Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Notorious Book Poster Image
Wacky tale of middle schooler, '30s gangsters, murdered dog.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Since Keenan has lived in many places on many continents, we learn a bit about them along the way. The town of Centerlight (on the American side)/Centrelight (on the Canadian) shows details of day-to-day life in a town with shared borders. For example, the Canadians and Americans (who've farmed the task out to the Geek Squad) share responsibility for the jointly owned lighthouse. Zarabeth is obsessed with the town's early 20th century history, when its conveniently international status made it a haven for Prohibition-era gangsters -- and detectives like Eliot Ness trying to catch them.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about friendship, loyalty, forgiveness, empathy, and kindness -- as well as courage and good detective work.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Keenan and Zarabeth have some differences to work through, but their friendship survives lots of difficulties, from mean middle school kids to getting grounded, as they go on to solve a legendary mystery. Keenan's school friend Ronnie has a fancy house, an abusive dad, and a scared mom, and there may be some actual criminals lurking around town, but most of the adults are kind, sensible, and supportive. Middle schoolers take advantage of a lockdown drill to trash a supply closet.

Violence & Scariness

One scene involves a clearing in the woods strewn with the bodies of poisoned woodland animals. Zarabeth is convinced her dog, Barney, was killed by one of the dozens of neighbors who hated him. A character and her family come home to find their house has been broken into and burglarized. Middle schoolers break into a lighthouse during a wild party, attracting the attention of the law. Besides all the gangster murders that happened in the 20th century, there may be current bad guys out to get real people today, besides all the imaginative silliness. Keenan's still traumatized by his parents dumping his beloved dog when they split up: "When my folks split, Dad didn't want to keep her, and Mom and I were heading overseas for her first international school gig. I don't remember much about Fluffy, except that she would follow me around all day and curl up with me at night. I was only five. I hope Dad wasn't lying when he told me she went to a good family with lots of kids to play with. How I hated those kids. I used to lie in bed in Mumbai and picture a bunch of random strangers having fun with my dog."


Several references to butts, poop, and pee, the latter two often of animals.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Notorious is a loony, endearing Gordon Korman (Ungifted) tale of middle school kids dealing with unlikely but quietly life-changing situations. Keenan, age 12, has lived in a different country every year since he was little, because his mom and stepdad are teachers in international schools -- until one of those countries lays him low with tuberculosis. Thus he finds himself convalescing at his dad's house, on a sleepy island on the U.S.-Canadian border, whose main attractions are a lighthouse and a long history of Prohibition-era gang violence. Most kids in the story have loving parents doing their best, though one kid has an abusive dad and a terrified mom. A girl insists someone in town murdered her ill-behaved dog and is determined to bring that person to justice. A character discovers the sad remains of poisoned animals in the woods. And, as usually happens in Korman's books, there's a life-affirming ending with the characters a bit wiser and happier.

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What's the story?

Back in the day, the island of Centerlight/Centrelight (depending on whether you're on the U.S. or Canadian side), was NOTORIOUS for Prohibition-era gangs, luckless people getting killed when those gangsters were in town, and lawmen like Eliot Ness trying to put an end to their bad deeds. Nowadays, the only people who really care about that stuff are the tourists who flock to the island for the Al Capone tours -- and also 12-year-old Zarabeth Tice, the only middle-schooler who lives on the Canadian side of town in a house once occupied by Tommy-Gun Ferguson, who may or may not have left a hidden treasure. But ZeeBee, as she's known, is on a quest to avenge the untimely death of her late dog Barney (hated by all in the town for his wild ways). And, before the poor lad quite knows what hit him, she's roped Keenan -- a visiting American kid who's convalescing on the island -- into assorted schemes, usually with unsettling results.

Is it any good?

Gordon Korman mixes international relations, middle school misadventures, legendary Prohibition-era gangsters, and a possible case of dog murder in this wild tale set on an island shared by the U.S. and Canada. As 12-year-old American expat Keenan finds his quiet convalescence dramatically interrupted by young Canadian ZeeBee Tice, her new and unappreciated cocker spaniel, and her dual obsessions with Notorious gangland legends and the recent death of her beloved dog, he's forced to reevaluate his first impression that life on the island is boring. With lots of appealing characters (human and otherwise), skilled storytelling, and loony goings-on, there's lots to love in this fast-moving, funny story of friendship, family, and inclusion.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories like Notorious that involve international borders -- and how they affect people's lives. What would it be like to go back and forth between two countries about 10 times a day doing your regular errands, like Keenan does? Is it always that way for people crossing national borders?

  • Have you ever visited a lighthouse? How did you like it? Did anything about it surprise you?

  • Keenan's used to going to international schools, where his classmates come from a lot of different countries and speak a lot of different languages. Do you think you'd like being in a school like that? Especially if it was on the other side of the world?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love mysteries and middle school stories

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