Tuesday, January 2

The Homework Machine



by Dan Gutman
Simon and Schuster 2006

There's a lot going on in this little book, and a summary would probably take more words than are in the original book.

Basically four 5th grade misfits find themselves in a heap of trouble when the nerdiest among them uses his computer mastery to invent -- that's right -- a homework machine capable of scanning an assignment sheet and spitting it out complete with answers that mimic their handwriting. The troubles ought to stem from the homework machine itself, but in the cockeyed world Dan Gutman's created it isn't until the kids panic and destroy the computer by tossing it into the Grand Canyon that they even get caught.

Their real troubles come out in the course of things. Snik is the brash loudmouth whose Air Force dad gets deployed to the Middle East. Kelsey lost her dad long ago and has been clamping down on her emotions ever since. Judy's just an effortless brainiac who is longing for something a little more social than hours of homework. And Brenton is the tie-wearing computer whiz who created the homework machine and inadvertently became the coolest kid around by not being cool at all.

That four kids with nothing in common but a large dose of distaste for one another find themselves bound together tighter than most life-long friends is part of this book's larger charm. Leave aside the implausibility of a psycho-stalking marketeer looking to exploit the quad's ability to set trends nationwide, or the willful ignorance of their teacher to follow up on her suspicion that the kids might be cheating, and you're left with the kind of fantasy world 5th graders love to delve into. What could be better than thinking you and your friends could build a homework machine? What could be better than thinking the world is full of adults who haven't got a clue?

Is this a perfect book? Is this a great work of literature for children? No, it is neither, but it's a lot more entertaining than a lot of what I've been reading lately.

It's funny, I've seen some interest in this book by kids but adults who want nothing to do with it once I start in on details. One parent thought it was "dreadful" that a children's book would contain a reference to the current war in the Middle East. Another used the world "distasteful" to describe a book with a main character whose father had died. Almost all thought the idea of the homework machine itself preposterous.

Exactly. Adults don't get it and the kids do, which is why I don't think a vast majority of adults should be buying their kids books. Alas, they make the money, they control the purse strings.

(On the flip side, I witnessed a mother recently supporting her little Billy as he bought an entire shelf of Deltora titles with the justification that "as long as he's reading, I'm happy." Yeah, and you could feed him nothing but cheese sandwiches three times a day because that's all he likes and just as easily say "as long as he's eating, I'm happy", but that would make you an irresponsible parent. Variety being the spice of life and all, I'd rather a kid read 20 different junk titles and learn how to discern good stories and writing from bad. They become better readers that way, as opposed to intolerant binge readers.)

I guess what I enjoyed most about The Homework Machine is that it's the perfect kind of summer read for the 5th grade set when they get tired of Where the Red Fern Grows or wish to shift gears after Number the Stars.
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