How to Survive Middle School and Monster Bots by Ron Bates (Zonderkidz) tries hard to be a combination of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and children’s science fiction about building robots. It ends with a rollicking change of heart and happily ever after, but the main character’s unlikability hampers the story.
Howard Boward, a twelve-year-old middle school student, considers himself the smartest student at his school. He despises his next door neighbor:
Reynolds is my annoying eleven-year-old neighbor. People think I hang out with him, but I don’t. It’s more like I’m the sun and Reynolds is a tiny, insignificant planet that orbits around me. (p. 15)
Funny description by an author who specializes in comedy? Yes. Realistic depiction of how children dislike each other? Yes.
Likable character and good role model for young readers? No. It takes 124 pages for Howard to make one decision and take one action that is not self-centered, arrogant, or demeaning to others. It took me three weeks of reading this book a few pages at a time to wade through descriptions of Howard insulting others and wallowing in self-pity that the bullies pick on him at school.
The sad part is that Howard is an entirely realistic character. As Gamergate has shown us, schools are filled with nerdy, geeky white boys who feel entitled to greatness due to what they see as their massive intelligence. Howard complains about the bullying, but he never realizes how badly he treats the people around him. Attitudes like this develop into tragedies such as the Isla Vista shootings, when a former bully victim grows up to exact “retribution” on women who apparently were responsible for his lack of sexual encounters.
Howard’s narcissistic entitlement is chilling and, given the current climate of violence in our society, almost irresponsible.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the book gets better after page 124. We see Howard becoming more aware of those around him and learning life lessons about teamwork and playing fair. However, the breakneck pace of the last few chapters comes across as unrealistic when set against the first half of the book. Too much is left unexplained, presumably a holdover from the first book. The story depends on a great deal of telling and little showing, although the wild shenanigans of the robots would most likely serve as pleasant distraction for a child reader.
The other good news is that the book does show Howard learning how to interact with others as a decent human being instead of a rotten, bratty kid. However, I would have liked to see Howard come to this change gradually. The overnight Cinderella transformation made for a satisfying but unearned ending.
Would I let my child read this book? Yes, if my child enjoyed robot stories or read everything available. I’d be careful, however, to point out Howard’s need to grow into a better person. We can enjoy stories of flawed characters without having to condone mean-spirited behavior from our protagonist.
Review copy provided by BookLook, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishing)