I’m a stranger here myself.

Cover art for Ungifted

Title: Ungifted

Author: Gordon Korman

Publisher & Release Date: Balzer + Bray, 2012

The Hook: Honesty, for me the hook was Gordon Korman. Also robots. (Just look at him – isn’t he adorable?)

The Lowdown (from jacket): “When Donovan Curtis pulls a major prank at his middle school, he thinks he’s finally gone too far. But thanks to a mix-up by one of the administrators, instead of getting in trouble, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction, a special program for gifted and talented students.

“Although it wasn’t exactly what Donovan had intended, the ASD couldn’t be a more perfectly unexpected hideout for someone like him. But as the students and teachers of ASD grow to realize that Donovan may not be good at math or science (or just about anything), he shows that his gifts may be exactly what the ASD students never knew they needed.”

Overall Impressions: Confession: I’ve been reading Gordon Korman’s books for about 25 years now. He is, in fact, one of the authors I imprinted on – reading “I Want to Go Home!”wen I was in third or fourth grade and laughing until my stomach ached. I haven’t gotten into his sports or action-adventure series but I think I’ve read pretty much all his other books. And read a bunch of them aloud to my younger sisters. So, I am pre-disposed to enjoy his work.

Ungifted follows a common Gordon Korman theme: Ordinary person(s) and oddball(s) meet and after some initial conflict and/or bewilderment they become friends and/or a team. Often they get up to wacky hijinks while helping each other with various personal issues. The thing is, though, that they’re just so likable! Even the characters set up as bad guys usually turn out okay.

In this case, regular joe Donovan “Donnie” Curtis, in one of his regular moments of poor impulse control, accidentally breaks a statue of Atlas and the giant world rolls right into the school gym, disrupting the big basketball game with their arch rivals, sending kids and adults fleeing, and ultimately causing a great deal of expensive damage. Donnie ends up in the superintendent’s office but through a series of accidents gets sent to the gifted school.

Just by being himself, Donnie helps the robotics class become a team. He gives their robot personality. And when the school realizes the class somehow missed taking Human Growth and Development and will have to make it up in summer school (horrors!), Donnie comes up with a “hands-on” alternative: blackmailing his sister Katie into sharing the last several weeks of her pregnancy with the class! He becomes friends with most of the robotics students and does some re-evaluating, though not abandoning, of his old friendships. Chloe and Noah at the ASD are fantastic, and Daniel and Daniel, Donnie’s doofy friends, grow on you by the end of the book.

The alternating points of view work well to show all the different story threads, from Donnie’s growing enjoyment of and struggle to stay in the gifted academy, to the teachers’ bafflement, to the robotics’ students’ acceptance of Donnie, to the district superintendent’s ongoing search for the hooligan whose name he can’t remember.

The one major qualm I have about “Ungifted” is the same I’ve seen in other reviews. Namely, gifted kids being portrayed as uniformly socially awkward and innocent, though each in different ways. Think “The Big Bang Theory” with middle schoolers, but less science fiction and comics geeky. They don’t think of naming their robot, they don’t cohere as a team, they don’t know about YouTube, and they don’t know how to behave around students from the non-gifted middle school. Chloe forms hypotheses and longs to experience normalcy; Abigail is focused on academic success to the extent that she could give herself an ulcer; Noah becomes obsessed with YouTube and professional wrestling. Another girl blurts out random facts when asked to speak. The gifted kids I remember from school were no more socially awkward than the other students.

In some ways, this book is the flip version of Mr. Korman’s earlier fish-out-water novel “Schooled,” wherein a home-schooled boy who lives with his hippie grandmother on an isolated commune has to temporarily move in with a social worker and her family and attend public school when his grandmother is badly injured in a fall. Of these two, I think I prefer “Schooled.”

That said, Ungifted is a solid, enjoyable middle-grade novel. People who normally wouldn’t interact with one another -mostly different social groups- learn they can get along and in so doing, make each other better. And make awesome robots.

The Highs: The interrogation transcript chapters.

Noah’s WWE obsession and ongoing attempts to fail at school.

The relationship Katie and the robotics class form during the Human Growth and Development project.

Donnie’s dad. ❤

Buzzkills: See above re: portrayal of gifted kids.

The Source: ebook purchase.

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