Friday, May 13, 2011

Geektropolis

Nerds are our hope for the future, Michael Buckley wants us to know. "The world is not saved by touchdowns," one of his characters opines, "it's saved by ideas." Michael Buckley wants all the nerds -- particularly those bookish ones -- to feel good about themselves. They can kick butt too. And in NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society there's quite a bit of ass being whupped (in a kid-friendly way, of course).

Jackson Jones is the most popular kid at Nathan Hale Elementary School. He's the star of the football team, is loved by all his teachers, and is the terror of the school's less physically gifted students. There seems to be nothing Jackson loves more than wedgies and stuffing his classmates into their lockers. At a more enlightened school, we'd call Jackson a bully. At Nathan Hale, he's a hero.

But then, Jackson gets braces. Oddly magnetic ones. And Jackson is out of the popular crowd faster than Kate Middleton's wedding dress hit the bridal stores. Relegated to the sidelines, Jackson becomes a watcher. And what he sees surprises him: Five of the nerdiest nerds leave the classroom without a murmur from the teacher and disappear into their lockers. When Jackson follows one of them, he plummets into a high-tech laboratory. After a brief blackout where his braces are augmented by nanotechnology, he learns that the five nerds are members of an exclusive spy network: NERDS. Whatever is the geekiest thing about each of these kids has been transformed into a superpower. Then, with the guidance of some nerdy adults (the janitor, the librarian, and the lunch lady), they use those powers to save the world. And since evil Dr. Jigsaw is intent on rejoining Earth's continents into Pangaea, the NERDS are the only ones who can save us.

The other NERDS aren't very happy at the prospect of Jackson -- whose braces can now expand into all sorts of useful metal tools -- joining them. They call him Braceface and treat him ... well, as he treated them. Jackson works hard to earn their trust, however, and soon the team of five is six. There's lots of humor and kid-empowering action, and the book itself has plenty of cartoons that make it very reluctant-reader friendly. I found the nerds-are-the-ones-who-will-save-us message to be a little heavy-handed, but I don't think young readers will mind.

I read this because it's been nominated for the Oregon Reader's Choice Award and I signed up to prepare a discussion guide (watch this space). It's not my choice (I like 11 Birthdays or Heart of a Shepherd [which won't win]), but I'm not voting. I didn't like the other book of Buckley's that I read, but at least I got to start at the beginning here.

The perennially youthful-sounding Johnny Heller reads this. His high-pitched, breaking voice goes well with books for kids and here is no exception. He has an opportunity to break out a few funny character voices -- I liked his voice for Miranda, a girl who can't go anywhere without her inhaler, she's all wheezy (her spy name is Wheezer), as well as the hyperactive Flinch. I didn't like his choice of upper-class snob for Heathcliff. With that name, such an accent is logical, but Heller just seemed uncomfortable using it. For the most part, it's a reliably professional job.

I ended up eye-reading parts of this novel because the crack check-in people at my library circulated the audiobook with two missing discs. (I mean, it's one thing to miss one disc ... but two?) I would like to say that I don't think you miss the graphics by reading, but I can't with utter authority. There are sections in the book -- those that "authorize" you to access the "top-secret" story that follows -- that really don't read aloud very well. They rely on visual clues in order for you to really get it. But most listeners will be smart enough to figure out what's going on after the second or third time it occurs. The novel's other pictures are just gravy.

This will make a pretty good car-trip book, because there's actually plenty of stuff to keep the adults laughing as well. Maybe you could have both the audio and the book in the car. Now there's an idea!

NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society by Michael Buckley
Narrated by Johnny Heller
Recorded Books, 2009. 6:15

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