N.E.R.D.S. by Michael Buckley with illustrations by Ethen Beavers, 306 pp, RL 4
The first N.E.R.D.S. : National Espionage, Rescue and Defense Society book came out in 2009 and I have to admit to feeling a bit like a jealous sibling when the new baby arrives. You see, my beloved Sisters Grimm series was already up to book seven by the time this new series arrived, and it was so different and foreign. And wouldn't it take away precious time and resources from the first born series? The Sisters Grimm series came to a close in May of 2012 with book nine, The Council of Mirrors and I have yet to read it as I am not ready for it to be over. However, I do feel ready to turn my attention to the new baby and I think I actually kinda like him.
Buckley lets us know right off the bat what kind of series N.E.R.D.S. is going to be, with the great illustrations by comic book artist Ethen Beavers and the fantastic book design from Chad W Beckerman, the amazing creative director for Abrams Books that makes the books read like top secret dossiers and other vital information. In Book 1 in the series, each break represents a different security level and the request to provide various forms of identification from hair to sweat to ear wax (obtained with an elbow) and a laugh from the narrator. Speaking of the narrator of the chapter breaks, s/he also happens to be a former NERDS operative. And speaking of chapters, each one includes the latitude and longitude of the location of the NERDS and hopefully will have readers running to a map (or website, like I did) to log in and find out where the kids are.
But the N.E.R.D.S. series isn't just about fantastic production values and clever extras like the illustration of the author to the left. As he demonstrated in The Sisters Grimm series, Michael Buckley is a great writer, from dialogue to setting to the emotional landscape of his characters. Before we even meet the NERDS, we get to know a bit about their new director and even more about their newest recruit. With a few quick strokes, we learn that Alexander Brand was once a James Bond-type spy who saved the world over and over. However, an injury has left him with a limp, a cane and no desire for a desk job. As General Savage is offering Brand the position of director of the secret, mythical team of child spies (their last director died under "mysterious" circumstances - he jumped out a window that overlooked the shark tank at the local aquarium with a bomb strapped to his chest and three knives in his back...) the men are interrupted with news that Greenland has just slammed into Iceland.
When we first meet fifth grader Jackson Jones he and his buddies are in hiding, about to attack some of the many geeks that make Nathan Hale Elementary School the center of Nerdville, USA. Life is good for Jackson. He's athletic, popular, cute and comes from a family with a similarly gifted brother and father. That all changes when a visit to the orthodontist reveals two complete sets of teeth in Jackson's mouth, one of which must be pulled, leaving him in need of a heinous set of braces that will bring an end to Jackson's days as a Golden Boy and hurtle him into geekdom and beyond. Especially when he discovers that his new headgear-hardware (which does not fit into a football helmet and thus causes him to be cut form the team) is magnetic, attracting all manner of things from "cuff links, belt buckles, hairpins, cafeteria trays, call phones and umbrellas" to trophies, school buses and in one near fatal incident, kebab skewers. Ostracized from his former pack, the absence of a social life allows Jackson to see things that he never noticed before and a spy is born. As his skills increase and his status decreases, Jackson stumbles upon an organization of spies so secret that the Commander in Chief doesn't even know of their existence. At the same time, Jackson gets on the wrong side of the horns of the bull-like Principal Dehaven. Hiding in a locker to avoid those horns, Jackson unwittingly stumbles into the "Playground," the training ground, laboratory and headquarters of NERDS where he is mistakenly outfitted with upgrades - spy-gear braces made from nanobots that can change into any tool at any time. His code name, Braceface, is one that his pride steadfastly refuses to accept over the course of the story.
What makes this book different and ultimately interesting is the clashing personalities between the team, Jackson and Agent Brand, who poses as the school janitor. The team, lead by Ruby Peet, code name Pufferfish, understandably hates and refuses to trust Jackson, their former tormentor, despite the fact that they could have wiped the floor with him at any moment - and still can, until he learns his way around the spy game. The team also has a hard time trusting their new director, a man of few words and even fewer compliments. Jackson, despite being knocked down several social pegs at school, still sees himself as superior to the NERDS and makes more than one blunder out of hubris, giving the team even more reasons to want him gone. Jackson's transformation over the course of the book is fascinating, and the moment when he truly understands why the team is filled with animosity for him and how he responds is genuine and rewarding. The fact that the evil villain at the heart of the story is reacting against years of teasing and torment from bullies is a nice wrinkle as well. As a parent, I would be happy to have my child read a book with this level of humanity and complexity, cloaked as it is in spy gear and kids with weird abilities.
In case any kids are reading, I'll dish a little about the spy gear and weird abilities as well as the demented villains. Team leader Ruby Peet is allergic to everything and acts as a walking human detector. She breaks out in hives in the face of a lie, a betrayal or the like. As with all the NERDS, she is a highly trained combatant and takes out Jackson with a back scratcher. Paste eater Duncan Dewey, code name Gluestick, can shoot powerful polymers that allow him to stick to walls. Wheezer, aka Matilda Choi, is an asthmatic with enhanced inhalers that can act as jet packs, flame throwers and torches to cut through metal when needed. Julio Escala, code name Flinch, is a sugar loving, hyperactive force of nature who wears a control panel that gives him super speed and strength. Sometimes he speaks a bit too fast and has to tone down his garbled speech with a twist to his control nob. Finally, there is Heathcliff Hodges. His unfortunately large buck teeth have been treated with a special nano-designed hallucinogenic whitening agent that allows him to control (or wipe) peoples' minds with them. Despite this gear and all the training they've had, they seem to be no match for Dr Jigsaw, the demented scientist (and jigsaw puzzle enthusiast) who is building a mechanism that will allow him to fit all the continents together and reform Pangea, or Dr Jigsaw's boss, a person in a black mask with a ghostly skull face painted on it who goes by the name Simon. Then there is the Hyena, a twelve-year-old former child pageant winner (Georgia Beef Beauty, Little Miss Florida Citrus, California's Canola Oil Charmer, WisconsinWheat Fairy, Dairy Princess of Lawrence, Kansas, and Idaho Spud Queen) who has decided to become a professional assassin. The chapters told from the Hyena's perspective are some of the funniest and deconstruct and poke fun at the conventions of the demented villain or "professional crime boss," as she refers to them. I especially love her description of the four kinds of bosses. With the N.E.R.D.S. series, Buckley has done for boys what he did for girls with the Sisters Grimm series. He has taken a conventional theme (fairy tales, spies) and layered it with complex characters that turn convention on its head, fascinating settings and fast paced action that keeps kids interested and reading.
For more of the great artwork and design that goes into every book in the series, check out these posts at Chad W Beckerman's blog, mishaps and adventures. The Evolution of a N.E.R.D.S Cover is especially interesting. I, for one, had no idea how many prototypes there were before the final. If you like this kind of thing, there are several "Evolution" posts for many of the books Beckerman worked on. I especially love this post, N.E.R.D.S. Behind the Jacket. I didn't know that the hardcovers of a book are called the "case cover." I did know that sometimes, some rare times, a book will have something extra, different or cool on the case cover. All the NERDS books have a different picture of the team under the dust jacket! Click the link to see what lies beneath...
Source: Review Copy and Audio Book (from the Library) read by the fantastic Johnny Heller