Title: Ungifted

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).

Review:

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.

BUT

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.

Exactly.

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:

UNEARTHED

DONOVAN CURTIS
IQ: 112

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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24 Responses to Book Review: Ungifted by Gordon Korman

  1. Linda W says:

    Hmm. As I read this review I instantly thought of the other book, the one Thea reviewed. Maybe it’s time to put this stereotype to rest. My niece is extremely good at math and science and also happens to be a poet. I’m sure we can name a number of fiction authors who have a genius-level IQ.

  2. Thank you for your honest review of Ungifted. I’m sure that for the average Middle Grader this book is entertaining, but I can’t help but wonder what a “gifted” middle grader would think of it.

    I also wonder whether it could be damaging in some way, or if it would be empowering (hey, I’m gifted AND creative, so I must be a hero like Donovan!). The truth is, most truly gifted children have a combination of intense curiosity, fluid and flexible thinking, elaborate original thinking, and a well-developed sense of humor. These are just some of the traits of a gifted child, but in my opinion they all come down to the same thing – creativity! To say that giftedness and creativity are usually exclusive of one another is just plain wrong. Even though the book is fiction, I worry that it feeds into some of society’s worst stereotypes about “smart kids”. These kids have it rough enough socially and academically, but I will put my soap box aside for the moment. In the meantime, I might have to read this one, just so I can formulate my own informed opinion. Thank you for bringing Ungifted to my attention!!

    Have you read Nerd Camp yet?

  3. I have one quick question…because I’m having a hard time letting this go. Are any of the kids at Donovan’s ASD athletic? Nothing burns me up more than when people assume when a kid is brainy, he can’t also be athletically talented. It’s like kids have to fit into one category only, or else it throws off the balance of the universe. Oh, I said I was leaving my soapbox aside. My bad. Sorry.

  4. April says:

    Ugh! Korman is insanely popular with the kids at my library and I’m sure most of them won’t mind that second aspect of the book… But it totally makes me wish I had a time machine so I could go back and get rid of copy I ordered.

  5. Ana says:

    Linda – yes exactly.

    Alison – That’s an interesting question. I think that an aware gifted MG kid would probably find a lot to fault here.

    AS for sports, no, no athletics. They don’t dress well either and some of them can barely function. One of the kids describes their lives thusly:

    “Friends? Those are the people you slave alongside. They might be awesome, but how would you ever find out? You’re too busy for them, and they’re too busy for you. Sports? When? And besides, why play when you probably stink?

    Hypothesis: Athletic ability exists in inverse proportion to intelligence. Technically untrue – there are plenty of smart athletes. But not many compared with the number of brilliant sofa spuds.”

    ok, so this is one character with this view – but there is nothing in the story to negate these assertions.

    It is interesting because my partner is a physics teacher and he teaches High Ability groups here in England. I’ve met some of the kids and should see them – extremely smart and driven and super busy? YES. But also extremely creative and some of them very artistic, some sportive, plenty of them very, very cool and self-confident with the odd one out being slightly awkward (as you would expect from any random group of kids: variety).

    April – : ( I never read him before but I heard his books are super popular, perhaps this is the odd one out?

  6. Paige says:

    Huh. Pity about the weird treatment of gifted kids. I loved early Korman (Bruno and Boots, Bugs Potter, etc.) when I was in elementary school, and I still do love those early titles. He always *has* traded on stock character types (the nerd, the klutz, the tomboy), but it’s felt more varied than this sounds.

    Still, I’ll take a look if I stumble on it at the library.

  7. Lark says:

    Thank you for the honest and straightforward review. After reading what you’ve written here, I’m puzzled. Did the author research giftedness at all? Because when my daughter’s school system assesses children for the TAG (talented and gifted) math or language arts program, one of the primary things they look for is the ability to think “outside the box” — i.e., creativity. That’s often a hallmark of giftedness. And the kids in her gifted program were normal, creative kids, as good at social interaction as any other kids in the school; some were also athletic.

    So I’m disturbed by the author’s use of negative stereotypes for his “gifted” characters. There’s enough of that out there. Not to mention that we’re going to need those bright, gifted, creative types to develop new technologies, new businesses, new ways of doing things; it behooves us not to teach the rest of society to dismiss or disdain them.

  8. Ana says:

    Lark, I completely agree! As for research, I have no idea. But on his interview with PW he says:

    “I do a lot of school visits, which is great market research,” says Korman of his inspiration for Ungifted. “I’ve seen how the word ‘gifted’ is often kicked around. Kids who make it into those special programs are certainly proficient in some ways, but in other ways they may lag behind other kids in the school. I was wondering what would happen if a kid who was not academically gifted suddenly got thrown in that mix. Perhaps a person like Donovan could show everyone else how to have a good time and let their hair down, and get a better education than they otherwise would ever get in a gifted program.”

  9. Lenore says:

    I was in my school’s gifted program precisely because of my creativity (though at the time my math/science skills were also above grade level). I will say being in the program was difficult at times socially because we were separated out, but not because we were socially ungifted.

  10. Lindsay Elizabeth says:

    I think this book would drive me crazy. I went to a combined middle/high school for the fine arts. It is also consistently ranked the best academic school in the state and one of the top 100 in America… Our valedictorian is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and she is also an extremely gifted musician.

    I hate the stereotype that intelligence isn’t malleable, almost as much as the stereotype of scientists as always boring and uncreative.

  11. Kate says:

    Wow, seriously? All the smartest people I know are creative, whether in terms of art or of technical innovation. Curiosity is a huge part of being smart–not just the ability to understand things, but the constant need to understand MORE things and apply that knowledge to OTHER things, which will lead to new understanding and new applications, etc. etc. This person clearly has never hung out with geeks of any stripe.

  12. I was under the impression that all it took to turn a robot into an instrument of destruction were three steps:

    1) Build a robot
    2) Wait for it to achieve self-awareness
    3) Sit back, relax, and watch the devastation

  13. [...] The Book Smugglers (language warning) [...]

  14. Ms. Yingling says:

    Do see your points. That said, the entire robotics team at my school (ten plus kids) read this and think it is hysterical. The gifted coordinator is reading it right now. I’ll have to think about this one, but I think the complete unliklihood of Donovan getting into the school (and the school even existing) made the over-the-top kids possible. I don’t think people should be scared off from this book, though. None of the gifted kids I’ve talked to have been at all offended by this.

  15. Alouette Kim says:

    I agree with this review wholeheartedly, and honestly thought the problems you pointed out were far greater than you indicated. Just to clarify things, I am a biased reader. I read this book as a thirteen-year-old attending a school for gifted students, and I found the book downright offensive.
    My friends are some of the most artistically talented people I know. They are socially adept teenagers who love Youtube, are internationally recognized musicians, and design their own videogames. The captain of our science bowl team, who was one of the top twelve scorers on the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad for two consecutive years and is competing in the International Mathematical Olympiad this year, is one of the funniest people I know. And Korman got the robotics thing all wrong. His description of the competition was an extremely uninformed description of the 2011 FRC competition (that’s when the blown-up rings were used). If a school had as much money as he suggested, it would be spending that money on the robotics program. Robotics is an incredibly expensive “sport”–my team, which is still considered relatively small, has huge corporate sponsors and uses loads of expensive power tools. The way the robotics competition was described in the book was absolute bogus.
    I understand that Gordon Korman likely wrote the book in good humor, but I thought it was awful. The way he treated the topic of high-IQ kids bothered me enough that even knowing that there were some things Korman got right, I would absolutely not recommend this book to anyone.

  16. Alouette Kim says:

    To reiterate my point (because I’m still really annoyed that I wasted a good hour reading this book):
    Do these people look like Korman’s idea of intellectually gifted students with high IQs?
    My classmates singing!
    Alison was the sweetest big sib ever.
    A lot of us do love Anime.
    Um, yeah. Gifted kids know what Youtube is. They have their own Youtube channels. I’m disappointed that the first (and at this point it looks as if it’ll be the only) Korman book I read is Ungifted, because I have heard many positive things about his earlier works from my friends. I don’t think they’d be nearly as impressed with this one.
    Oh, and also: there isn’t nearly as much money put into gifted student programs as Korman seems to think. If there were, I wouldn’t be eating the same cafeteria food as every other student in the city.
    Um, yeah. Just me, ranting.

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  19. Anonymous says:

    Swag

  20. You guys don't read. says:

    BTW for those of you who are ranting about Noah not having heard of YouTube,

    “That’s YouTube?” Noah was incredulous. “I’ve heard of it, obviously,…

    So, yes he does know YouTube, and you don’t read carefully.
    And, these are extremely gifted kids, they don’t have any free time to watch videos or such, having to be at the Academy with tremendous amount of work. And if they did have free time, they would use it on education.
    Smartehs. :mrgreen:
    End of story, I’m right, you’re wrong.

  21. Anonymous says:

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