Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1996. 978-0-689-80993-4
Synopsis: No one would have suspected that Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian would make the perfect Academic Bowl team – not even their teacher, Mrs. Olinski. In fact, Mrs. Olinski doesn’t even know why she chose the four to be a team, except that they were already a team when she chose them. Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian have each gone on a journey that has drawn the four of them together and made them the most promising contenders in this year’s Academic Bowl competition. The book tells the stories of each of the four sixth graders and their teacher, and their rise to the final stage of the academic contest.
Why I picked it up: A girl I knew in elementary school read it for a book report and raved about it so much that I bought a copy only to have it sit on my shelf for the next ten years. I knew there was something special about it and I wanted to find out for myself what it was.
Why I finished it: This book was, for one reason or another, astounding to me – in a good way, not in a bad way – and its relative simplicity engaging. The premise is simple enough – four children are chosen by their paraplegic teacher to compete on an Academic Bowl team because of their ability to work together and their dedication to learning – but there seemed to be something else under the surface of the plot that kept me reading. Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian’s lives become intertwined slowly over the course of each chapter, and the unique elements of the friendship that develops between the four is something that I do not see in a lot of literature. The sixth graders seem somewhat more pretentious than I remember being as a child, but I don’t recall ever really being pretentious myself. What the four team members share between themselves and their teacher I interpreted as a sort of unspoken, almost omniscient sort of knowing the difference between unnatural and natural perfection, the kind that immediately allows an individual to relax because they feel at home with the people with which they have surrounded themselves. The five characters seem to develop a sense of mutual trust for each other without ever having to voice an opinion or a concern. Each character has their own quirks that get on the nerves of the other and the reader, but it makes the story more believable. It is a delightful story about the power of friendship and how the little things can make the biggest difference in our lives and the lives of others.
Other related materials: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg; Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg; Escaping the Giant Wave by Peg Kehret; Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech; When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead; Shakespeare’s Secret by Elise Broach; Shredderman: Secret Identity by Wendelin Van Draanen; How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor; The Enchanted Forest Chronicles books by Patricia C. Wrede; The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt; Thin Wood Walls by David Patneaude; Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate; A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck; Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath; Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse