I think 12 is one of the hardest ages to recommend books for, especially when the kid isn’t present and the parents or other adults are asking about recommendations. It’s not hard because of the books. There are tons of excellent books for this age range; it’s actually one of my favorite sub-sets of children’s literature. It’s hard because kids at 12 are so varied, even within themselves. Are they kids? Adults? The store owner once told me that she often asks, “Are they 12 going on 13 or 12 going on 18?”, which sums it up perfectly. Don’t get me wrong. I love working with kids this age. The ambiguity and constant movement between childhood and adulthood is interesting and they are hilariously sarcastic, with such pointed insight into the world around them. The kids themselves are great. It’s trying to pick a book for a 12 year old who isn’t there or I don’t know that poses the problem. I don’t want to insult them by giving something too young, but I don’t want to hand over material they might not be ready for (or interested in). And at this age, if you pick wrong, they will remember.
Last night I read Gordon Korman’s new book, Ungifted (Balzer + Bray, $16.99) and I think I might have found my answer. Ungifted is about an eighth grade boy, Donovan Curtis, who realizes that the statue of Atlas on his school grounds has a huge butt, so he whacks it with a stick. Unfortunately the statue isn’t well crafted; the globe falls off of Atlas’s shoulders, rolls down the hill, and crashes into the glass doors of the gym during a basketball game. Fantastic opening chapter. Don’t you want to read it already? Caught by the superintendent, who obviously does not know every student in the district, Donovan becomes the beneficiary of a paperwork mixup and ends up being invited to attend the gifted school for academic excellence. He decides the school would be an excellent place to hide out for a few weeks and so he goes. The problem is that Donovan isn’t really gifted.
The chapters alternate between Donovan and other characters in the book — the superintendent, fellow students and teachers at the new school, and his sister — narrating the story. Donovan (IQ 112) is full of action: “He was probably right. They were all right. But when the thing is right there in front of me, and I can kick it, grab it, shout it out, jump into it, paint it, launch it, or light it on fire, it’s like I’m a puppet on a string, powerless to resist. I don’t think; I do“. Chloe, and the other kids at the academy, on the other hand are full of thought. Chloe Garfinkle (IQ 159) is constantly generating hypotheses and wonders what life is like for “normal” kids: “She had a point. Most of the guys at the Academy for Scholastic Distinction weren’t exactly what you’d call Hollywood hunks. I didn’t expect body-builders, but it would be nice if they could grow a set of shoulders between the lot of them”. Abigail (IQ 171) is the high-strung overachiever who is afraid to fail and Noah (IQ 206) is the genius that can’t seem to fail, even when he tries. All of the characters were well-developed and engaging. The story made me laugh out loud throughout. His classmates teach Donovan a little something about thinking and he teaches them quite a bit about acting, thus single-handedly challenging the definition of “gifted”.
I’m heading straight for this book the next time I have to recommend something for a 12 year old.