Friday, August 23, 2013

Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Middle school students hankering for themes such as rebellion against school rules and authority, burgeoning interest in girls, friendship issues, identity, and growing up will get all that and more in Korman's novel. The writing is well-done along with the character development and humor, but my adult brain wanted the issue of "gifted" tackled even more. Several Goodreads reviewers have pointed out, and rightfully so, that the gifted students in this story are presented as stereotyped nerds with IQ's over 130 and the average students as "normal." This seemed to bother adults more than the 12 middle school students I'm friends with on Goodreads who rated the novel roughly 3.5 out of 5 stars. Perhaps the author did the stereotypes on purpose to emphasize the point that labels limit people whether calling someone, "stupid, gifted, ungifted, class clown, nerd" or whatever other word your cortex spits out. While I wished the stereotypes weren't there, I do think that the overarching message that any person can accomplish great things when given opportunities to prosper regardless of IQ is important and worth a discussion. Our middle school teachers have been using this book as a forum for character education as well. Readers can muddle along with the book's cast of characters who alternately show courage, fear; kindness, meanness; and more as they make good and bad choices at school.

Donovan Curtis, the protagonist, is the class clown who pulls a prank that lands him accidentally in the Academy for Scholastic Distinction, a gifted program for students (and teachers) with IQ's over 130. An average student, Donovan feels like a stowaway on the Titanic, avoiding the Superintendent's witch hunt for him because his prank had some serious consequences. When the gifted students meet Donovan they like him for his "normalness." He humanizes the robot by naming it in robotics, is skilled at driving it, and helps the class avoid taking summer school because of an administrative error. Eventually, Donovan has to own up for his prank and the consequences are difficult for his classmates, himself, and his family. Through it all he becomes a better person and learns to face his own prejudices and weaknesses.

The different points of view round out the characters from the students to the teachers. Chloe interprets the world creating hypotheses that she further explores as she gets to know Donovan. Other hypotheses are just funny such as when she jokes that the gifted students study so much they have prison-pale faces and perhaps the computer monitors could become Sun-lamped enhanced for a false tan? She has a crush on Donovan, just like boy genius, Noah, is fascinated by Donovan who makes guesses and is impulsive. Some reviewers have argued that the gifted students are inaccurately portrayed as uncreative like Donovan. Donovan could be used as a foil to explore this issue, but I agree that the implied message that gifted students are not creative is erroneous. Abigail is not star-struck by Donovan and insists he doesn't belong to the school. Her ambiguous actions are interesting at the end. I liked the character, Noah, except the wrestling bit was out there. The plot got more unbelievable as the story went on with robotics competition and Noah. Realistic fiction kind of gets a bum wrap when it comes to believability. Fantasy can get away with anything, but throw in something exaggerated in realistic fiction and the reader goes, "Huh?" I had some huh-moments at the end, but it is still fun.

The robot's name, Tin Man, and the robotics teacher, Oz, from the "Wizard of Oz," mirror Donovan's situation that is similar to Dorothy's who was dropped into an alternate world. Like Dorothy, Donovan is permanently changed by the experience and makes close friends along the way. Ms. Bevelaqua even makes a parallel to Donovan passing the Academy retest to Tin Man getting a diploma. " Even though he passed, he was still failing her class and all the others in school. Donovan can't keep up with the gifted students academically but he realizes later that he learned quite a bit. I kept waiting for Oz to be more of a mentor to Donovan, but that doesn't happen. Instead, Donovan learns what it means to work on a team, something he doesn't get at the beginning when he makes a goofy rhyme up saying his basketball team will lose by 50 points. He also doesn't understand the power of labels at first, but does at the end of the story.

I've lived with people who have IQ's in the 140s and know several geniuses and the one trait they all seem to have is a great memory and the ability to work on the same task for long periods of time. Some were nerds but others were athletes. Some were shy and others were outgoing. Some were successful and others were not. While Korman does question and point out the negativity of separating genius from average in school and society putting too much emphasis on IQ, I would have liked to have seen the teachers at the gifted school help Donovan more with academics and recognized other variables of giftedness. Perhaps the story would have felt more authentic instead of extreme in the school settings. Of course, the extremeness maybe makes it more poignant and contrasting. I don't know. This is one of those books I should turn around and reread so I can process it more. Whatever you decide, it is a funny novel with a thought-provoking topic.

3 Smileys

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