yell in the middle of a crowded diner. I felt like every single eyeball in the place turned to look at me. Probably because they did." (Page 122)
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life has its flaws. Bear's unremitting awfulness makes one wonder why on earth the mother would get engaged to him in the first place. The school bully is similarly one-dimensional. Rafe's very narrow pool of friends (consisting of Leo) seems unrealistic, given that he seems like a friendly kid.
But those are quibbles. I think that this book is going to please its target audience (reluctant pre- and early-teen readers, mostly boys), and that's the important thing. The illustrations are top-notch and entertaining. The plot is fast-paced and sprinkled with surprises. Rafe is easy to relate to, despite his quirks. The setting, while not nuanced, is one that kids will identify with, too. I think that libraries will definitely want to stock this one, and will find it hard to keep on the shelf. A fun back-to-school read for tweens!
Publisher: Little, Brown (@lbschool)
Publication Date: June 27, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.