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Book Reviews

Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Ungifted is Gordon Korman’s new addition to his substantial body of work for elementary and middle grade readers.  It centers around the main character Donovan Curtis, a 7th Grader with a long history of trouble-making.  Donovan is known, along with his friends, the two Daniels, as a reckless prankster.  When we meet Donovan he informs us immediately that he knows he has a problem with impulse control:  he does things before he clearly thinks through the consequences of his behavior.  He has even gone so far as to do research on ancestry.com in hopes of finding an individual in his family tree who displays the same traits which may explain why he chooses to do the things he does.  The closest he comes is a distant relative named James Donovan who survived the sinking of the Titanic.

After a disastrous accident which involves the destruction of a statue of Atlas (holding up the World) in which the “World” breaks off and rolls through the gymnasium during one of the school’s most important basketball games Donovan’s name is mistakenly transferred to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction (ASD:  the school for “gifted” students).

As the Chief Administrator struggles to remember the name of the hoodlum who caused the disastrous “Atlas incident” Donovan decides to remain at the ASD in order to avoid the severe consequences for the statue’s breakage–which he fears will involve paying for it and his family can’t afford it.  While at the ASD Donovan’s interactions with the students there show both them and him new possibilities for behavior and friendship.  From naming the robot creation of the Robotics class (instead of calling it “it”) to using his pregnant sister as a live learning experience in the “human development” curriculum Donovan discovers his own self-worth and develops a new respect for the worth of fellow students whom he would have openly ridiculed just weeks earlier.

Another funny, truthful narrative about the confusion of middle school and growing up, Gordon Korman succeeds once again in giving us a thoroughly enjoyable story in Ungifted.

Speaking as a teacher I find the question of “gifted” education represented well from all sides here.  I confess I agree with teacher/author Philip Done in resenting the term “gifted” used in schools for a select few when I believe EVERY student is gifted in different ways.  I have an issue with offering extra learning opportunities only to children who perform well in academic testing.  The student that has a rabid interest in Greek mythology, for example, may be “gifted” when you give him/her an opportunity to pursue that interest in special projects–but if that particular student is denied based on testing/ranking results then that “gift” may go undiscovered, resulting in loss of self-esteem for that student and loss of the singular contribution that student would have made to the rest of the community.

Without preaching or weighing in too heavily on one side or the other I think Ungifted can be a thoughtful read from an adult perspective considering the dilemma of challenging each child appropriately vs. offering a variety of learning opportunities to all students.

Given all of these things I highly recommend Ungifted as an adult and a youth read.  At its core it’s  a good story with engaging, believable characters.  It is perfectly appropriate for 4th Grade and up although I would not use it as a read aloud earlier than 6th Grade for the simply because they discuss the “human development” curriculum by referring to it as ‘sex education’–which is part of the reason that whole sequence is hilarious and touching.  anyone who teaches upper elementary knows that if you say the word ‘sex’ out loud in a story–regardless of its actual meaning in content OR the fact that fully half the students don’t really know what it means–you will lose the classroom and the point of that part of the narrative.

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