Charlie Nolen, captain of Hollow Ridge High School basketball team, and his friend Nate Harding, president of the robotics club, end up being pitted against each other when the cheerleaders fight with the robotics club. The cheerleaders want new uniforms for state competition and the robotics club wants to enter the National robotics competition. Nate runs for student council and Charlie, who was dating the head cheerleader, is manipulated into running against Nate. The cheerleaders put Charlie's name on the ballot and believe he will fund them over the robotics. The nerdy Nate, is so aggressive in reaching his goal of being class president that he is mean to Charlie during the campaign, putting up demeaning photos or messages. Charlie doesn't appreciate Nate's actions. The politics get nasty and the principal refuses to fund either of them. Meanwhile, Charlie feels alone as he deals with his parents divorce and mom's recent engagement. Charlie lives with his father who travels for work leaving his son home alone and no adult in charge to help Charlie in case of an emergency.
The rival groups team up and the cheerleaders fund Nate's robotics club in a separate contest where robots fight each other for a large prize money that will fund both clubs. The cheerleaders are mean and manipulative. The black and white photos show them in uniforms that make them look militant. They came across flat to me and didn't break out of their stereotype. Charlie's ex-girlfriend is always frowning except on the one page where she gets what she wants. Then there is the confusing ending. Are the two boys, Jake and Gary, homosexuals? Or are they just putting down homosexuals in their "pervert" comment. Then there is the coaches comment, "D'you know how many scrawny white boys in this school would chew off your legs to get in the team's starting lineup?" Why single out one race? The illustration shows black kids on the team. The author's comments or humor made me uncomfortable because they stereotype homosexuals and suggest only white boys play basketball. Humor can go astray when it is insensitive to historical context of oppressed minorities.
Nate and Charlie's relationship fluctuate between mean and nice. At times Charlie is sympathetic such as when Nate is bummed by his parents and other times he's attacking him in an inappropriate way all because he wants funding so bad that he'll risk losing a friend. The basketball players don't even know that Charlie and Nate are friends implying Charlie doesn't want them to know about it. When Charlie is mad at Nate for his nasty public political announcement, he deals with it immaturely by giving Nate the finger. Later, he calms down and helps him with a robot design problem. But then Nate puts him down for his idea. It felt like their friendship wasn't moving forward but at times stuck in a loop. At the end the two discuss running for school president in the next election. Eventually their arc shows them becoming friends and willing to ignore social hierarchies that separate jocks and nerds.
Joanna actually interested me the most and came across as more authentic than the other characters. She's goofy in that she loves the robot like a being, but then drives it like a wild woman at the competition. She's a risk-taker and truly does break out of the stereotyped nerd. The illustrations add more to her character than the text. At the end, Charlie is still a jock who seems interested in her romantically although nothing happens so I'm not sure. Charlie seems to be willing to go public about his friendships with Nate since they agreed to run together. Nate is still socially inept. Both boys have big egos. I wasn't sure why Charlie steals a car and none of the teenagers tell their parents about the competition. It seemed that the author just thought the phones ringing in the SUV would be funny. Which it was. But it wasn't logical. Another question I had was that how they lost in the final. The previous battle took up pages but the final wasn't shown except in one little square. I actually wondered if there was a mistake on the eBook. By the way, don't buy it as an eBook because the format is such that you can't enlarge it. I found it hard to see the details on the pictures.
Charlie yells quite a bit at his parents, who are pretty dysfunctional when it comes to parenting. When Charlie gets a concussion (which I couldn't figure out how he got it from the illustrations), the parents don't even come home to help or get another adult to step in. Instead Nate picks Charlie up at the hospital and brings him home. Later, the basketball team goes to Charlie's house when he invites them for pizza. Instead of having pizza they invite the school and turn it into a party with alcohol. Charlie is mad at them for taking advantage of him but doesn't stand up to the peer pressure like he didn't with the cheerleaders. During the party he hides under the bed. Nate joins him. He isn't very confrontational with peers or his parents and gets pushed around as a result. Also, Charlie's parents don't act responsible so it is easy to see why Charlie doesn't either. The author shows that anyone can be a bully; however, when jock Charlie decks some gargantuan nerds for insulting Joanna, I felt myself slipping back into stereotype zone. Joanna just showed she's a ruthless driver. I thought she'd get out of her own predicament. Instead boy rescues girl. While some action scenes seem to break out of the stereotypes, others don't.
Perhaps I'm being too picky. Perhaps my humor is off (okay... I know it is). Perhaps I shouldn't review young adult books. Perhaps I don't get graphic novels. Perhaps I need a teen perspective. Either way, most of the character arcs and themes seemed to me to scratch only the surface of complex friendships and I found some details offensive. However, there are themes that can be used for worthwhile discussions. I just know that I'd choose other fare out there over this one. You'll have to decide for yourself. When I got to the last page, I really wondered if Charlie and Nate would stay friends. They seemed to have some trust and kindness issues even though Charlie had the courage to go public with his friendship. Like I said, read it and decide for yourself. I'm conflicted on this one. It was the little things that turned me off in the end. It is not often that I disagree with award winners, but this is one time I do.