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Summary: Everybody seems to think that Benny Alvarez is a glass half empty kind of kid. Benny sees himself as a realist. He calls things things as he sees them, whether his brother Crash is putting his foot in his mouth; his grandfather can’t remember his name; or classifying his classmates as “neutrals” or “pests.” Benny and his two middle school buddies are known as the wordsmiths because of their enthrallment with “The Book” where they find more interesting and complicated words for every situation. Being a realist keeps his world very black and white, but is that really the way life is? When Benny and Claudine are pitted against each other in a poetry contest, it is prose (Benny) v. rhyme (Claudine) in which format is better! Benny shares his view of the world in this is first-person story for preteen readers.
Type of Reading: family reading, anytime reading, independent reading, read aloud book, reluctant reader,
Recommended Age: read together: 9 to 12; read yourself: 10 and up
Young Reader Reaction: I don't want to give away the end, so I'll just say that Benny and Claudine learn something in this competition. By being forced to consider love and/or loss, they learn it is much easier to empathize with each other than they had believed. As Benny and Claudine resolve their feud and are able to respect each other and become friends, young readers will learn that when you take the time to get to know someone’s story, you may have more in common with them than you believed.
Peter Johnson’s story is a great one for readers to learn the power of an attitude, as well as the power of the thesaurus. Through Benny’s character, children will be introduced to the concept of synonyms in a way that makes finding the right word fun and interesting as Benny and his friends use their prized thesaurus to name people, actions, and things in the perfect way. I would love to read more books by Peter Johnson and recommend this book to everyone.
Adult Reader Reaction: Benny is an every-kid. He has a great voice that echoes the sentiments and logic of his peers (male and female). The author deals with several real and poignant events (e.g., grandfather’s stroke) with a balanced hand: not over-the-top funny, but not down-in-the-dumps sad, either. One of the cool things about Benny, Jocko and Beanie is their exclusive Word Club. They don’t come across as nerds. Instead, they are the cool kids. The story doesn’t *need* illustrations, but given the way the book unfolds and how visual the writing is, it would be fun to have some comic-strip-type images at the beginning of a chapter.
Pros: Humor and authentic dialogue combine flawlessly in a story where kids can easily see themselves, their peers, and their families. Parents will like that the adults are genuine and “equal” in the sense that they are not caricatures or the comic foil.
Borrow or Buy: Borrow, at least. All reader (yes, girls too) will enjoy this story. It would make a nice gift for young readers.
Educational Themes: Although Mrs. D’s poetry Unit is a subplot in the book, it could be fun to use this novel as part of a poetry class reading. For example, readers could stop and “do” some of the assignments that Benny and his classmates are doing as they go along.
The story also lends itself to discussions about relationships, and could open the door to discussions about an out-of-work parent, ailing parent / grandparent, or peer struggles.
Notes: The author donated a copy of this book knowing that we would consider it for review and provide an independent, unbiased profile. This book will be given to a nonprofit to help readers in need.
Literary Categories: Fiction - family, friendship, humor, growing up
Date(s) Reviewed: September 2014, September 2015
Other Reviews: See Critic's Reviews at barnesandnoble.com; and reviews and reader feedback at amazon.com.