by Graham McNamee

Wendy Lamb Books, August, 2002.
Hardcover, 128 pages.
ISBN: 0385729774
Ages 8-12

Sparks by Graham McNamee It is an obvious fact that some students do not fit into our structured educational system, which places such a high value on clerical skills and abstract reasoning. It is also sometimes puzzling to find out at twenty year reunions that some of the least promising students have become quite successful in real life. Author Graham McNamee was a special needs student who was a slow learner and a class clown. Now he has written a story about Todd Foster who did so well in the special needs class in fourth grade that he was moved into a regular classroom for fifth grade. Now he is the class dummy and as he puts it he needs "to grow a brain. Fast."

Todd tells his own story, and as he tells it the reader is immediately drawn in by his hilarious, wry remarks. Todd does not take out his frustration in anger. His predicament puzzles him and sometimes he feels discouraged. He suffers the usual torments of childhood with sibling rivalry and peer pressure, mixed in with the expectations of the adult world. Todd tries to terminate his friendship with the exuberant Amy who is still in the special needs class. Amy is a walking social disaster for a boy who is trying to make his way in the hypercritical and competitive world of the fifth grade.

Adults are seen through the clear but unpracticed eyes of childhood. Todd's father is trying to quit smoking, but Todd notices that his dad is actually overdosing on smoker's gum -- he has a huge wad of it in his mouth. Mr. Blaylock, Todd's sympathetic teacher, seems huge to Todd. Todd cannot figure out how Mr. Blaylock got to be so large.

It is Mr. Blaylock's assignment of a project for social studies that helps Todd find his way to success. The project is to write about how a pygmy named Ota Benga was brought to New York in 1906 and displayed in a monkey cage at the Bronx Zoo for people to see. The project is tied to how this little man must have felt. In doing his project, Todd discovers a creative way to do the project, and he learns to work on it for an extended time. When he receives a good grade on the project, Todd is thunderstruck. That afternoon in the after school study group, Todd asks if he really had made a B-plus since it was the first one he had ever made. Mr. Blaylock explains that his imaginative writing had made the difference, because imagination is more important than knowing facts alone. Thrilled with his success, Todd decides to make up with his friend, Amy, who is still in the special needs class.

Graham McNamee has written a book that will get any young reader to reconsider the way he treats students who may be different. Todd Foster is such a funny, likeable boy that any young reader will instantly be drawn into his story.

--Sarah Reaves White

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This review was published in the October - November, 2002 of The Internet Writing Journal.

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