Jensen is a hero - in his own mind. In the real world, aka middle school, he's failing math, bullies are making his life miserable, and he can't seem to fit in anywhere. Art club was his one safe place, even if everyone else seems more knowledgeable than he is and are big manga fans, while he's mostly into superheroes. But he loses that when he has to start attending tutoring for math - and to his horror, one of the bullies is there too! Then he finds a safe hiding place in the newspaper office - and meets a couple girls who are out to set the world on fire with a social experiment about bullying. Jensen feels like he's losing his grip fast - there's just too much going on and changing for him to figure out what to do. Will he ever figure out middle school - and himself?
Chmakova's art style is more manga than comic, but she strikes a nice middle road in this series with characters that have the edges and feel of manga without the more obvious style that will turn off some readers. Her colors are pastels - pinks, blues, and browns, and she includes a diverse range of students although their racial diversity is never mentioned. She also includes physical diversity - the math tutor has arm crutches and Jensen gets picked on for his weight - which was a nice addition.
One of the turning points in this book, and the reason why I selected it, was when Jensen finally gets around to looking at the newspaper club's social experiment on bullying. He knows the two boys who are tormenting him are bullies, he's just not brave enough to stand up to them. But what about the kids who claim to be his "friends" but makes jokes about his weight and tease him? He's never asked them to stop and they're his friends - that's what friends do, right? Or is it?
As the story develops, adding a plot about the dress code, thoughts on freedom of speech, and culminating in Jensen figuring out who his friends really are and getting the courage to stand up to the bullies, the book encourages readers to think about their words and actions and how they affect others. The story doesn't have a happily-ever-after resolution; when Jensen sticks up to the physical bullies they break his glasses and attack him, but a teacher gets involved and the bullying ends - for now at least. Speaking his mind to his "friends" is more difficult and doesn't necessarily end well, but Jensen is becoming more comfortable in his own skin, more aware of who he is and who he wants to be, and he realizes that he's brave in his own way, as shown in a final spread when he reaches out to a former bully.
Verdict: This is flying off the shelf not only for its strong portrayal of middle school drama and challenges but also (I hope) for the plot points that get kids thinking about what they think and do everyday. Highly recommended.
ISBN: 9780316363174; Published 2017 by Yen Press; Purchased for the library