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Recently at a meeting of the Colorado Academy of Educators of the Gifted, Talented and Creative, I overheard a great story. It seems that an identified gifted young lady in the fourth grade was able to handle a bit of bullying quite well by herself. When a male classmate called her a nerd, looking him in the eye, she calmly and quietly responded, “I prefer the term intellectually superior.” No more trouble from him!
Our novel for this column follows the same line. First, I must say that I read this amazing little book in private to escape the strange looks or need to explain my outright laughter and, at times, guffaws as I was reading! Michael Buckley, using his typical sense of humor, has provided the epitome of defense against bullying in his book N.E.R.D.S. — National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (Amulet Books, 2009). Even the really creative layout of the novel brings chuckles as the reader must go through various stages of “tests” to get access to the next “level” of the book. These delightful “access” pages are designed by agent Chad W. Beckerman, and the illustrations are by agent Ethen Beavers. Pique your interest?
It seems that a group of fifth-graders has been recruited by the government as a secret-agent team to take care of situations, both national and international, that adults, with their lack of intelligence and creativity, just can’t handle. The fifth-graders are, for the most part, gifted misfits — nerds, if you will — who have become N.E.R.D.S. (The National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society)!
Hidden beneath Nathan Hale Elementary School is a secret laboratory — code name: The Playground. As various crises arise, the N.E.R.D.S. are called upon to leave their classes. Aided by the hidden talents of one “Choppers” (a code name), they attend to the situations by using their intellects, their creativity, and their secret powers. Also at Nathan Hale Elementary School is Jackson Jones, blond, good looking, and popular. He’s the school’s rising football quarterback, but alas, also a bully! That is, until the fateful day when he gets an unusual set of braces, complete with a halo encircling his head, and he becomes the brunt of bullying by his very own team of bullies.
To make up for his sudden loss of popularity, Jackson begins to spy on his classmates, accidently discovering the hidden entrance to The Playground. Eventually, he’s taken on as a trainee, although his past nastiness makes the team less than enthusiastic to accept him. Obviously, a good part of the storyline involves Jackson’s attempts to make up to the team, despite the ineptitude he shows as a secret agent. The process of getting into the team’s good graces is a very real awakening for Jackson Jones.
The plot truly thickens as we run into mad scientists, kidnappings, and other adventures, including the N.E.R.D.S.’s work to save the world from the mad plan of Dr. Jigsaw Puzzle. The story is complete with a most interesting 13-year-old assassin, The Hyena, a former child beauty-pageant contestant. What better training for an assassin?
This book is a good read in which Buckley displays craftsmanship, humor, and superb storytelling. The chapters are comparatively short and the action moves quickly, so that even our most challenged readers will keep at it. Not only is the book funny, but it also deals with some serious issues. Obviously, bullying is one. Here’s an example where Jackson asks why the bullied students didn’t fight back. The response is perhaps the most important thematic statement in the book:
If we fought back, you might have been seriously injured, and it would have blown our covers as spies. But there’s another reason why we took it, Jackson. It’s because 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 invent things that make people healthier and happier. Nerds change the world. Kids like you and Brett, and that gang of lunatics you called friends — well, you never amount to much. Knowing I have a bright future helps when I pull my underpants off my head. (P. 190)
Truly the author is “reclaiming and redeeming” the term nerd. This is the understanding that we must encourage our gifted, twice-exceptional, and other bullied students to find.
By the way, this novel comes with a surprise ending! But if I tell you, as they say, “Then I would have to kill you!” You must read this delightful novel for yourself. Just be ready for some good laughs.
Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. At conferences, he often presents a session titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.