I Don’t Know How To Rate This! Review of NERDS by Michael Buckley – Ages 8 – 12

On the one hand, this is a delightful, clever, funny book that will entertain any child who loves silly jokes, action heroes, satire, and books about nerds versus popular kids in school. I laughed aloud more than once, and I loved the many positive messages.

nerds

The NERDS are a group of fifth graders made up of actual “nerds” whose “weaknesses” have been bionically enhanced to give them special powers. The government made them into special agents after determining that kids would make the best spies because (1) they are small, and often overlooked and underestimated by adults, and (2) they are more techno-savvy than adults. Thus NERDS (National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society) was born.

The current crew includes Duncan “Gluestick” Dewey (he can stick to walls), Ruby “Pufferfish” Peet (her allergies can help her detect danger and dishonesty), Heathcliff “Choppers” Hodges (his buckteeth allow him to control minds), Julio “Flinch” Escala (his hyperactivity gives him super speed and strength) and Matilda “Wheezer” Chois (her inhalers enable her to fly and blast enemies). They are joined by the formerly popular Jackson “Braceface” Jones, who was rejected by his friends after getting braces.

Together, they sneak out of school to fight the evil Dr. Felix Jigsaw. Dr. Jigsaw is aided by Mindy (“Hyena”) Beauchamp, and it is the depiction of The Hyena that gets my hackles up. This is how the author describes her:

For a professional killer with ice in her veins, the Hyena was pretty cute. She had platinum blonde hair and bright green eyes, long eyelashes, and a nose like a button. When she was seven years old, her mother decided to capitalize on her daughter’s stunning good looks … and plunged her daughter into the world of professional child beauty pageants.”

Here’s my problem. The author has made his nerd group multicultural (although the male hero is a stereotypical blond, “handsome” football playing jock). He has filled his book with positive messages about the ultimate value of kids who tend to be considered nerds in school:

…we know that what the popular kids have to offer the world is so tiny and unimportant compared to what the nerds will do. The dorks, dweebs, goobers, and spazzes that you picked on are the ones who will grow up to discover the vaccines, write the great novels, push the boundaries of science and technology, and invest things that make people healthier and happier. Nerds change the world.”

And yet the author slips in numerous references to what makes someone beautiful (or handsome), and they are not multicultural images. (Nor, for that matter, are they images of kids who wear braces, glasses, or have medical conditions.) I think many teens want to be attractive; they’ll worry about curing diseases when they’re older – far, far in the future. In particular, Buckley’s book doesn’t help the young girls of color with their self-image who read this book, nor does he help abate the slew of subliminal messages that affect young white people.

Consider the new movie by Chris Rock, “Good Hair,” in which he explores the history of race relations in America as symbolized by images of black women and attitudes toward their hair. He says he decided to investigate the issue after his young daughter said to him, “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?”

How are little girls of color supposed to love themselves, when every cultural image from the overt to the subtle tells them they are not the same as what is defined as attractive? How are they supposed to grow up to be self-actualizing, confident women who value themselves?

This is a very fun book that is “reluctant reader friendly” as The Happy Nappy Bookseller says in her review. But how long must we reinforce the notion, as bell hooks laments, that “the femininity most sought after, most adored, [is] that perceived to be the exclusive property of white womanhood?” If we don’t start with kids, changing what is taught through the words and images used in books, movies, videos, and ads, how will these notions of beauty ever evolve?

Evaluation: If it weren’t for its images of “beautiful” and “handsome” I would be telling you I absolutely adored this book. But I can’t get past the deleterious stereotyping. So what do you think, readers: should this book be recommended or not?

Rating: 4/5

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15 Responses

  1. I like the way you think and evaluate books like this. Based on the summary, I believe my fifth-grade granddaughter would love this book. But – what I think you’re saying is – should she. Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to buy the book, read it and then have my sister read it. My sister teaches in what she calls a “mini united nations” classroom. She seldom has more than a handful of white/blonde students and she is very sensitive to these issues.

    My granddaughter loves to read. Currently she is at number 4 of the Twilight books. I’d like to see her read something a bit more fun, like this one, for a change of pace. Thanks Jill for reading and reviewing this book in such an insightful manner. Appreciate it.

  2. You are so insightful! I probably never would have even considered the issues you did! Great assessment!

  3. Hmn?? Another good review. I will have to read it and see what I think. As one who was a “nerd” growing up, I can relate. While I never wanted to be blonde – I like my previously dark hair – I was always aware that I did not fit the “beautiful” mode of the blondes in my class. My granddaughter is not quite old enough for this book, but not sure whether I would want her to read it. Thanks for the great review!

  4. Thank you for reading the book and thanks for your well-thought out review. As the author of NERDS it was very important to me to do a few things – some were successful, some, not so much. First, I wanted to have a multi-cultural cast – I come from a huge multi-cultural family filled with african-americans, chinese-americans, and of course, caucasian-americans – all with different religious and cultural backgrounds, so I was trying to write something that might appeal to lots of different faces. Secondly, I wanted to write something funny that might get kids who are bored with books to crack one open. And third, I wanted to write a book where the nerdy kids were not the sidekicks, that the girls were not in the background, and the minorities, were, well – not minorities. Yes, there are many white characters, but as members of the actual team, they are not the majority. The team is lead by a Jewish girl – and includes a Korean-American, African-American, and Latino-American. I knew writing this series this would be seen through a microscope because I clearly have the white experience but at the same time – who else is doing it? Who else is even trying to reach out this way/ Nobody. Not to smear my colleagues but the best selling books of the last eight years have few characters of color at all.
    It may not be a perfect book but there’s no such thing but I’m going to keep trying. The next book will have a new main character – Duncan Dewey, the African-American kid with a love for technology and paste. The 3rd book, as planned with be about the Korean-American girl – Matilda Choi. Each book will be from a different team members perspective. The first book is about a white kid – but it’s really not about a white kid – he just happens to be white. I’m sure I’ll take a couple sucker punches along the way for this series – but maybe it will prompt my colleagues to write something that acknowledges that the world is full of lots of kinds of people. In the future, I’ll make sure that my readers know that I know all those people are beautiful, too. Again, thanks for the review. I hope everyone will give NERDS a chance.

  5. There isn’t much I can add to the conversation without having read it, but I just wanted to say I love the points you made about slipping into stereotypes, and that reading the author’s response was very interesting!

  6. I think as a society things are improving a bit. It’s not like it was back in the day when Christie Brinkley was the only supermodel type out there. Now we have all sorts of women of color. We still have a long way to go but I’ll take a babystep here and there over no progress at all.

    Looking at this book I don’t see how a 12 year old would be interested in it. My 11-year-old would not be caught dead with it. It’s looks too juvenile. But then again, my 11-year-old thinks he’s 20 (don’t they all)?

  7. Fantastic analysis, Jill; you raise a lot of good points, and I was pleased to read the author’s response.

    It was just this week I read an article about African-American dolls that come with a hair-straightening treatment; seriously! I thought it was in the NY Times, but I can’t find it online (anyone know what I’m referring to?!). I found this article from the Boston Globe, but it’s not the one I read: http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2009/10/09/new_black_barbies_get_mixed_reviews/

    Back to the book … I really like that the typical underdogs are the heros in this book, literally superheros, that’s a nice switch. Maybe the author will be more aware of the way he couches physical beauty as he moves forward with the series.

  8. I’m not sure there’s much I can add to this discussion (and the author’s response is interesting to read as well) but I’d like to point out that this is an interesting review that raises a lot of important points and questions. I’m not sure I agree with everything said but thank you for taking the time to write it. Thought-provoking reviews are the very best and I tip my hat to you.

  9. Mr. Buckley:

    Thank you so much for your response to this review. I think you are right, that in a sense you invite the microscope since most authors ignore these issues altogether. I believe also you are coming out with your book at a time during which people have a new awareness of culturally determined parameters of beauty, intelligence, etc. that too often reflect the dominant culture rather than the diversity of cultures surrounding it.

    Moreover, as someone who spent her childhood painfully aware of the consequences of not having blonde hair and a nose like a button, your description of Mindy had a strong effect on me personally.

    Finally, I was encouraged by the fact that my husband saw my point, which shows that ten years of intense ranting, raving, and argument can in fact help change people’s opinions. We still have such a problem with little girls wanting to straighten their hair or starve themselves literally to death; I continue to hope that one day all little girls can think of themselves as beautiful instead of having the wrong coloring or bad hair or the wrong facial or body characteristics.

    On the positive side I want to note to other commenters that first, this issue we are discussing is really a very small part of this book, and second, I do not think this book is as “juvenile” as I may have made it sound in my review. I think it has more of a Mad Magazine quality (and that’s really the highest praise I could give something!) that would appeal to any age, including my own.

  10. Awesome review. “But how long must we reinforce the notion, as bell hooks laments, that “the femininity most sought after, most adored, [is] that perceived to be the exclusive property of white womanhood?” Amen to that!!

    Sounds like a cute read, I might have had my brain in the mode to seek, or digest the “issues” had I been reading it. I’d still read it. No one in my life is in the target age to read the book.

    Love conversations you generate with your thoughtful, insightful reviews.

  11. This does sound like a fun and clever book … but I enjoy hearing your “BUT.” You are so thoughtful in your reviews and I appreciate that. You always make me think more than on the surface (and I need that).

  12. Jill,

    This is the kind of discussion I hope for. The adult me has learned that I am far more sensitive and zone in on the issues you raise more often than most readers among the targeted audience does. And that is problematic because while kids don’t often consciously catch these elements, they are affected by them.

    So what do we do? The first thing is to be more engaged and aware of what our kids are reading and even if we’re not interested in what they read, read their books. Then invite dialogue. And what I have to constantly remind myself is to try not to get a kid to analyze when it’s clear s/he is not at the stage to appreciate the point you wish they’d get. Pick your battles decisively and consider your timing when you want to insert cultural lessons. If you’re not careful, you just turn the kid off. This is know for fact.

    Lastly, I remember one specific example you shared. For the character what he deemed beautiful is beautiful for him. It might have been enlightening and encouraging if he had a different standard but I think the author expressed what most boys like the character would define as beautiful so instead of writing his view differently, the narrow definition serves a valuable point. It opened up dialogue like this one.

    Thanks for always raising the questions.

  13. Hi, Jill,

    I am Michael Buckley’s editor. He shared your review with me, which I read with much interest. It reminded me of the great discussions we used to get into at Mount Holyoke College, where I went to school, of the male gaze and the shifting ideals of feminine beauty. And of course the great damage that can be done, particularly to girls, when society offers up limited notions of what is beautiful.

    As Michael indicated in his own message, it was important to him to make the NERDS a diverse group of kids. In Michael’s mind, this series (there are five books planned in all) is really about the team as a whole rather than any one member. And they are a pretty cool, likable bunch who, realistically or not, aren’t too concerned about looks. They are too busy using their awesome abilities to save the world. The Hyena, the blond “villain” you describe above, isn’t much interested in her looks either. In fact, she finds meeting the externally imposed “ideal” of beauty pageant prettiness an isolating trap she wants to escape. The one character who does really care about his looks, so much he has them surgically altered, is the bad guy. A definite theme of the book is that one’s true value lies within. However, your point about kids wanting to feel attractive is well taken. It is one thing to say societal ideals are a trap and another to say, hey, those ideals are pretty limited and biased in the first place. You’ve given Michael and me a lot to think about as we take the series forward. As Michael said, we hope you will give the NERDS a chance. They are a smart, funny, capable crew with a lot of good left to do in the world.

  14. Susan VM,

    Thank you so much for your response. You make some good arguments, and have me wishing I were back in the dorm room with you discussing these issues! Although it is true Mindy wasn’t so enamored of the pageant scene, I don’t think this gainsays the fact that she is set forth as the definition of beauty. Clearly this stood out to me because the author is doing so much good with the rest of his book. If it were full of the usual characterization and stereotypes, it wouldn’t have stood out for me.

    FYI,, the reason I described Mindy as a “villain” is because I didn’t want to give a spoiler in my review about Mindy’s later transformation.

  15. Hi, Jill,

    Yes, we could be having this discussion over pizza and diet coke while procrastinating over our papers on PARADISE LOST! I appreciate your avoiding spoilers and all the nice things you’ve said about the book. I think this is a worthy discussion for sure. I think the trouble with subverting types, which is what Michael tries to do here and which is often a characteristic of comedy, is that you have to introduce a type in the first place. The Hyena is a type of girl, blond and blue-eyed, whom the reader expects to be caught up in her looks and living in a pink room somewhere. As it happens, she aspires to being a ruthless assassin. I don’t think Michael is saying he buys into this ideal of beauty. But I do think he is saying that society does (to a certain extent) and see how silly it is. He’s definitely having fun with stereotypes here, in a good-hearted way, playing with our ingrained ideas. I hope he’s breaking down stereotypes in his own comedic way: that is certainly one goal of the series. Along with just making kids laugh.

    Warmest,

    Susan

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