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BOOK REVIEWS, Middle Grade Readers, Mystery/Adventure, Read-Aloud Suggestions

NERDS by Michael Buckley

NERDS is an acronym which stands for National Espionage, Rescue and Defense Society.  The members of the Society are highly trained special agents–the ones the government calls in when no one else can get the job done.  And all the agents are elementary school students.

Jackson Jones begins the story as the most popular boy in Nathan Hale Elementary School.  He’s the star of his PeeWee football team, he has lots of friends and he has no patience for and torments the “nerds” at his school.  All of that changes for Jackson when his dentist discovers he has two complete sets of teeth (64 in all).

It is at this point the reader realizes that the story will not be realistic fiction but will instead make the leap to delightfully cartoonish silliness in its details.  Jackson has 32 teeth removed and braces installed.  He is horrified, believing that “nerds wear braces.”  His fears are confirmed when he returns to school and the friends with whom he used to hang out call him names and refuse to associate with him.  He also discovers that the “nerds,” who he had assumed would be grateful to have him in their group, want nothing to do with him either.

Alone, Jackson begins to observe the people around him, realizing that he can learn other people’s “secrets” by watching for clues in their behavior.  This leads him to follow a group of “nerds” he notices all seem to develop the same sneeze and exit the classroom at exactly the same time.  Jackson consequently stumbles into the inner sanctum of a huge spy base built underneath the school–the NERDS headquarters.

The NERDS computer in the ‘upgrade’ room mistakenly installs nanotechnology in Jackson’s braces.  This allows his braces to develop superhuman strength and abilities, able to extend multiple arms out of his mouth.  Jackson becomes a trainee with the NERDS, over the objections of the other five agents, who virulently dislike Jackson due to his treatment of them before he underwent his own transformation.

The adventures which follow are exciting and funny.  They have all the intrigue, spy gadgets and danger of adventure while also full of slapstick-like battles with an eleven-year-old assassin (Mindy aka The Hyena) and a crazy mad scientist named Dr. Jigsaw intent on destroying the world.

What I particularly enjoy about this book is it’s sense of adventure and fun coupled with a subtle message about our judgement and consequent treatment of our peers.  Jackson undergoes more than a physical transformation in the story.  He realizes and is rightfully ashamed of his cruelty toward others.  And he makes a genuine effort to change from within as well as externally.

This is a great read-aloud or independent read for grades 2 – 5.  There are currently 2 other books in the NERDS series.  Also, fans of the author may recognize or want to check into his Sisters Grimm series of fairytale detectives.  This series appeals to a little older audience and is more fantasy and adventure than the silly slapstick of NERDS, but is just as well-crafted and exciting.


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