by Tom Angleberger
Amulet Books, 2013
hardcover, 208 pages + folding instructions.
Dark times have fallen on McQuarrie Middle School. Dwight’s back—and not a moment too soon, as the gang faces the FunTime Menace: a new educational program designed to raise students’ standardized test scores. Instead, it’s driving everyone crazy with its obnoxious videos of Professor FunTime and his insidious singing calculator! When Principal Rabbski cancels the students’ field trip—along with art, music, and LEGO classes—to make time for FunTime, the students turn to Origami Yoda for help. But some crises are too big for Origami Yoda to handle alone: Form a Rebel Alliance the students must. United, can they defeat the FunTime Menace and cope with a surprise attack from Jabba the Puppett?—publisher’s comments
When I held this up in triumph, coming out of the Library, my 13 year old sighed. With the wisdom of a new 8th grader she had to wonder over the plausibility of middle-schoolers with finger puppets. Did I mention she is attending an Art School? I will ask her again mid-year. Meanwhile I wondered, “Do you not interact with your male classmates?!” I also reminded her that she does interact with her male classmates in math class over geek-sessions regarding certain Doctors both Horrible and Who. I am going to convince her to read The Secret of The Fortune Wookie which is all about celebrating the awesome existence of the SFF nerd-girl. As it was, the brief conversation of shrugs ended with mine, “I find them entertaining, and very pleasantly dangerous.”
I’m sure there are those who see the obvious Star Wars tie-ins and think “gimmick” or clever merchandising and continue on to check-out with it or dismiss them out of hand. The clever isn’t in gaining Lucasfilm Limited’s permission, it’s in convincing people that these are harmless easy pop culture fare that are sure to entice the reluctant male reader. Really the intelligence is in the way Tom Angleberger captures the angst, quirk and wit of middle-grade humans, encourages them to continue as such and gives them a voice.
In The Surprise Attack, fears anticipated in the previous novel are realized. The art, music, drama, LEGO-robotics, yearbook, field trips…and yes, even sports are cancelled and replaced with the FunTime educational program designed to send the sane screaming to the fields, I mean, get those standardized test scores back up. Feeling frustrated and powerless, Tommy and others turn to a figure who (however uncannily) has yet to let them down. Under the advice of Origami Yoda (as wielded by the returned Captain Dwight), the Origami Rebel Alliance is formed and Star Wars characters are dispensed with the Origami Yoda characters in mind. [Part of the entertainment in these books is how Angleberger finesses Star Wars story-lines and characters into a vision that is very much his own.] Yes, Angleberger empowers his middle-school students to rebel against the powers that be.
“That’s the crazy thing about this whole rebellion business. You can’t always tell who is going to be a rebel and who’s just going to be lame.” ~Tommy
Protest takes several forms through the course of The Surprise Attack. A few of the core ideas found in the advice: consider risk, timing, and focus. Selfish motives aren’t going to wash, like not wanting to do sit-ups in P.E. The book advocates peaceful protest, for example, Remi would like to do something about colossally annoying path-hogging behavior. In the book it is the three BFFs walking down the hall in a line at their own pace oblivious (or uncaring) that no one can get by. On Larimer it is the three-to-five-or-eight mimicking aforementioned behavior but with the added frustration of teasing you with small gaps that you really wish you could negotiate. Sometimes Angleberger’s books find an echo in the most unexpected ways. Remi and company come up with a plan (with Origami Yoda’s encouragement). It’s good stuff. There are petitions, letters, education and recruitment, fearful explanations to parents…
Arguments are made from different sides: the administrators concerned with public opinion and money and their students’ future;parent’s concerned with their children respect of authority, mental health (i.e. maturity), and their academic career present and future; young people concerned about their whole education and being competitive with their peers at other schools as they proceed into, you know, their future. The challenge is in seeking out the right solution to the problem at hand and marshaling forces behind it. The adults (at first) appear to only need to be in an immediate position of authority. The young people in the novel (and outside of it) must learn to articulate their concerns and persuade others to their side—as well as figure out how to adjust to those surprises that crop up—especially the one involving Jabba the Puppett.
Angleberger does drama and humor well, and most importantly he is thoughtful about it. He is entertaining, and he translates a lot of human anxiety into brave smiles, but he is also very careful with what he would have his audience know. Rebellion is a complex topic and one he tackles rather deftly—you get that much of the novel’s aplomb stems from the author’s confidence in his young characters and their readers.
The novel ends on with one of those “to be continued” ellipses after creating more intrigue than it resolves. Will the Alliance succeed? Is the Dwight/Origami Yoda mystery really as schizophrenic as it appeared in this novel? Will Harvey reveal his hidden crush?*
recommendations: boys, girls, 9-12, not only for fans of Star Wars, though there are references galore. a good read together series… like paper folding, crafty in general, read humor, and/or you live in Texas and attend public schools…
*I’m betting it’s Sara. Watch out Tommy.
L’s previous Origami Yoda book reviews (wherein you’ll get more of my response to the writing style, etc.)