Andrew Clements has carved out a nice niche for himself -- novels about preadolescent rebels. Although he has written plenty of picture books and easy readers, his most dog-eared works will probably always be the school stories set in fifth and sixth grades. They feature students who try to define or distinguish themselves in some way and run up against adult interference in the process. Clements entertainingly guides his cast through all of the awkwardness to a smooth resolution.
His breakthrough was Frindle (1996). Drawing on its author's seven years of teaching in the public schools, it conveyed both the inventive charm of a smart aleck and the cleverness of a seasoned instructor. It depicted a fifth-grader's quest to spread "frindle," the word he has coined to replace "pen," and his teacher's stealthy effort to help him. And when the boy begins to fear that his wild ideas may cause more trouble than he can handle -- the thrill of appearing on David Letterman's show having worn off -- the teacher rids him of that soul-dampening thought.
Frindle tapped into its audience's dreams of being ingenious, famous, rich and grandly charitable. In Clements's latest chronicle, The Report Card (Simon & Schuster, $15.95; ages 8-12), Nora Rowley slips out of her self-protective shell of normality to help her classmates deal with the grade-mania that has already begun in the fifth grade.
Nora is a genius, as she tells us in her engaging, just-the-facts style. She has known she was different since she put together a 500-piece puzzle before she was 2. She has also hidden her talents from everyone after realizing that she "didn't like to perform." She reads widely but surreptitiously, learns Spanish from the Univision channel and takes an M.I.T. astronomy course over the Internet. She stays clear of the gifted-and-talented program so that she can be with her best friend, Stephen, a kind, hard-working but average student. She also objects to the tracking of students so early in the game.
Nora's comments about parental and testing pressure are so precocious that she becomes hard to resist. "Now my mom and dad were trying to make up for lost time. They were going to set up a thousand hoops so their little baby-girl genius could jump through all of them, one after another." And she discerns a widening anxiety about performance and penalties: "Most kids think that if they get bad grades, it's their problem . . . . The fact is, when a kid gets a bad grade, it's like the teacher is getting a bad grade, too. And the principal. And the whole school and the whole town and the whole state. And don't forget the parents. A bad grade for a kid is a bad grade for everybody."
Nora's plan to lead her classmates in "a kids strike -- a strike against grades and tests and pressure and bad competition" -- doesn't get far. The students who intentionally earn zeroes on their tests are isolated as if they had an infectious disease, and Nora realizes that she doesn't want to endanger the valuable alliances she has made with many of the teachers. Her parents, who had let Ivy League aspirations cloud their judgment, do come to an awareness of Nora's needs, but she will clearly need to keep sharpening her powers of persuasion. As The Report Card winds up, with Nora reveling in the "normal" friendship she has with Stephen, readers may be disappointed that she hasn't delivered a master strategy to make school more nurturing and less stressful. What is genius good for anyway if not to solve such problems?
Jennifer B. Jones has no apparent agenda and not much spark in her second novel, The (Short) Story of My Life (Walker, $16.95; ages 8-12). The narrator is certainly amiable -- you sort of have to be when you're a small-statured white boy saddled with the name Michael Jordan. He has appealing relationships, especially with his friends, his grandfather and his older brother. But the plot lines, including a crush on an older girl and a run-in with a bully, have a ready-made quality.
Michael's travails stem from his insecurities about his height, but he's confident enough to believe that a pretty eighth-grader is interested in him. In this setting, wholesome down to the healthy snacks consumed, Michael's worst offense is sticking french fries up his nose to make his friends laugh. His journal entries brighten the narrative, but the ending sinks to Brady Bunch-level, with Mike saving his nemesis by helping him out of the pipe he's gotten himself stuck in. Mike learns the virtues of smallness, gets invited to the firefighters' station and becomes an honorary member of the confined-space rescue team. This novel is short but saccharine sweet. *
-- Abby McGanney Nolan
Abby McGanney Nolan is a writer and editor living in Maryland.