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.
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.” But how long must we reinforce the notion, as author 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?
Published by Harry N. Abrams, 2009