When fifth-graders Judy, Sam and Kelsey discover their classmate Brenton Damagatchi’s homework machine, they think they are on to a good thing and begin to visit him regularly after school. Alphabetically seated at the same table, the brilliant Asian-American computer geek, hardworking, high-achieving African-American girl, troubled army brat and ditzy girl with pink hair would seem to have nothing in common. (They would also seem to be stereotypes, but young readers won’t mind.) But they share an aversion to the time-consuming grind of after-school work. Their use of the machine doesn’t lead to learning—as a surprise spring quiz demonstrates—but it does lead to new friendships and new interests. The events of their year are told chronologically in individual depositions to the police. In spite of the numerous voices, the story is easy to follow, and the change in Sam, especially, is clear, as he discovers talents beyond coolness thanks to a new interest in chess. Middle-grade readers may find one part of this story upsettingly realistic and the clearly stated moral not what they had hoped to hear, but the generally humorous approach will make the lesson go down easily. (Fiction. 8-11)
Simon & Schuster Children, 2006
Pages : 160
Suggested Ages: 9 and Up
Starting with a stern statement from the Grand Canyon, Arizona Police Chief Rebecca Fish, meet four fifth graders in big trouble. There's long-haired, rebellious, cool guy Sam Dawkins; fun-loving, unacademic, pink-haired Kelsey Donnelly, African American grind Judy Douglas, and friendless genius Brenton Damagatchi. The whole thing starts because Sam is anti-homework, especially the daily fill in-the-blank worksheets his first-year teacher Miss Rasmussen hands out. Sam is skeptical when Brenton claims he has programmed his computer to search the web and do all his homework each day, but it’s true. Soon the four seatmates are spending every afternoon in Brenton’s bedroom, printing out their daily assignments on the computer they nickname Belch. It can’t do any harm, right? The chronology and confession of their ill-fated escapade is related entirely through a series of transcripts, narrated by the four contrite kids, their parents, classmates, and Miss Rasmussen.
There are many interesting threads explored in this nimble story: keeping secrets, making friends, being popular, the morality of taking the easy way out, first crushes, the meaning of war, and even the loss of a parent. The setting of the Grand Canyon and sub-themes about playing chess, starting fads, and using a catapult will get kids looking up supporting information in books and on the Internet. Questions readers can think about as they read include: Which of the four main characters is most like or unlike you and why? Which one would or would not be your friend and why?
Reviewed by : JF.
Themes : DEATH. FRIENDSHIP. GRIEF. HUMOR.
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