Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Super smart

Lazy lazy lazy.

Here's a whole batch of books that I read this summer and didn't have the time to review. They all have kid geniuses as protagonists, and so I thought it might be useful to survey them together.

The brainiac hero in children's literature is not simply a love letter to the kid who spends a lot of time in the library and sees him/herself as smarter than the average quadruped -- the brainiac hero is something of a magical plot device. You can solve thorny plot problems and achieve improbable results when you've got a genius at the wheel. So your super-smart character does not automatically sell me, I'll have you know.

Phineas L. MacGuire... Erupts! The first experiment from the highly scientific notebooks of Phineas L. MacGuire, by Frances O'Roark Dowell. Ages 7-11.
Ok that title was long enough, now I'm tired. Can I just say this is a terrific book that is good-natured and also funny, but not sappy, and get off the hook? Seriously, everybody loves this although not too many people read it, and it is perfectly pitched for kids who are beginning to move on from Time Warp Trio. Thumbs up.

The Blackout Gang by Josh McCall. Ages 9-12.
This one starts out with the 3 brainiac heros (a programmer, a violin prodigy, and a physics star) stuck at summer camp in the Catskills, moaning about how smart people are always depicted in the movies as evil - or at least disturbed. Sets the tone for a straight-up adventure in which the smart kid heroes get to be brilliant and heroic and the smart kid bad guy gets to be brilliant and underhanded. There is some interesting further play here between preconception and reality - the villain is obese and affectless, and the kids make an effort (before they realize he's the villain) to be nice to him and not judge him based on his manner and looks. There are a couple of satisfying plot twists before a solid ending. Nice work. Thumbs up.

Brainboy and the Deathmaster by Tor Seidler. Ages 9-12.
Another orphan hero with an underappreciated skill. Another bleak beginning. Another swell plot, with a few tricky riddles, and another slam-bang ending! Whoo! Damn fine book! Extra bonus: the plucky hero, who copes with depression, loneliness and betrayal and in the process makes friends and learns the value of loyalty... is a gamer. Pass this book surreptitiously to the kids hanging around the game display. It's a shame the cover makes the kid look like he's wearing an ascot: ascots are never cool, unless you're Thurston Howell. Thumbs up.

Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks. Age 12 and up.
Tightly plotted, swiftly paced, and, at the end, satisfyingly moral, this is a real book for real readers disguised as a cartoony teen throwaway. Evil genius indeed. Very thumbs up.