Fantasy’s been having a boom, fueled by everyone’s desire to read something that has absolutely nothing to do with COVID, politics, war, elections, police brutality, or anything else remotely recalling the past year. Well, forget fantasy. MG is where it’s at. In particular, Gordon Korman’s MG. His lightweight, warm writing is the perfect escape from the pandemic.
I read Gordon Korman as a kid. He’s probably written 50 books since then. The Unteachables (2019) is Gordon Korman’s 90-somethingth book. (His bio says he’s written “more than 90” books, and if he’s not too fussed about the exact number, neither am I.) The surprise for me, coming back to Gordon Korman as an adult, is that while his recent work is clearly written for and about modern teens and tweens (is there a way to phrase that that doesn’t make me sound ancient?), it feels the same: sprinkled with tongue-in-cheek humour that’s more smiles than laugh-out-loud, populated with quirky but well-rounded characters, and full of heart.
The Unteachables is told in alternating points of view, rotating principally between the kids in SCS-8, the school’s “Self-Contained Special Eighth-Grade Class,” and their demotivated teacher. The school has written them all off: Parker, a smart kid with undiagnosed dyslexia and a Provisional Driving License; Elaine, an eighth-grade girl with an unwarranted reputation for violence; Aldo, who desperately needs anger management skills; Barnstorm, the athlete who can’t; Rahim, the narcoleptic artist; Mateo, who understands the world through the lens of fiction (the science-fictionier, the better); Kiana, who isn’t even registered at that school; and especially Mr. Kermit, their demotivated short-timer teacher. Over the course of the book, Korman gently fits this bag of mismatched puzzle pieces together into an unexpected whole.
One of the book’s greatest pleasures, for me, was its subtle (for MG) insights into each character’s flaws, especially Aldo’s. Korman doesn’t do a deep dive into Aldo’s issues. Instead, his characters separately notice that Aldo seems incapable of coming up with positive thoughts. Even the simplest compliment eludes him. Korman doesn’t need to hammer home the connection. By the end of the book, Aldo satisfyingly manages to squeak out a single positive thought.
I have the feeling I’m going to be reading a lot more Gordan Korman over the next few months. You can read a Korman book in an evening and come away with the feeling that the world is a better place than you realized when you started it. That’s the kind of read we all need this year.
2 thoughts on “Review: The Unteachables”
Thanks for this fun review! From a fellow long-time fan of Gordon Korman, it’s always great to share the experience of revisiting that unique blend of poignant social commentary with heaps of humor–from purposefully bad puns to super dry wit.
Hope to read your thoughts on some of the other “modern” stories–Restart and Unplugged are two to make sure are on your list. And maybe a couple of the middle grade serials like On the Run and Island and Everest. But also would love some reviews of re-reading the “classics” as an adult: Son of Interflux, Don’t Care High, Losing Joe’s Place, the Bugs Potter books, and so on. As you said, there are 90-some books, so no shortage of titles to choose from.
Thank you for the comment! I’m glad to hear from another long-term Korman fan. I just finished Restart (2017) and greatly enjoyed it, mostly for the same reasons I enjoyed The Unteachables: lots of heart and humour. The videos were hilarious (although it was almost painful to realize that the YouTube subplot is already a little dated – if the book was set in 2021, the video club would be all over TikTok instead). It was also the most philosophical I’ve seen Korman get.