CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 2. . . .September 11, 2009
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2009.
249 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Todd Kyle.
Reviewed from Uncorrected Proof.
"This is an unusual school ring. And an unusual place for it too."
"Quite so, quite so," responded Headmistress Oppenheimer.
"It doesn't appear to have any seams in it," continued Amanda.
"Yes, that's completely true," replied Oppenheimer. "It is engineered out of a titanium alloy that is self-bonding once closed."
"You mean there's no way to take it off?" blurted Amanda.
"Of course there is," responded Oppenheimer, with a calmly reassuring smile. "Anytime you want to remove it, simply come and see me, and I'll remove it for you."
"But why can't I do it myself?" asked Amanda.
"Well, why would you ever want to do that?" asked Professor Leitspied. "Your school ring is proof that you are one of the elite minds of your –– I mean, our entire planet."
Eleven-year-old Amanda Forsythe, a misunderstood scientific prodigy, is recruited by the exclusive Superior Thinking and Advanced Research Academy. As she begins her studies at the boarding school, she is thrilled by the excellent facilities and stimulating atmosphere, as well as by her new-found friends. When Sanjay, an equally brilliant student from India, discovers that the Academy is actually an alien plot to harness the kids' discoveries in order to take over the Earth, Amanda and the rest of her friends are sceptical, but soon realize he is telling the truth. The group races against time to get the message out to the authorities and to rescue George, one of the aliens-in-disguise who opposes the takeover plans.
Like Harry Potter, Amanda Forsythe's appeal lies in her exceptional abilities that are misunderstood by her family and her everyday world. Echoing the desires of many kids, she gets to attend a school where her abilities are developed beyond her wildest dreams, with kids who are just as brilliant as she, and even with a nemesis, Eugenia Asperger, a student who tries to outdo her and her friends with a little cheating.
But that is where the similarities end. The school is not Hogwarts; it is a virtual prison, as Amanda suspects when the "school ring" she is given in the quote above turns out to be a tracking device. In this book, almost all adults, with the exception of George, are to be mistrusted –– a few are nefarious aliens, and most are caricatured bumbling idiots, like the police chief who doesn't recognize Amanda's SOS signals, her previous school principal who values sports over science, and her father, who only lets her attend the fully subsidized Academy because it will save him money.
The book's limitations run far deeper than that of Rowling's multi-layered and complex series. Characterization of young people is better developed than that of adults, but inconsistent. Amanda's multi-ethnic gang of friends is interesting, but Eugenia is a little too evil to be believed. The science often also stretches the limits of credulity, with new inventions and gadgets to solve every problem, although the same can be said of Harry Potter's magic. The writing style is as long-winded and educated as Amanda's alien scientist teachers. Sometimes it works –– it can be appealing to particularly smart kids, and, as the plot thickens, the problem-solving flows well. But sometimes it can be too smart for its own good, such as the reference to Donald Rumsfeld's "known unknowns" speech from the early days of the Bush administration.
I also take much exception to a highly inappropriate line in the final chapter. Amanda's friend Derek, in a debriefing with police after the aliens flee the planet, is desperate to hide the remote control of a global tracking device he invented in order to prevent the authorities from exploiting its military applications. He shoves it down the front of his pants, "making him look like a rock star." I have seen appropriate, meaningful, and contextualized references to sex in children's books before, and often defend their presence, but this flippant, unwarranted comment is the lowest point in an otherwise decently edited, if uneven, science fiction story.
Recommended with reservations.
Todd Kyle, a public library manager in Mississauga, ON, has served on the jury of several children's literature awards in both official languages.
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