Book: The Perfect Score
Author: Rob Buyea
Age Range: 9-12
The Perfect Score is the latest middle grade novel by Rob Buyea (who also wrote Because of Mr. Terupt and Mr. Terupt Falls Again). Like Buyea's previous books, The Perfect Score is a multi-narrator story that highlights the impact that a caring teacher (in this case two caring teachers) can have on kids at the cusp of middle school. As the cover image and title suggest, The Perfect Score also takes on the standardized testing craze.
The five narrators of The Perfect Score each have one or more personal issues. Randi, a talented gymnast, is coping with relentless pressure from her overbearing single mother. Trevor, an incipient bully, is bullied by his older brother and his friends, and wants to stay away from home as much as possible. Gavin, who adores football, is unable to participate in any activities because he spends all of his time babysitting his younger sister. His struggling parents work most of the time. Gavin also has literacy issues. Natalie, daughter of two lawyers, is a teacher's pet, ostracized by the other kids. And Scott is bright but odd (apparently on some sort of behavior spectrum), wrapped up in a quest to care for his lonely, declining grandfather. When the five kids (most of whom are not friends with one another), end up taught by returning retiree Mrs. Woods, trouble arises before their situations improve.
Meanwhile, standardized testing (the CSA exams), looms over everything. Read-aloud time, classroom parties, and recess are taken away, as is working on anything interesting. Everything at the school is given over to exam preparation. The stakes of the exams are gradually ratcheted up, too (football eligibility, etc.). The beleaguered kids eventually take drastic action (the fact that something serious happens is telegraphed from early in the story). This, I truly hope, was over-the-top relative to what's happening in actual middle schools.
I enjoyed reading The Perfect Score. I liked the kids (most of them), and I flagged lots of passages. I particularly enjoyed multiple scenes that focus on the mesmerizing quality of Mrs. Woods' classroom read-alouds. Like this:
"It's safe to say I didn't like reading all that much, which was why I was struggling to understand how my favorite thing about sixth grade so far was the way Woods read to us. Maybe she wasn't a champion football player, but she deserved a trophy for reading aloud. She had a way of making the words come to life so I could see the whole story in my head. I'd never had anyone read to e like that, and I couldn't believe how much I'd started looking forward to it." (Gavin, page 54)
"Not only was Mrs. Woods the best at reading with expression and different voices, but she knew that the way to enjoy a story was not to open the book once a week or to make kids do a gazillion reader-response questions or activities, but just to read it." (Scott, Page 82)
The Perfect Score ticks off a lot of boxes (ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, care of the elderly, bullying, testing, parental pressure, learning disabilities, family dysfunction, etc.). All of which, I must admit, felt a little bit contrived at times. I think that the book's humor will win kids over, despite the relatively overt messages. Scott is particularly delightful, with his baked good obsession and penchant for big, crazy ideas. One's heart breaks for the way the other kids exclude him and laugh at him, and the way he doesn't even seem to really realize it, but he inspires joy, too.
I'm quite sure that teachers and librarians will enjoy The Perfect Score. The anti-standardized-testing, pro-joy-of-learning message certainly resonated with me, and would make this an interesting classroom read-aloud for middle grade to middle school kids. The ending is satisfying, and wraps up things that need to be wrapped up. And yet, I would be happy to read more about these characters (certainly the teachers) in the future. Recommended, and a must-read for fans of the Mr. Terupt books.
Publisher: Delacorte Press (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: October 3, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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