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The Unteachables

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Unteachables Book Poster Image
Triumph, life lessons fill hysterical middle school romp.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

The kids restore, customize a car as a science fair project. One kid has dyslexia -- and a teacher figures out that if he learns to solve anagrams, he'll get better at reading. (Meanwhile, whole class gets better at anagrams too.) Lots of references to books, TV series, comic book characters, stories -- and debate about which one applies to present situation. One kid speaks to another in Klingon, causing confusion. Heads up if you don't already know that Where the Red Fern Grows leads to heartbreak: You'll discover it along with one of the characters.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about looking beyond appearances and assumptions to see what's really going on with people, who often turn out to be more complicated and interesting than you think. Also strong themes of friendship, helping each other, collaboration, making the most of people's particular skills and talents -- and creative problem-solving, including ways to outwit a villain who's holding all the cards. One plot thread shows that people can do bad things but then become wiser, change their ways, make amends. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Except for regrettable Superintendent Thaddeus, no villains are here, just a lot of kids and adults who are more complicated than they first appear: Parker, who's dyslexic, helps on the family farm, and looks out for his grandmother, who has dementia and doesn't know who he is. And Kiana, who adjusts to her new blended family, sees classmates and teacher as actual people. Burned-out teacher Mr. Kermit rediscovers passion for shaping young minds in wake of epic prank. Car dealer and local celebrity Jake Terranova as a seventh-grader ruined the life of his innocent teacher (Mr. Kermit) by going into the exam-selling business, causing a huge cheating scandal -- now he wants to make amends. And lots more.

Violence & Scariness

One kid has anger management issues, kicks lockers; another has reputation for inflicting random physical damage on people for no reason. Assorted cartoonish but painful violence involving stomping, crutches, bullies drenching kids with bad faucet tricks. Comic mayhem aplenty, from kids roasting marshmallows in classroom to assorted wreckage and near-death experiences from one kid's not-so-great driving skills.

Language

Occasional "My God!" Pee, poop, butt, and barf references, mostly humorous.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that when best-selling author Gordon Korman (Supergifted) writes a book called The Unteachables, it's a safe bet that pretty much everyone in its pages will learn important life lessons before it's over. But not before there's a lot of comic mayhem, and sweetness from unlikely quarters. As in Korman's other middle school tales, a misunderstanding (here, a student who's not actually enrolled in a class -- she just shows up every day because it's easier) leads to a lot of life-changing ripple effects. Characters face a lot of challenges, discover unexpected strengths, and form strong, if unlikely, bonds. Some of them are dealing with issues like stepparents, dyslexia, and elderly relatives with dementia, and a cheating scandal in the distant past is still causing misery. There's lots of humor involving pee, barf, and other gross substances, but also lots of positive messages about friendship, loyalty, collaboration, creative problem-solving, and making amends for past misdeeds.

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What's the story?

Uprooted from her regular school in California and sent to live with her father and his new family while her mom's working on a movie, eighth grader Kiana mistakenly lands among THE UNTEACHABLES -- who are definitely a strange bunch of 14-year-olds. There's Parker the farm kid, who has a provisional driver's license, a grandma with dementia, and also dyslexia. Aldo, who's got some anger-management issues and kicks things a lot. Elaine ("rhymes with pain") -- even the football players are scared of her. And more. Into all this comes burned-out teacher Zachary Kermit, who's counting the days till early retirement and determined not to let the kids get to him. Kiana, likewise, figures she'll put in a few weeks with these guys until it's time to go back home. As told by various characters in turn, many things conspire to derail these happy plans, starting with the brazen theft of a truckload of vuvuzelas (those loud horns that appear at sports games and during school Spirit Weeks).

Is it any good?

Gordon Korman's latest ode to middle school misfits is full of mayhem, humor, unlikely bonding, and meaningful life lessons. The kids in The Unteachables show unlikely ways of righting wrongs and making things better, and most of the adults in their world are complex and relatable -- even, momentarily, the villainous Superintendent Thaddeus, as he begins to suspect there may be forces in play he hadn't counted upon: 

""No defense of a teacher should include a sentence that ends with 'fell in the river,'" I cut her off.

""The students didn't fall," she persists. "They jumped in because they thought they had to rescue Zachary (Kermit). Remember the kids we're talking about -- some of the most difficult and antisocial we've ever seen. But they're loyal to him. Why?"

"Twelve hours later, as I lie in bed, trying to sleep, that why? is still reverberating inside my skull."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how The Unteachables focuses on "problem" students -- and how the story becomes more complicated than you first assume. What other stories like this do you know? How do they compare to this one -- and to author Gordon Korman's other stories?

  • Do you think it would be cool to have a driver's license like Parker (who's 14 and drives a farm truck) when you'd normally be too young? Or are you fine with waiting till you're old enough?

  • Do you know anyone with dyslexia or another reading disability? Have they found a way to work around it? What helped them?

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