A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
The plot centers on an intensely competitive spelling bee, where "gesundheit," "embarrass," "chrysalis," "juvenescence," and "hemorrhage" are among the easy words, and the perils of homonyms (spelling "taught" when the word was "taut," or "toxin" for "tocsin") loom large. There's also a treasure hunt for a lost Jane Austen manuscript, plus puzzles, ciphers, vocabulary/dictionary words, and plentiful references to classic works like Lord of the Rings and Calvin & Hobbes. Also Bible quotations. Characters use apps to solve anagrams.
Strong messages of family, friendship -- and being willing to change your mind about people and situations when you get more information. Also finding your own path and the courage to take it. Studying matters. "Money doesn't fix problems, it only complicates them. Hard work and love are better answers." "We all say and do things we wish we hadn't. That doesn't make us bad, it makes us human. What matters is what we choose to do afterward."
Positive Role Models
Twins Hope and Gordon Smith, 13, and their single mom Betty, share a strong bond that keeps them connected in spite of harsh words, misunderstandings, and lots of new possibilities and challenges. The seemingly "perfect" and seemingly snooty Wintertons, adults and kids, prove to be a good deal more complex, and several of them turn out to be true friends as well as family. A 13-year-old knows how to drive a car (to her mom's surprise), which saves the day at one moment. The one exception is an adult character with a gambling addiction that threatens to destroy his family (who love him); one of his desperate moves involves kidnapping and harming two kids and threatening their mom.
Most of the characters are members of a single, White family in Oregon; one adult, adopted as a child, is of Japanese ancestry, and she and her husband have a biracial child. Hope mentions that she and her mom have tan skin, unlike the rest of the family. The Smiths are used to praying before meals and at other times; the Wintertons not so much. A kid character has a slight speech impediment and needs surgery. Looking past stereotypes and preconceptions -- here, mostly about rich people and those you think have perfect lives -- is a strong theme.
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Violence & Scariness
Hope agrees to compete in the spelling bee because it's that or foster care for her and her brother, as her mom has no money for rent, and that fear hangs over them throughout. An adult character is a gambling addict who now has goons threatening him and his family if he doesn't pay up. This causes him to do a lot of bad things and leads to a lot of trouble for many people. Two kids are taken prisoner and locked up by an adult, who painfully twists the arm of one of them to make him reveal secrets, hits him with a shovel, and threatens to harm their mom. A kid wakes in the night to see a mysterious person in their room, but the intruder vanishes before others arrive. Mysterious rooms, secret passages galore.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
In the past, two wild teens are in love, but he's killed in a car crash before she learns she's pregnant. In the present, some adult characters' marriages are on the rocks, while others are in loving, supportive relationships.
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Products & Purchases
Occasional scene-setting mention of real products and pop culture characters. Like Avengers, Barbie, Scooby-Doo ("Scooby-Doo teaches important information about mansions, like how to find the secret passageways behind paintings"), the game Clue.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
An adult character is estranged from her birth family because they are all addicts and she doesn't want herself or her kids in that environment.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Final Word is the first book in a new series, The Winterton Deception, by first-time author and Utah mom Janet Sumner Johnson. It combines a lot of classic storytelling elements (mysterious mansion! hard-fought competition where everybody really needs the money! family secrets!) with not just a spelling bee but a treasure hunt and lots of cryptic clues. Along with lots of surprises and plot twists, there's a steady stream of increasingly difficult spelling words, clues, and references to classic works from Jane Austen to Calvin & Hobbes. A desperate adult character has a gambling addiction and goons are threatening his family; as a result he kidnaps teen characters, twists one's arm, hits him with a shovel, and threatens their mom. There's a lot of heart, plus strong messages of family, friendship, and forgiveness, in this wild tale, and the promise of more in future installments as it all unfolds.
Is It Any Good?
Janet Sumner Johnson spins a wild, heart-filled tale of ciphers, puzzles, spelling bees, and long-buried secrets as poor teens meet their wealthy long-lost relatives at the family's forest mansion. Before the Final Word has been spelled and Jane Austen's manuscript rediscovered, there are plot twists and perils galore, plus lots of poignant moments as twins Hope and Gordon, 13, who've always been a unit, start to seek new friends -- and discover that people who seemed scary, perfect, and snobby have relatable troubles of their own. The fast-moving plot keeps surprises coming right up to an ending that sets up further adventures in the next installment.
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Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.