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Kyle is an average kid just trying to survive at Bert P. Trotts "the gateway to Hell" Middle School. During the previous year, Kyle was accused of bringing a weapon on the bus as a result of his tech ed. school project. His innocence was established but the fallout over the incident carries over into the new school year.
In an effort to help him improve his attitude and get him off on the right foot, his mother purchases a self-help book for him, Happy Kid: a Young Person's Guide to Satisfying Relationships and a Happy Meaning-filled Life!
Kyle is mortified but accepts his mom's offer to pay him a dollar for every chapter he reads. Kyle finds that the book mysteriously keeps opening to the same chapter and only changes once that chapter's issue has been dealt with in his life. How does the book seem to always know what help he needs?
Gauthier has perfectly recreated the environment of high-stakes state student assessment testing. Here they are called (wonderfully) the SSASies. I chuckled as teachers pass out SSASie review sheets, in every class, on the first day of school. As one student says, "The schools are being tested but we are taking the tests?"
She has also accurately captured the strange social world and tension that develops between "A" students (honors/advanced), the regular kids, and the small, scary underclass of soon-to-be-criminals. Finding the right-place-to-sit at lunch the first day of school IS a real crisis, and having the campus bully think you are one of his posse is serious.
Like many junior high faculties, the teachers at Trotts are slightly odd. (I have always wondered...do the teachers get that way by teaching middle school-ers or are they already slightly nutty and therefore drawn to junior high?) He has a great family complete with an obnoxious older sister. His mom is anxious for him to have a good year. His dad is slightly bewildered and trying to understand the two teenagers under his roof.
As I read Happy Kid!, I was rooting for Kyle all the way. He is struggling to succeed in his advanced courses where he thinks he has been placed by clerical error. He is also looking for some friends and time for any fun outside of school. Ultimately, Kyle must face a huge ethical dilemma, and he wants to do the right thing but he risks losing everything he has gained.
There are great truths in the pages of this story. It will make you laugh. Just read it.
Happy Kid! is about Kyle Rideau, a pessimistic and inadvertently notorious boy about to start seventh grade. He's had a rough sixth grade year, feels separated from all of his friends (due to having been placed in some 'special' (advanced) classes, and he ended the year with a distressing incident. He's not looking forward to seventh grade. His psychologist mother buys him a self-help book called "Happy Kid! A Young Person's Guide to Satisfying Relationships and a Happy and Meaning-Filled Life." He is naturally embarrassed by this, but she offers to pay him a dollar per chapter, and the chapters are very short. So, in a weak moment, he starts to read it. Kyle finds himself strangely compelled to follow the advice in the book, and experiences unintended consequences (unintended by Kyle, anyway) in response.
Kyle soon notices some curious facts about the book. First of all, the chapters that he reads bear an uncanny relevance to whatever is going on in his life. Second, until he acts on a piece of advice in some way, the book will only open to that page, and not allow him to move forward. At one point, a girl in his class reads from the book, and finds that it offers her completely different advice, specific to her needs. Although these are rather unexpected attributes to find in a book, Kyle takes it more or less in stride. And gradually, the book does help him to improve his life and relationships.
There's a lot of subtle humor to this book. I can relate to Kyle's wry, pessimistic voice. Here's a small example that struck me, from Chapter 5.
""So there I was, in these two 'special' classes, and the only I could get out of them would be to join two classes that weren't special but that I was a month behind in, so I'd have to work extra hard to catch up. What was the point? Work hard in one class or work hard in the other."
"Wow, talk about irony," Jared said, nodding his head in appreciation.
None of Lauren's other boyfriends ever used words like "irony." Jared definitely is a step up for our family."
I also like the character of Mr. Kowsz, a teacher who isn't entirely what he appears to be, and of the determined-to-do-the-right-thing Melissa Esposito, who sets out to right a wrong, under difficult circumstances. There's also Jake, a school rebel and bully who has decided that he wants to be friends with Kyle, much to Kyle's chagrin. All of these characters, and their interactions, make the book a fun, realistic window into middle school life.
However, it's the aptness and wisdom of the Happy Kid! advice that makes this book unique. I think that anyone could benefit from some of the book-within-a-book chapters, such as: It All Begins with Hello ("Make a point every day to speak to the people around you. Before long, you'll be doing it without even thinking!"), Does Your Life Stink, or Is It YOU? ("Does your life actually stink, or do you just think it does?"), or Kick-Start Your Life with Something New! ("Being a different person can only be a good thing since whatever you were before wasn't working for you now, was it?"). A couple of them really resonated with me - I actually found myself repeating one of the pieces of advice to someone a couple of days after reading the book. Which is a lot more than I would generally expect from a novel written for children. I especially like the way the old-fashioned, peppy self-help speak (as above) is interlaced with Kyle's humorous, slightly sarcastic tone. I don't know why these two voices work so well together, but they do.
I recommend this book. I think that middle schoolers, and their parents, will enjoy it. And maybe they'll even find a little tidbit that resonates with them, and helps them to improve some relationships.
This book review was originally published on my blog, Jen Robinson's Book Page, on August 20, 2006.