The word “gifted” has never been applied to a kid like Donovan Curtis. It’s usually more like “Don’t try this at home.” So when the troublemaker pulls a major prank at his middle school, he thinks he’s finally gone too far. But thanks to a mix-up by one of the administrators, instead of getting in trouble, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction (ASD), a special program for gifted and talented students.
It wasn’t exactly what Donovan had intended, but there couldn’t be a more perfect hideout for someone like him. That is, if he can manage to fool people whose IQs are above genius level. And that becomes harder and harder as the students and teachers at ASD grow to realize that Donovan may not be good at math or science (or just about anything). But after an ongoing experiment with a live human (sister), an unforgettably dramatic middle-school dance, and the most astonishing come-from-behind robot victory ever, Donovan shows that his “gifts” might be exactly what the ASD students never knew they needed.
There’s a lot about this book that is vintage Korman – the quirky kid who defies authority, the smart kid who longs to break the rules but just needs a bit of convincing, the slightly deranged administrator, etc. What I really enjoyed about Ungifted was that he’s taken his classic characters and given them a modern twist. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the concept of ‘specialty schools’ for different kids – athletic, math, artistic, etc. – so this story is more than timely. That he’s also included a military family and the current kid obsession of robotics makes it that much more relatable for the present-day reader. His trademark humour is at the forefront with this book, and younger readers will have no trouble catching the jokes as they fly by.
Donovan is, at the heart of it, a decent person. Yes, he’s impulsive and juvenile, but he’s also a good kid. I loved how he had investigated his family in order to try to find the ‘troublemakers’ in his family history as people to emulate, and how he realized that he needed to dig deep in order to try to build his grades at his new school. For all his quips about his sister, he is genuinely concerned about her and feels her worry about her husband being overseas and the dog he’s left behind. He’s a troublemaker, but he’s also the kid who makes trouble because he’s genuinely curious about what will happen when he does “x”. Finally, as much as he may mock the “smart kids”, he also recognizes that they are, at their heart, lonely kids who long for acceptance and he doesn’t want to see them hurt.
The quirky kids who make up the students in his class are a complete riot. Chloe is the brilliant girl who is smart enough to recognize that she wants an average life. Noah is the Sheldon-Cooper-esque character who is brilliant but begins to take his social cues from YouTube. Abigail is the insecure smart girl who uses sarcasm and a tough exterior to hide her fears about being successful in the future. They have found their niche with each other in the school, and that works for them until they realize that they want more than just academic relationships. What they lack is that spark of creativity that will allow them to think beyond the box.
Together, the kids of ASD and Donovan share their knowledge about how to get along in the world and with each other. Donovan helps the ‘smart kids’ to become more socially aware, while Chloe and her peers teach Donovan the importance of perseverance and academic integrity. Of course, no Korman book would be complete without some kind of spectacular debacle, and Ungifted does not disappoint, providing a vivid description of an academic Robot Wars gone horribly wrong – think of what might happen if “Reach for the Top” mixed with “Lord of the Flies”. Fabulous and fun, the match is a sly nod to anyone who has ever had to attend one of the events and wistfully wanted the robots to go berserk.
As an adult, a healthy suspension of reality is necessary when reading this book, but that’s not usually an issue for the middle grade reader. That Donovan could have been so erroneously sent to the wrong school, and that the student who should have received the invitation never complained is one jump of logic, while the abject adulation given to Donovan also made me a little uncomfortable. He was a new kid, and a not-very-bright one at that, but that he was liked by the ASD kids simply because he was ‘cool’. Bright kids are inherently creative, but the book gives the impression that they are anything but; as a teacher of gifted kids, I can assure you that they are more than capable of being completely fanciful and creatively quirky.
One final quibble: While I understand that the school’s name – Academy for Scholastic Distinction – is shortened to ASD, I’m uncomfortable with the implied reference to Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger’s being the most familiar to most people). I hesitate to make that connection, as I would never want to perpetuate the stereotype that all smart people must have ASD, or that all individuals with ASD are brilliant. Sometimes a quirky kid is just a quirky kid; there’s no diagnosis necessary when you are different. I’m going to continue to view this decision with my blinders on, assured that this connection was entirely coincidental.
Having said all of this, you might think I didn’t like the book – on the contrary, I think it’s a wonderful middle grade read. It’s funny, and a little bit snarky (something kids love) and the situations talk about events that most kids will have more than a passing familiarity with these days. The situations are classic Korman and reminded me so much of the early Macdonald Hall books that I couldn’t’ help but laugh out loud at times. There’s a lot of heart to the characters, and seeing the maturing of Donovan is great fun. As a teacher, he would have driven me crazy, but I would have gone down smiling all the way.
Ungifted is published by Scholastic Canada and was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It can be purchased at Indigo, Amazon and from your friendly independent bookseller. ISBN: 9780061742668, 288 pages