Author: Gordon Korman
Genre: Contemporary, Middle Grade
Publisher: Balzer & Bray
Publication date: August 21 2012
Hardcover: 288 pages
The word gifted has never been applied to a kid like Donovan Curtis. It’s usually more like Don’t try this at home. So when the troublemaker pulls a major prank at his middle school, he thinks he’s finally gone too far. But thanks to a mix-up by one of the administrators, instead of getting in trouble, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction (ASD), a special program for gifted and talented students.
It wasn’t exactly what Donovan had intended, but there couldn’t be a more perfect hideout for someone like him. That is, if he can manage to fool people whose IQs are above genius level. And that becomes harder and harder as the students and teachers of ASD grow to realize that Donovan may not be good at math or science (or just about anything). But after an ongoing experiment with a live human (sister), an unforgettably dramatic middle-school dance, and the most astonishing come-from-behind robot victory ever, Donovan shows that his gifts might be exactly what the ASD students never knew they needed.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: I got a review copy at BEA
Why did I read this book: I don’t really have a strong reason to have picked this book up except for: it looked like it could be fun. But I did go to BEA knowing about it (I think it was listed somewhere as a book to look for at BEA).
This is going to be a review in two parts.
Part the First: In Which I Talk About the Plot, Characters and General Thoughts About Ungifted
If Donovan Curtis has one gift, it is his gift for troublemaking. With his poor impulse control and his recklessness, chaos follows him wherever he goes. After a particularly stupid prank with its costly and dangerous result, he thinks he has gone too far. But instead of being punished for it, an error by his school’s administrator sends him to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction, a special program for gifted kids with high IQ.
As an average student, Donovan is the proverbial fish out of water at the Academy, at least to start with. Soon though, he and the other students start to realise that Donovan is exactly what the Academy needed: a breath of fresh air and limitless creativity. Its short chapters alternate between several characters’ point of view including Donovan’s, some of his teachers’ and a few of his fellow students’ at the Academy.
On the surface, Ungifted is a pretty decent, fun book. I read it in one go and enjoyed my time reading it. Its prose is competent and it has truly funny moments. By comparing the day to day life of highly gifted students and that of “normal” (word used in the book) students it makes really good points about how expectations can shape the life of students (gifted or not ), how educational labelling can be problematic and how separating talented students from the rest of the student body is questionable when it completely sets them apart (they don’t even interact socially).
The way the story progresses and how Donovan manages to get away with his trouble-making tendencies as well as the hero-worship for his daring-do sort of reminded me in part of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off although Donovan doesn’t have half of Ferris’ charisma, which is essential for a story like this to work.
Other characters are much more likeable like the two gifted kids Chloe and Noah – both of them – understandably – wishing their school was not separated from the rest of the student body, wishing for a more “normal” life. To them Donovan is a godsend.
Part the Second: In Which I Lose My Shit and Get Ranty
The fundamental premise of Ungifted is completely, totally LUDICROUS. And I really can’t stress this enough.
ALL of the students at the Academy are portrayed as socially awkward nerds; most of them have a tendency for scientific subjects and none for the arts; none of them were presented as “creative” because obviously, high IQ plus science = uncreative people.
This is where things get really shady for me. If the point the book is trying to make is that these high IQ kids live a sterile, sad life because their teachers and the education system don’t nurture their creativity, I thought that point was really badly done. Because in the book there is a real dichotomy between “normal” kids and high IQ kids that is portrayed as FACT. The high IQ kids are all portrayed as lacking this potential for creativity, unlike Donovan, whose potential for creativity is limitless. A few examples are in order:
1)The first thing that Donovan does when he joins the Academy’s robotic class? He NAMES the Robot they are constructing. The other students’ reaction is one of AWE and RESPECT because and I quote: “Nobody’s ever thought of naming the robot before”.
2)Noah, whose IQ is 206 and therefore is a recognised genius, had never heard of youtube before Donovan told him about it. Once he comes across youtube, he becomes addicted to it and Donovan becomes his idol. I found it really hard to believe that a smart kid like Noah would not have heard about youtube EVER. It’s 2012, youtube is everywhere. Are you telling me none of the other kids or members of his family ever watched a clip and talked about it; that he has never come across it online, or on TV, or newspapers’ articles?
3)At the robotics competition at the end of the book when Donovan realises they are losing, he sets the robot to destroy the whole thing creating the chaos and destruction he is known for and…he is lauded for it. Because even turning a robot “into an instrument of destruction requires a kind of giftedness that none of us have”. Are. You. KIDDING. Me.
4)Some of the kids at the Academy are portrayed as wanting to lead a normal life amongst other students. I can totally understand that. But the only kid whose point of view differed from this and who is happy about what they have at the Academy is portrayed as a vapid, egotistic girl who only care about her results and getting into college.
5)There is a ridiculous amount of unexplained Donovan-worship just because he is “normal” and creative. The teachers, the students all worship him. One of the kids says “He’s more important than any of us” because he has “an uncanny knack for making a difference”. This got tiresome really soon.
Separating kids so completely from the rest of the student body is a bad thing in many ways – it separates them from the rest of their colleagues, it can create too high expectations and it can also result in creating too low expectations for all the other kids. But high ability groups (not schools) are, I think, necessary because these kids need to be challenged.
But the biggest problem I had with the book is the fact that the high IQ kids are portrayed as lacking any creativity (this is reinforced by all characters and by the plot). This is extremely problematic because it stems from an undeserved stigma that associates science and high intelligence with uncreativity. And that is, for lack of a better word: stupid.
I’d like to quote Thea when she wrote about another book that had a similar problem because she says it so well and I agree with the sentiment completely:
Some of humanity’s most brilliant and creative minds have been mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and yes, even economists (as an economics graduate, I resent these implications so very much). The central premise of the novel precludes the possibility – nay, the reality – that it takes creativity to be in the sciences or related subjects. You’re trying to tell me that Einstein’s theorems are the product of a non-creative mind? That brilliant economists like John Nash or Adam Smith, or that Watson, Crick and Franklin in their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA have not an iota of creativity in their being? What of Euler, Da Vinci, Tesla, Curie, Newton, Darwin, or Galileo?
I’m sorry, but I call BULLPUCKY.
Ultimately, I think MG kids would enjoy this book immensely and as I said some really good points are made. But I feel I can’t really recommend Ungifted unreservedly.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
I want a refund from ancestry.com.
They traced my family all the way back to the revolution. And in all those forefathers and foremothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins, there was nobody like me. No bigmouth hung for treason; no “classe clowne” who they stuck in the stocks and threw rotten vegetables at. The closest match was this guy in the Civil War who jumped off a battlement, whatever that is. And he only did it because the Union army was firing on Fort Sumter. That’s what they put on his tombstone, anyway. It sounds like a pretty good excuse to me.
I did things like that. If there were any battlements in my neighborhood, I’d probably jump off them all. And not because of any army. I’d do it just to see what would happen. Reckless, my mother called me. “Poor impulse control.” That’s the school psychologist.
“You’re going to break your idiot neck one day, or someone’s going to break it for you.” My dad.
He was probably right. They were all right. But when the thing is right there in front of me, and I can kick it, grab it, shout it out, jump into it, paint it, launch it, or light it on fire, it’s like I’m a puppet on a string, powerless to resist. I don’t think; I do.
It can be little things, like throwing darts at a pool float to test my sister’s swimming skills, or spitting back at the llamas at the zoo. It can be more creative – a helium balloon, a fishhook, and Uncle Mark’s toupee. It can even be the smart-alecky comments that got me voted Most Likely to Wind Up in Jail in my middle school the last two years running.
Rating: 5 – It was ok.
Reading Next: Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge
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