Here's the silent prayer of junior high school students all over the world: Please, [insert deity], let me get through this day without looking like a complete, utter dork.
If you're a really lucky junior high schooler, you're in the "in" crowd. If you're just lucky, you become one of the nearly faceless middle. However, if you do something that draws the wrong kind of attention to yourself -- picking your nose at the wrong time, wearing white socks with penny loafers, quickly grasping advanced mathematical concepts -- you become marked and hounded like a gazelle limping across a savanna full of lions. Oh, and to make things worse, your unfortunate misstep will follow you throughout your days.
The easiest way to escape the "dork" rep is to have your parents move, preferably many miles away. And this is where we pick up the tale of Jerry Flack, the star of Carol Gorman's wonderfully accurate novel Dork in Disguise (HarperCollins, $15.95).
Jerry is beginning the sixth grade as a new man. No one at Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School knows him. They don't know that he has been a geek kid, with a talent for science and a passion for Ray Bradbury's short stories. He's the new guy, which is an unenviable position to be in for most, but he believes that being a tabula rasa is much better than being dorcus malorcus.
"Jerry knew that being cool wasn't just about having great hair," Gorman writes. "He had studied the subject for several months now, ever since his parents had said they were moving to Spencer Lake. He had pored for hours over magazines like Teen Beat and Ultimate Cool and gossip magazines like Guess Who? and Dishin' Dirt. He had watched endless hours of music videos on TV and had lurked in plenty of teen chat rooms on the Web, trying to get a feel for how cool kids talked to one another."
Gorman not only knows how to set up a good story, with dialogue that is neither trite nor unnecessarily brazen, she also understands, or never forgot, the social structure of pre-teen cliques. "Isn't it interesting how the good-looking kids all gravitate to each other in the first few minutes of the school year?" says Brenda McAdams, a smart young woman who wears her glasses and intelligence with pride, and befriends Jerry for his own good. "Even though they come from at least five different elementary schools, I bet by the end of the day all the `beautiful people' will be best friends."
For the few, coolness is thrust upon them at birth, like James Brown or the Dalai Lama. For others, their presence at and reaction to one or two significant events is enough to give them entree into a more attractive circle of friends. For Jerry, it's sharing a locker with Craig Fox, an incorrigible knucklehead with ties to the school's elite.
Building a new rep is like enrolling in the witness relocation program. Along with a new identity come new stories -- well, lies, really. There are outright lies that Jerry tells in order to keep his new image flying high, but there are inward lies that bury the real Jerry. We're not talking about some psychological mumbo jumbo, just a fresh look at what happens when kids try too hard to not be themselves.
For young Howard Weinstein, moving from California to New York is a trip that leads him from chic to geek. Howard is the fourth-grade protagonist in Carol Sonenklar's Mighty Boy (Orchard, $15.95), a fun, fast-paced novel for a kid who's moving out of easy-to-read chapter books.
At first, Howard likes the idea of moving with his family to New York. His father, a geologist, has taken a visiting professorship at New York University. But things turn sour for Howard: New York can be as difficult for a kid as it can be for adults. "From the moment he walked into his fourth-grade classroom three months ago, Howard felt like an alien who'd landed in unfriendly territory," Sonenklar writes. "All the kids seemed two heads taller and twenty pounds heavier than him; he even overheard his mom telling his teacher that he was `small for his age'. "
That last line is like driving a nail through a boy's ego, and shows that Sonenklar knows what motivates boys that age. Howard's smarter than his classmates -- they're working on math that he did the year before -- and consequently he is friendless, save for the television character Mighty Boy. He's Howard's hero, and our boy can't get enough. He thinks about Mighty Boy 24 hours a day and has a poster of him on the ceiling, wears pajamas with his hero's likeness, owns a Mighty Boy notebook, pencil case, and even a skateboard. He's also a member of the Mighty Boy Boys' Club.
When Howard finally gets to meet the "real" Mighty Boy, Sonenklar leads readers on a fun trip during which Howard finds out that what looks real often isn't -- and he discovers that he's got "mighty" skills of his own. This book will be a winner with both boys and girls.
While Jerry and Howard comically struggle through the pain of early adolescence, Ben, the hero of Adele Griffin's Dive (Hyperion, $14.99), has little to smile about. At the same time, however, he has lots to be grateful for. Ben takes us through his thoughts, concerns, loves and hates during a trip to see his seriously injured stepbrother, Dustin. Injured during a diving accident, Dustin remains emotionally wounded by the loss of his biological mother to cancer. He is also unable to deal with Lyle, his father, and refuses to conform to the regulations and trappings of middle-class life.
Ben, however, craves the safety of rules and trappings while his mother, Gina, selfishly rambles through life. Ben tells us about the world "Before," when he camped out in flea bag apartments and trailers and at his grandmother's house, and slept on car seats, in lobbies and doorways, while Gina and Ben's father fell in and out of love.
Dustin, a few years older than Ben, is a moody bundle of teenage loathsomeness who feels stifled by what Ben thinks is heaven. "I'd never been part of a real house, with a newspaper delivered to the front lawn and yellow tomatoes growing out back," Ben says to Dustin in one of his internal monologues. "So in my mind, you were the lucky one."
Ben, by his own admission, is never going to be close to Dustin. He merely tolerates Dustin's attitude and occasionally ruthless behavior as a dark mark on an otherwise very stable lifestyle. There is only one thing that Ben sees in Dustin that is worthwhile, even beautiful: his diving.
Griffin, an award-winning writer, is also adept in writing the way most 11-year-olds speak. While Ben's vocabulary isn't as extensive as Jerry Flack's or Brenda McAdams's, he's wise beyond his years. He understands and embraces what's best for his development, and attempts to analyze why his mother and stepbrother prefer to ramble through life.
This book is not an easy read, because of its subject matter and its shifts between past and present tense. Still, Griffin has created a character as smart and sympathetic as one is likely to find in a young adult novel this year.
While not as intense as Dive, You're A Brave Man, Julius Zimmerman (Farrar Straus Giroux, $16) delves into the issue of responsibility, but in an area often reserved for female characters. Author Claudia Mills introduces Julius, a chronic underachiever who gets to spends his sixth-grade summer in what most kids his age would think was Hell on Earth: in the morning, French class; in the afternoon, babysitting 3-year-old Edison. The little tyke is not the easiest child in the world to deal with, especially for Julius, who initially views this gig as punishment. After Edison's mother leaves Julius alone with Edison for the first time, the conversation runs from the simple to the sublime.
"Why don't you show me your backyard?" Julius asks Edison.
"Why don't you show me nothing?"
"You don't want to show me nothing? Okay, don't show me nothing. Show me something. What do you want to show me?"
"Edison had to think that one over. `Nothing,' he finally said . . ."
But Julius earns Edison's trust. And while there are two other interesting plot strands running through the novel, including Julius's attempts to start reading A Tale of Two Cities, most interesting is the relationship between Edison and Julius. Although Julius is having a hard time cracking open Dickens's classic, he's got no problem reading books on potty training. Kudos to Mills for creating a character that is both credible and unconventional, and for offering some memorable babysitting dilemmas that are too often reserved for books about young women.
Boys as nurturers? Another good direction in which to move the genre.
Fredrick McKissack Jr.'s most recent book for children is "Black Hoops." His next book, "This Generation of Americans," will be published next year.