Thursday, February 1, 2018

Pennybaker School is headed for disaster by Jennifer Brown

Thomas has always thought of himself as a regular kid who goes to a regular school. Then his mom gets super-excited about his magic tricks, learned from his grandfather, and now he's headed to the eccentric, one might even say downright weird, Pennybaker school for the gifted. And he's wearing a tie. Can life get any worse?

Of course it can. Thomas is starting to think that maybe, just maybe, the new school won't be so bad. He's made some friends, sort of, gotten involved in the upcoming great spitball battle, and has even gotten a little interested in some classes. But then the head of Helen Heirmauser is stolen. It's the most hideous statue ever and Thomas can't understand why everyone reveres it so much, which makes him the natural suspect. Pretty soon the whole school - and his family - has turned against him. Not to mention most of the town. Now he has no choice but to join forces with the ultimate weird kid next door (Chip wears socks for whatever he's studying that day and talks like a Victorian novel) to solve the mystery and clear his name.

This book is extremely quirky. School Library Journal recommends it to readers who like Palacio's Wonder and, asides from my own dislike of that book, I have to say it's possibly one of the most ridiculous read-alikes I've encountered. Stuart Gibbs, maybe Gordon Korman, sure. Wonder? Um, no. One of the soul-searching moments of angst comes when Thomas encounters a student who is using his "gift" to tame hedgehogs. But his parents expect him to follow in their family's footsteps as a gifted taxidermist. The kids (and adults) put their hands over their hearts whenever they pass the statue or refer to Helen Heirmauser. Thomas' grandmother is having a pitched battle with his mother, who wants her to stay quietly at home while Grandma Jo would rather be skateboarding and doing parkour. Chip wears entomology socks. Part of the action takes place at the town roller rink, where Thomas agonizes over going out the security door.

Like I said, quirky.

While there are serious aspects to the book, especially the rather dark parts where Thomas' whole family basically deserts him because they think he's stolen the head, it's hard to imagine any kid taking the story seriously - let alone a sixth grader, which Thomas purports to be. The "message" of the book is about the importance of pursuing your dreams and special "gifts" and accepting differences, but it's so over the top that it's hard to translate to the real world. I'd also say, from an adult viewpoint, that while being yourself is awesome you still have to fit into society. But, setting aside all my personal thoughts on the book...

It's funny. Recommend it to kids who like quirky fiction, light-hearted mysteries, and funny school stories. Basically, it's more Wimpy Kid than Wonder, more Series of Unfortunate Events than Howe's Misfits.

Verdict: If you have fans of the above genres, it's a fine addition to your library. I'm not up for starting another series and don't have a lot of kids who appreciate quirky, so I'll pass on this series.

ISBN: 9781681191744; Published 2017 by Bloomsbury; Borrowed from another library in my consortium

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