Ungifted by Gordon Korman is a school story, only this time there are two distinct schools: a “normal” middle school and the Academy, a school in the same disctrict for gifted students. The schools have nothing in common whatsoever, and actually, none of the students from one have anything to do with the other, that is until Donovan Curtis is acidentally sent to the Academy through an administrative error when he should’ve been sent to detention for wrecking the school gym. Donovan is the middle school boy most likely to be remembered for putting a cherry bomb down a toilet or swimming in the mall fountain, his giftedness being of the more, um, disruptive variety. At the Academy, Donovan discovers a whole new world–a beautiful, modern school where the students are never punished and from whom their teachers and administrators expect only the best. The students there are unlike any middle schoolers Donovan has ever met–some real geniuses, but each with his or her own unique weaknesses and blind spots. As much as The Academy surprises Donovan, Donovan also surprises the Academy. He is an enigma–why is he there? How is he gifted? Is he gifted? Mostly, Donovan just tries to avoid drawing a lot of attention to himself; he just tries to survive without being sent back to his old school where punishment would surely be swift and severe. Slowly, though, Donovan’s easy-going personality and devil-may-care attitude begins to loosen up even the most up-tight of his Academy classmates, and they begin to see him and each other as friends instead of competitors. The most obvious place where this tranformation plays out is on the robotics team. While Donovan can’t contribute much in the way of scientific or engineering knowledge, his attitude goes a long way in molding a formerly disparate bunch of competing students into a team. Donovan even uses his divergent thinking skills to come up with a solution for his classmates who need a semester of human growth and development (a.k.a. sex education) without going to summer school to get the credit. The question remains, though–how long can Donovan hang on at the Academy before he outs himself as decidedly ungifted or until the dreaded superintendent of schools finally remembers his name?
In some ways it seems like Gordon Korman has an axe to grind about education, student expectations, and school in general, and he does it in this middle grade novel. Having been a student in a couple of gifted programs in a couple of different states myself way back in the dark ages, I can most assuredly say that I never attended classes where the students are treated as if they can do no wrong whatsoever. (Seriously, there is a kid in the book–a real genius, but clueless about real life stuff–who consistently tries to get himself kicked out of the Academy, but his teachers always just give him the grade they think he should’ve made.) And the state-of-the-art, completely modern school where the students have, among lots of others things, huge, luxurious lockers where they can recharge all their electronic devices they are expected to have at school? Nope. Maybe such a school exists somewhere in some high dollar utopia, but I don’t know it if it does. In a piece of realistic fiction, this seems a bit much. Still, I can see some truth in the point he tries to make about students in general–that they rise to the level of students’, administrators’, and parents’ expectations. There’s also the idea here, just under the surface, that everyone is gifted in something; the real task is just to find out what it is. Okay, I can buy that. Donovan Curtis, though, seems almost too good to be true–an explosively impulsive boy with a true heart of gold; it just takes some time with the “geeks” and their ignorance of his reputation to bring out the true him. I think the thing that made me take notice of the fact that something about his character just doesn’t ring true is the fact that he uses the word ossification. That’s a small, nitpicky thing, but it stuck out like a sore thumb–what eighth grade class clown, one who is truly as “ungifted” as Donovan supposedly is, would use a word like that? The other thing that made the story feel a bit clunky to me is the fact that it’s told from various viewpoints–many, in fact–and many of them sound just a little too much alike.
This is a long post about a middle grade school story, but I’m just trying to delineate why it doesn’t quite work for me. I enjoyed it, but little niggling things plus the fact that I really don’t like the ending of the story (which I won’t ruin by providing spoilers, but let me just say that Donovan’s impetuosity wins out in the end, once again, and it’s really vengeful) makes me give this one high marks as merely an entertaining story but not much more than that. Sure, it provides some food for thought regarding education, but I’m not sure most middle graders will care about that in this story. (HarperCollins, 2012)
Ungifted has been nominated in the middle grade fiction category of this year’s Cybils.