Friday, February 7, 2014

Ungifted by Gordon Korman

All it takes is one bus ride for Donovan Curtis to know, without a doubt, that the Academy of Scholastic Distinction is not Hardcastle Middle School. What’s more, Donovan doesn’t even need to show up to his first class to know, without a doubt, that he isn’t gifted. He’s creative, and funny, and smart, but he’s definitely not gifted. So when he sets into motion an improbable series of events that culminates in a ginormous metal globe crashing through school’s gym doors—an act that ultimately (and accidentally)-- sends him to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction, he (ahem) rolls with it because it’s the perfect place to hide out for a while.

 Gordon Korman’s Ungifted is Donovan’s story.  While it isn’t a deeply serious text, it’s a fun read that explores the ideas of what it means to be truly gifted, what makes us outcasts, and how the bonds of community can be both built and strengthened when we look outside of our own worldview and experience life through a different set of lenses.

What works in this book:

Korman’s characters largely transcend typecasting. It would be easy in a book about middle school geniuses to make them simply weird, simply because of their genius.  Instead, the characters tend, with the exception of off-the-charts genius Noah Youkilis, to be typical middle-school kids with their own dreams, biases, quirks, and neuroses.

Donovan, who is perceived by his new classmates as enviably normal, is a remarkably complex character. Sure, he’s a goof-off, and sure he doesn’t understand 8th grade quantum physics, but he’s also the kid who is so curious about his heritage that he paid for an subscription in order to research his family tree.

The one character who lacks dimension is Donovan’s nemesis, school superintendent Dr. Schultz. Schultz’s obsessive need to find and punish the student who got away with destroying the gym becomes his only focus. So rather than seeing an adult character who has complexity and understandable motivations, we have the stereotype of an angry, controlling adult. While Schultz didn’t ruin the book for me, I would’ve preferred a more believable character.

The plot was a surprise.  I assumed, when I started it, that the teachers in the new school would soon discover that Donovan has some kind of unique gift (and was getting in trouble due to boredom), but no. Donovan is completely, happily, ungifted.  Donovan’s essential ungiftedness changes the shape of the Academy of Scholastic Distinction, and is the driving theme of this book.
Ungifted is largely character-driven which is part of its charm. Korman has created believable characters, dropped them into slightly off-kilter situations, and allowed them to be who and as they are—they shape the events rather than allow the events to shape them; in those instances where the events of the book are in the forefront, the characters remain true to themselves.
What doesn’t work as well:
Pacing occasionally breaks down. While, for the most part, the book moves along at a good clip, there are a few places where the exposition gets in the way of the story.

There are some pesky moments where the book becomes plot-driven.  I’m all for implausibility and speculative fiction.  But Ungifted is not speculative fiction so events that rely on a willing suspension of disbelief don’t quite work here. One such example grows out of the Academy’s failure to include a Human Growth and Development course in the curriculum. Donovan convinces his pregnant sister to allow herself to be used as a human subject so that his classmates will not have to take the course in summer school. Although Korman attempts to create plausibility, he doesn’t quite attain it. And unfortunately the attempt leads to more exposition than is really necessary in this book.

Audience: Middle School.  The characters are in 8th grade. Nothing in this book is inappropriate for younger readers; older readers might enjoy the quirky sense of humor.

On the Brooke Baker Compulsive Readability (BBCR) scale, where 1) I couldn’t finish it, and 2) I stayed up all night finishing it and now I’m very tired, I would rate it a 6/10.  I could put it down from time and work on other things, but I wanted to know how things turned out because I wanted to know—not just because I had to finish the book in order to review it.

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