The Smartest Kid in the Universe, Book 1

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Smartest Kid in the Universe, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Lively middle-school adventure celebrates knowing stuff.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Lots of random facts come into play as Jake's superpower kicks in and he can't resist sharing information about history, geography, science, etc. His efforts to learn Spanish matter, not just to get to know Grace Garcia better, but because many documents and conversations important to the story are in Spanish; at one point, helping Jake's sister with her homework, Grace gives an excellent explanation of the difference between "ser" and "estar." As elsewhere in Chris Grabenstein's work, The Smartest Kid in the Universe features many puzzles and math problems to be solved, and plenty more in an appendix.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about family, friendship, kindness, empathy -- and also the advantages of actually knowing something. Like, say, Spanish. Or geometry.

Positive Role Models

Jake is your classic Chris Grabenstein middle-school hero, working hard at slacking his way through life when suddenly superpowers are thrust upon him -- presenting unexpected challenges as well as opportunities. He's a good big brother to young Emma, instinctively helpful -- as when he surprises everyone by helping befuddled tourists find their hotel -- in Swahili.  He also resists his enterprising pal Kojo's "genius" plans to put his powers to work doing other kids' schoolwork. The villains frame him for cheating to keep him out of their way. Besides being brilliant, his friend Grace is kind, determined, and very loyal to her family. Kojo, when not hatching "genius" plans, is also a smart, loyal friend who talks about "sending the elevator back down" to less academically gifted friends now that he's at the peak of success. Jake and Emma's single mom is good at her job and supportive of her kids. Grace's uncle, the vice-principal, turns out to be quite a bit more than he seems, and a good ally to the kids.

Violence & Scariness

In the distant past, the father of the brave cabin boy has been killed by a pirate. The pirate seems unlikely to survive the battle in progress as the story begins. The evil descendants of the pirate are perfectly willing to cause the unfortunate deaths of a few kids to get the long-lost treasure, so our heroes Jake, Grace, and Kojo find themselves trapped underground and slated to have a fatal accident (which does not take place). A villainous adult gives the kids laxative-laced brownies in hopes of keeping them out of a contest.

Language

Frequent butt, poop, and fart  references and humor.  One useless factoid Jake suddenly knows is that the ancient Romans used urine for mouthwash.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Smartest Kid in the Universe is the first book in a new series by bestselling author Chris Grabenstein, known for his collaborations with James Patterson as well as solo work including the Mr. Lemoncello's Library  series. The title character, Jake, is a 12-year-old slacker looking to get through life with as little effort as possible -- a goal he's finding at odds with his sudden interest in making a good impression on brainy classmate Grace, who keeps speaking Spanish to him in hopes he'll learn some. Life changes rapidly when (in the course of disobeying his mom and scamming gourmet food at the hotel where she works), he devours several handfuls of what he thinks are jelly beans -- but are in fact the latest invention of a probably-mad scientist, prototypes of Ingested Knowledge. Suddenly Jake seems to know all kinds of things. The adventures that follow involve pirates, treasure, secret identities, math problems, a middle-school Quiz Bowl, the FBI, villains whose vile deeds range from laxative brownies to attempted murder (as well as your more run-of-the-mill bad behavior) -- and a helicopter at the end waiting to sweep Jake off to his next adventure. 

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What's the story?

Twelve-year-old Jake didn't set out to be THE SMARTEST KID IN THE UNIVERSE. He goes to school to hang out with his friends, especially Kojo and Grace, both brainiacs who disapprove of his slacking ways. But after devouring a whole lot of what he assumes are jelly beans but are in fact the latest creation of a mad scientist, he suddenly knows all kinds of things. Like Swahili. And geometry. Not, however, Spanish, which is unfortunate not only because his sister needs homework help and Grace is hinting strongly she'd like him to speak it, but also because Grace's ancestor, a clever cabin boy who recaptured his murdered father's treasure from a pirate in colonial times, left his descendants directions to find it -- in Spanish. Unbeknownst to the kids, the pirate's descendants are close at hand and, of course, will stop at nothing to get the treasure for themselves.

Is it any good?

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be on the edge of your seat in this wacky, imaginative adventure. You'll also learn a lot of math and Spanish in the first episode of Chris Grabenstein's brainiac-friendly middle-school adventure series. As hero Jake inadvertently becomes The Smartest Kid in the Universe after eating what he thinks are jelly beans, he and his friends become embroiled in a multi-century epic involving a pirate treasure from colonial times and villains who will stop at nothing to get it. Meanwhile the FBI is putting Jake's newfound skills to work solving more recent crimes. Crucial (and often hilarious) portions of the story are in Spanish, which will have some readers scrambling to keep up, but it's worth the effort. Here's an example:

"'My family is fine, too...,' said Grace. 'In fact, my uncle Charley has never been better. He’s about to become something of a hero. Let’s just say that tomorrow mi tío hará que sus antepasados se sientan muy, muy orgullosos.'

 “'Right,' [villainess replies], blinking some more. 'Let’s just say that, shall we?' She watched the three friends boldly stride out the exit. She could tell by their jiggling shoulders that they were snickering at her. Probably because they thought que no podía hablar español.

“But she did. She hablaba español like nobody’s business. So she knew the annoying little brats were going to go digging for Dog Breath’s booty that very night. Because brainy little Grace had said that tomorrow 'mi tío hará que sus antepasados se sientan muy, muy orgullosos.' Meaning that tomorrow her uncle, Charley Lyons, the direct descendant of the Cubano cabin boy Eduardo Leones, was going to 'make his ancestors very, very proud.'"

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how an ordinary person suddenly (and unintentionally) gets a superpower --and how it changes his life -- in The Smartest Kid in the Universe. What other stories like this do you know? How do the characters cope?

  • If you already speak Spanish, do you like the way it's used to tell the story here? If you don't already know Spanish, did you find yourself wanting to figure out those parts of the story?

  • Jake uses geography and math to help the FBI solve a bank robbery. Have you ever learned something in school that you thought was useless and boring -- and then it came in really handy one day?

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