How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephart, 247pp RL: MIDDLE SCHOOL

HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL is now in paperback!!

I know that this may be a bold statement to make, but I think that Donna Gephart may very well be the contemporary Judy Blume.  I'll be honest, the only Judy Blume book I have (re)read as an adult is Blubber, and I found it to be dated, both in plot complexity and personal and social issues.  But, my memories of reading Blume's books as a left me with the impression that she was writing about edgy, real life situations that could and would happen to a regular sort of middle class kid and that she was doing this with a kind of, "See, this happens to everyone, you are not alone" approach.  Plenty of contemporary books for young readers address serious social issues of all sorts these days - writing about mature topics has been off the table in children's literature for over a decade now - but the kind of books Blume wrote and that Gephart is writing, especially with boys as the main characters, seem less prevalent these days.  Or maybe my view on this topic is skewed by the fact that real life school stories, especially those with boys as the main characters, are not my favorite.  Maybe there are tons of books out there that cover the same ground that Gephart does in How to Survive Middle School and I just don't pay attention to them because I'm not interested.  But I don't think so.  I think that with her first book,  as if being 12 and 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president and now with How to Survive Middle School, Donna Gephart has proven that she is skilled at delving into the minds and the lives of preteens with sensitivity, thoughtfulness, interesting plots and, above all, humor, while allowing readers a chance to relate to and empathize with her characters, even if their mothers are governors or absentee.  This makes perfect sense since her first book won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award which is presented by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in 2009.

As I said, real-life school stories featuring boys are not my favorite.  Somehow, boys are more interesting to me as the heroes of fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction but I find them to be somewhat bland when it comes to contemporary school stories.  However, in How to Survive Middle School  eleven year old David Greenberg is anything but bland and run of the mill.  And, he is not a type.  Even though David is a self-described short, skinny non-swimmer, he is not a wimp and he is never referred to as one in the book, even when being picked on and bullied.  And there is a fair amount of David being picked on and bullied in this book, enough to make me, a mother of two boys, squirm in my seat a bit.  On top of this, David also loses his longtime best friend the day before sixth grade at Harman Middle school begins.  But, David makes a new friend (a cute girl!) works out some issues with his mother and pursues his passion which ultimately leads him to national recognition.  These aspects might sound typical on the surface, but Gephart brings so much to her story and characters that by the end of the book David's world has opened up and expanded in a very genuine, genuinely moving way.  I'm not going to give you a linear rundown of the plot of this book here because I feel like the the social, emotional and personal issues that the characters face and the realistically skillful way that Gephart presents them deserve all the attention here.  For a great, straightforward review of How to Survive Middle School  and an interview with the author, visit Middle Grade Ninja.

What makes David special, what makes him stand out from other characters of his ilk, is his love of comedy, specifically the Jon Stewart/Daily Show variety of humor, and his skill at making videos.  David loves it so much that he, along with the help of best friend Elliott Berger, has been filming his own show called TalkTime that he posts on YouTube.  David tapes himself in front of a poster of the NYC skyline with features that include his "Top 6 1/2 list," and the "Daily Acne Forecast," for which he films his (unwitting) 14 year old sister while she has pimple cream on her face and then edits in funny text like, "cloudy with a chance of blackheads."  David also films his hamster, Hammy, and Photoshops in humorous things so that it looks like Hammy is singing, dancing, reading and wearing a dress.  David does this mostly for his and Elliott's own entertainment and only a handful of people/family members watch them.  But, when an argument with Elliott about a summer wasted waiting at the mall to run into a girl he likes gets ugly, David finds that he has lost a friend and made two enemies within the space of 24 hours.  Elliott lives in the same apartment building as overgrown thug Tommy Murphy and they strike up a friendship based on Elliott's anger toward David and Tommy's delight in tormenting others, starting with a cruel trick played on David that gets him sent home on the first day of school.  While only one of the plot threads in the book, Gephart's portrayal of the bullying and the dynamics of friendships falling apart (and coming together) feels very real and nuanced and because of this it is easy to understand how David and Elliott make the choices that they do.

One question that often goes through my head when reading a kid's book is, "Why didn't you tell a parent/adult?"  I know that in most cases, it is essential to plot development that adults do not know what the kids are up to, no matter what kind of danger they are in and I also realize that developmentally and characteristically it is often not in a child's nature to tell his/her parents everything, especially if it is embarrassing or law or rule breaking in nature.  Despite this, this aspect of a plot often rings a bit untrue for me and I have to employ a willing suspension of disbelief to continue on.  There were points in both How to Survive Middle School  and as if being 12 and 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president where I stopped and asked my "Why didn't you tell a" question and found that the plots provided me with plausible answers that set my mother-mind at ease in both instances.  In How to Survive Middle School, I think David would have told a parent much sooner about the bullying and the details of the end of his friendship with Elliott if the parent he wanted to talk to was there.  Over the course of the first half of the book we learn, in bits and pieces, that David's mother has left her family in Pennsylvania to live with a beet farmer in Maine in a house with no modern conveniences.  David shares memories of their time together, like shopping for school clothes and having lunch together afterwards every year, but he also mentions things like how special this time was because his mother rarely left the house as well as the time that his mother became obsessed with penguins and put penguin items, including multiple copies of the classic Mr Popper's Penguins, around the house. Nothing specific or alarmingly serious is ever revealed about David's mother, but the reader (the adult reader, anyway) can piece together a picture of a woman who wasn't happy in her marriage but was also emotionally and possibly mentally unstable.  This is important because what the reader knows of David's mother is learned through his perspective, and his perspective is one that is loving, accepting and forgiving, even in the face of his sister Lindsay who is hurt and angry with their mother.

The bright side to David's potentially bleak life after losing his mother and best friend is the new friend he makes in math class, Sophie Meyers. Homeschooled by her lonely mother since her father left the family, Sophie is grateful to be back in school, around other kids and away from her mother.  As the only 6th graders in a 7th grade math class, the two bond from the start.  Gephart does a marvelous job keeping the friendship platonic while describing the unfolding of David's feelings (literally, the physical sensations he experiences when Sophie touches his arm or grabs his hand to drag him out of math class) over the course of the book.  Partners on a science class project, the two get the chance to visit each other's homes to work on it and that is when things really change for David.  Because their project is a video of Albert Einstein, David shows Sophie the clips he has posted on YouTube and she is amazed.  She tells him that more people should see this and posts them on her homeschooling network website where they instantly generate interest and start receiving more views and comments than David ever imagined possible.  As the unwanted attention from Tommy Murphy escalates, so does the popularity of David's videos as well as the positive attention.  Soon, he is having his head dunked in the toilet in the boy's bathroom and being interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Gephart 's story reaches a sad by important climax before coming to a very satisfying conclusion that had me choked up.

While I don't know a lot about making a video, uploading it to YouTube or attracting views to it, I have a 13 year old and a 17 year old and have glimpsed enough of the phenomenon to feel that Gephart portrayed it in an accurate and believable way. Everything that happens to David, from the bullying to internet fame, seems entirely possible, as do his responses to it and his thought process along the way.  I said at the start that How to Survive Middle School  isn't my kind of book, but after reading it, almost from cover to cover in one sitting, Donna Gephart has won me over entirely.

For a peek at Hammy, check out this book trailer made to promote How to Survive Middle School.

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