Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010
Hardcover, 336 pages
Ages 10-14 (for best results)
Thought this looked interesting and thought I would give it a try…and it is on my 2010 concenter list. Glad I did, I could not put this one down.
Reginald Garvey McKnight would have preferred to begin the 8th grade school year as King of Clarke Junior School (a High Academic, Study Intensive Middle School). Instead, he fast becomes known as Pukey and is made a school-wide laughingstock. Such a reputation is not easily overcome as Reggie tries to figure out who he is and how to let the world see him for his better attributes (not his weak stomach). He isn’t the only one. 8th Grade Super Zero is ripe with characters trying to figure out what they would become; some forced to re-invent themselves for the umpteenth time (as adults are not exempt from Rhuday-Perkovich’s cast list).
There is a class-presidential election taking place where the subject of the popular vote versus the best qualified comes into play—as well as each candidate’s motivations. This is a perfect opportunity to stand up and make a difference, to give popularity a run for its money, but how determined is Reggie to make the effort and put himself out there for probable ridicule? And isn’t there enough going on?
Reggie’s youth group teams up with National Public Radio (NPR) to collect stories from those living in the neighborhood homeless shelter Olive Branch. Youth group is a place Reggie feels comfortable being himself and finds leadership roles a natural outpouring of his confidence and his growing interest in the homeless. His own father has been unemployed too long now and Reggie begins to recognize some of the children at the shelter from school—one is his assigned “Little Buddy” kindergartner Charlie. Reggie takes a passionate interest in the shelter and involves his schoolmates. He would like to see the school form a community service partnership with the shelter and makes this one his many platforms as he decides to become a late-runner in the elections.
“I walked to school thinking of those people at the shelter looking like they’ve got no reason to keep going…but they were still moving forward. By the end of our interview, George was talking about going back to school to get a master’s degree. In our meeting at the end of the session, Jeff said his partner wanted to build birdhouses, and I watched this little girl pretending to be an astronaut. That takes a kind of faith that I’ve never even thought about before. (75)
As Reggie begins to take interest in the community around him, he discovers more about his own self and grows in confidence and stature. It isn’t without numerous complications, of course. There is the bully who goes out of his way to torment Reggie and friends. There is the stress of one unemployed parent, and one overworked. His older sister creates her own conflict-ridden dynamic. His long-time friends are undergoing their own changes, interests begin to diverge, and the way each sees each other begins to fracture under the strain (which isn’t the worst thing).
Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward”
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
“even if you are not ready for day,
it cannot always be night.” (228)*
Creating change and/or surviving it can be difficult; Rhuday-Perkovich keeps things real, and she keeps it hopeful. Middle-graders able to take interest in self and others simultaneously? There is no false optimism in 8th Grade Super Zero. In Reggie and his peers, the author does not see a generation of young people who are incapable of seeing the community/world around them and making a difference. She acknowledges that life at their age is not easy and there is a lot to sort through, there is a lot to take in, but no one runs the gamut alone, we need each other, and we all want to be worthwhile. Rhuday-Perkovich continually asserts the obvious but not easy: that One informs and is informed by their peers, their families, their communities. This is good, and it can be scary. Embrace it and watch yourself become someone with potential–Yourself.
Rhuday-Perkovich’s writing is really nice. She creates an earnest, charming, and articulate first person narrative with Reggie. There is a lot of heart and a lot of humor. And can I say how refreshing it is to see the portrayal of a young person pursuing their spirituality/working out their Faith? The novel isn’t too message-y, and refuses definitive answers for every inquisition Reggie would/might pursue.
Issues of race are mentionable. Reggie’s best friend Joe C. is white and is sometimes a source of embarrassment for him; and their cultural differences create some divisions in their relationship. Joe C. as a character has to overcome some of the skewed (harmful) suppositions his father makes concerning the homeless. Reggie’s father works from a certain hierarchy of acceptability. It’s the world the characters live in that the author wouldn’t ignore, however she doesn’t necessarily dwell. She infuses a level of authenticity into her setting/characterization as she acknowledges the implications rather deftly.
There is a lot going on and to take in Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s 8th Grade Super Zero and the reader can, for the most part, dwell at will. I can’t say the pacing isn’t somewhat weighted down at times, but once invested Reggie and friends are compelling. A reader is bound to see some aspects of themselves in one or more of the characters–a revitalizing mirror in a catalog of predominantly white and affluent, often broken, often trendy (even in rebellion), and blinkered.
I see this novel as a good one for middle-grade book clubs, class readings, for youth group**; both boys and girls should be interested. The novel is relevant without need of outside guidance. The text would engage and it’s accessibility is capable of instigating more than enough conversation. It doesn’t insult the reader by being too simple, but it doesn’t require a degree to decipher either.
8th Grade Super Zero is also just flat-out entertaining, so if you need an easy recommendation for summer into autumn reading…
*The author includes this, words of Cesar Chavez, writers from the Bible, and others in the text; and it works.
**I think Reggie’s interest in discovering and living out his faith, his dwelling on scripture, humility, and questions of “Why the bad things?,” etc. would make for great conversations. I think the service project inspiring. However, I am aware of deeply conservative groups where a minute section of the story where Reggie rather humorously deals with his sexuality/response might be of issue; I thought the abbreviated reference to sex-ed and the coach telling all the boys to purchase sturdy binders brilliantly played, as apparently the coach’s advice wasn’t so absurd after all. The author is interested in the life of a boy in 8th grade and all that concerns him, and she handles her character with care.
In a lot of ways 8th Grade Super Zero reminds me of Crystal Allen’s How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy (Balzer & Bray, 2011). Both have wonderful narrators/protagonists with whom the reader can commiserate and still enjoy their individualized thoughts/struggles/triumphs. Both delve into the relevant subjects of keeping friends, trying to reinvent one’s self, and boys in relationship with their parents and siblings and girls. If you like one, chances are you will enjoy the other. There is also a bit of Francisco X. Stork in Super Zero, (maybe an earlier-reader version); which can only be a good thing.