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The Trouble With Mark Hopper, by Elissa Brent Weissman, 240 pp, RL 4
The Trouble with Mark Hopper, the second yound adult novel from Elissa Brent Weissman secures her spot on the shelf next to the great "school story" writer, Andrew Clements. Her first novel, Standing for Socks, another school story, follows the life of a girl who makes one, seemingly harmless choice that leads her life in many new, not always great, directions. The Trouble with Mark Hopper takes a coincidence and turns it into a remarkable, surprising and ultimately redeeming story.
Mark Geoffrey Hopper has a reputation, and not a good one. A sixth grader who has spent his academic career achieving a perfect record as well as arguing with teachers and administrators alike over grades, he is known by all and liked by few. As Weissman describes him, "Mark Hopper was smart. And he knew it. But he wasn't smart enough to know that nobody wanted to be reminded all the time of how smart he was and how he knew it." Mark has an older sister named Beth who teases him relentlessly and a father who has recently moved out of the family's home. He has spent the last year preparing to enter the statewide Mastermind Tournament, a contest that was won by his father three years in a row when he was a middle school student. Mark wants what he wants when he wants it and he thinks that his academic performance and hard work justify his rude, condescending behavior to those around him. When another boy with the exact same name as his moves to town over the summer, Mark's life and attitude are thrown into chaos.
The other Mark Geoffrey Hopper has moved to Greenburgh with his mother, his Grandpa Murray and his older sister Beth, who has been accepted at the Lefko School for Science where she will be pursuing her passion, the study of earthworms. Mark's father has stayed behind in at their old residence while he looks for a new job and tries to sell their house. This Mark Geoffrey Hopper is not an honors student and not bothered by this. This Mark is an artist and looking forward to his new art class and joining the after school art club. However, things don't go quite as planned. The novel kicks off with a very funny scene that involves office staff at the middle school both Mark Hoppers will be attending and a crazy round of phone calls. When Mark Hopper gets sent Mark Hopper's schedule, which includes an art class rather than band, he is incensed and calls the office to rectify the matter. When Mark Hopper does not get a schedule in the mail, his mother calls to register him, making sure that they place him in art art class. Weissman often refers to Mark Hopper and Mark Hopper in the book without distinguishing which Mark is which. However, her writing and plot are so sharp that this doesn't confuse the reader at all, but adds to the fun of the book.
And this is a fun and funny book. But, The Trouble with Mark Hopper is also a poignant look into the life of a boy who is going through a rough spot in what turns out to be a life changing year. When (the new) Mark Hopper sees that he is registered for all honors classes, he assumes that his new school, or someone, must think he is pretty smart and, in an effort to please his parents, he decides to give these harder classes a try. After his first math test, the other Mark Hopper manages to humiliate him in front of the whole class by reading his low score out loud. The very wise math teacher, Miss Payley, makes Mark apologize then assigns him the task of tutoring the other Mark every Wednesday after school. This turns out to be the best thing in Mark Hopper's life, but not the other Mark Hopper's. The new Mark spends his time learning what kind of kid Mark Hopper is then regretting every mix-up and ill treatment that results from this. It turns out Mark and Mark even resemble each other quite a bit. Mark Hopper knows that he needs to submit a creative work, besides the recording of his bassoon solo, for the Mastermind portfolio and, when he notices what a good artist Mark is he decides to try to befriend and surreptitiously learn from him. This becomes even more crucial when Mark learns that a new category has been added to the Mastermind Tournament, one that he is especially unskilled at - teamwork.
While this plan requires him to be friendly and even pleasant to Mark, it also brings the boys closer and allows them a greater understanding of each other. Mark suggests that Mark stand up for himself once in a while, both to teachers and students, while Mark let's Mark know that he should try saying "thank you" and "your welcome" instead of "yeah" and "I know" when someone tries to help him. The scenes in which the boys come to appreciate each other and work together, be it to exact revenge on cruel classmates or scheme to win the Mastermind Tournament are among my favorites in the book. As the story unfolds and Mark's complicated home life and desire to please and connect with his absent father unfold, the novel takes on a depth that is appropriate and ultimately rewarding. Often times, when reading a "real life" young adult book, I find myself thinking, "That couldn't really happen," or, "Would a kid really say that?" But, I never once found myself questioning this book, the motives and actions of the characters or the climax of the book that I did not see coming. The resolution to Mark Hopper's scheming in order to win the contest had such a ring of reality to it, as does the well timed ending, that I couldn't help cheering for both Mark Hoppers. Weissman's skill at writing a highly unlikable but realistic character in Mark Hopper is superb. It could have been so easy to make him over-the-top and totally obnoxious. Instead, his motivations are slowly revealed, as are his transgressions making his change of heart all the more rewarding for the reader.
School stories have never been a favorite of mine, as a child and adult reader. However, since I started reading books with reviewing them in mind and reaching outside of my genre comfort-zone, I have found some really enjoyable, excellently written stories. While the pace of a school story is definitely different from that of a quest-oriented work of fantasy, I have learned that that doesn't mean books with a realistic setting are devoid of suspense. Once I hit the half-way point in The Trouble with Mark Hopper, I found I could not put the book down, much to my surprise. I am so grateful and excited to become acquainted with established authors of school stories like Wendy Mass and Andrew Clements as well as newer authors like Grace Lin, Julie Bowe and Elissa Brent Weissman. I look forward to reading the next book from Ms. Weissman and can't wait to see what brilliant plot twist she will throw at her well written, fully formed characters next.
Readers who enjoyed this book might also consider: The School Story by Andrew Clements.