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.