Menacing 8th graders who embark in daily manhunts for fresh cold cuts. 7th graders who are just as threatening just to get vengeance to what happened to them as 6th graders. And then are the real 6th graders who have to have their innocent bodies, minds, and souls mangled day after day. At least, that’s how most people think of middle school. Especially the protagonist of today’s book. The actual Google Dictionary definition of a middle school itself “a school intermediate between an elementary school and a high school, typically for children in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades”. A fearful environment for the squeamish and scared, but an interesting and rather intriguing environment for the brave and bold. And the main character of this story has just gotten his rank as the eldest knocked back down to the youngest. And even in school years it’s hard to climb that ladder.
Likely if you broke a rule or two in elementary school, you were likely punished through the step system, from assertive reminders to expulsion, although this was rarely common. However, in middle school that’s completely common–in fact, according to my school’s code of conduct, any form of assault, arson, illegal substance transferring or selling (aka drug dealing), sexual harassment, and vandalism are just some of the ways that you could get a one-way ticket to Expelville! But in this school, the only way to follow the rules…are to break them. In Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life by James Patterson, also the author of Maximum Ride and Witch & Wizard, Patterson finally takes the route of a realistic fiction story in his most innovative concept yet. Well, you may be considering this ironic, but wouldn’t you find normality innovative when you write about kids with wings and magical powers? Anyway, the story revolves around Rafael “Rafe” Khatchadorian, a young kid who’s just been enrolled in Hills Valley Middle School, the former site of what Rafe believes was a prison for Pilgrims and is now a prison for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. (By the way, Khatchadorian is pronounced “Catch a door, Ian!”) But much like in series like Wimpy Kid and Big Nate Rafe finds himself trouble in the first few days of mid school. First off, he becomes the new victim of Miller the Killer, he has to face “Dragon Lady” Donatello every single day, and then there’s Jeanne Galletta whom is Rafe’s second-closest thing on the lines of a friend. Only behind his partner-in-crime, Leonardo the Silent. And he already has enough problems at home; there’s his “grizzly” stepfather Bear (his real name’s Carl), his tattletale sister Georgia, and then there’s his mom. There’s nothing wrong with Mrs. Khatchadorian, it’s just that she has to do all the work while Bear just catches up on football pregame shows. But there’s one way that Rafe discovered that will truly make his mark in HVMS history–making a little project known as Operation RAFE (short for Rules Aren’t For Everyone) and breaking every rule in Hills Valley’s despotic code of conduct before he loses his “three lives”:
- Talking in class – 10,000 points with 4 witnesses required.
- Running in the hall – 10,000 points with 4 witnesses required.
- Tardy for class – 10,000 points with 4 witnesses required.
- Gum in class – 5,000 points with 4 witnesses required.
- No electronics – 7,500 points with 4 witnesses required.
- Fighting – 25,000 points with 4 witnesses required.
- Skipping class – 20,000 points with 4 witnesses required.
- Minor dress code defying – 10,000 points with 4 witnesses required.
- Major dress code defying – 20,000 points with 4 witnesses required.
- Cussing – 20,000 points with 4 witnesses required.
- School property destruction – 35,000 points with witnesses required only afterward.
- Messing with fire alarms – 50,000 points with 4 witnesses required.
- School property theft – 40,000 points with 4 witnesses required.
And then there are the bonus points available…
- Jeanne sees it – 5,000-infinite points
- Sent to vice principal’s office – 20,000 points
- Sent to actual principal’s office – 30,000 points
- Detention – 50,000 points
- Talking way out of principal’s/VP’s office or detention – 100,000 points!!!
Now Middle School, The Worst Years Of My Life is actually one of the greatest school stories I’ve ever read. It does something that neither Wimpy Kid nor Big Nate nor Dork Diaries nor [insert school story series here] can do. It mixes thorough, fleshed comedy with sincere, heart melting drama. Because the deal with the series I mentioned is that it focuses too much on how good its jokes are than paying attention to its heart. Patterson is clearly a unique writer as he actually manages to give us those pangs that make us feel like we’re on the verge of tears, and he creates Rafe to greatly exemplify this. However, the book’s only fatal flaw is its jagged transitions between home and school scenarios, but it is something that will go over most readers’ heads. As for the book’s own comedy, it is just as incomparable as its drama. With hundreds of illustrations to go with or display gut-busting humor, the story makes a joke out of middle school in a way that is rare for most favored kids’ authors. And add up all this together, and you get a book that you can’t find around the corner. Chart, please.
4 1/2 out of 5 – Positive messages – Rafe has a hard life at both school and at home, but he never loses his prospect that one day he will be of great value. Leo is a good character that both helps Rafe with his plot and becomes the assertive head of it. This shows that sometimes you need to put certain people in their place, and you can’t merely give everybody the same exact perspective. At the story’s epic climax, Rafe also discovers that some people aren’t who they seem to be, and in their true form they can have unexpected abilities. Not that I’m saying they have powers. Operation RAFE also dictates that sometimes you have to be bold and stand up for yourself, even if it means some repercussions.
4 out of 5 – Positive role models – Despite Rafe’s image throughout the book as a rule-breaking and rebellious troublemaker, Rafe is an endearing, trustworthy, heartfelt, compassionate, and kind character outside of Operation RAFE–even towards annoying little Georgia. Despite not saying much, Leo is also a good character that serves as a good companion to Rafe and his scheme. Even Bear himself, one the book’s main “antagonists”, shows care and lookout whenever danger or injury is present. Jeanne is a nice girl who likes to say things to people without directly offending them, and she is also a very willing character in the story.
4 out of 5 – Ease of read – Middle School is definitely one of those school stories that makes it mark in my mind and my heart, being able to mix its unique senses of comedy with perfectly sincere drama and heartfelt moments, and with the character that it puts in, this book is easily one of the best realistic fiction novels I’ve ever read. Definitely a recommendation as some sort of survival guide to middle schoolers or soon-to-be middle schoolers. However, the book’s big transition flaw does take away a lot from it.
4 1/2 out of 5 – Violence – Miller the Killer and Bear definitely provide the two biggest sources of violence in the story. Miller frequently pushes, pummels, and picks on Rafe throughout the story, even going as far as to rob him of his Operation RAFE notebook! An illustration in the story depicts Miller towering over Rafe, whom is seen as “dead meat”. In the same illustration, Miller sports a bloody knife tattoo on most of his forearm. Rafe describes his relationship with Miller as “[selling his] soul to the school bully, one dollar at a time” since Miller had been forcing cash out of Rafe to give him back the notebook a page at a time. One dollar’s worth one page, if you didn’t already calculate. Bear is even ruder to Rafe acting as his own at-home Miller, frequently criticizing and yelling at the rest of the family. In pictures Bear is depicted as a live bear in “hibernation” on the couch. In the book’s tearjerking climax–spoiler alert!–Bear gets into yet another heated argument with Mrs. Khatchadorian, but goes far enough to shove her down the house’s front steps, hurting her wrist and likely breaking her heart. At this point, Rafe decides to jump in and save the day by yelling in Bear’s face. Bear eventually winds up in the back of a police cruiser, but is not arrested. Later near the book’s finale, Mrs. Khatchadorian reminisces a sad memory about how Rafe had actually had a brother back in the day, but a bad case of meningitis claimed him at a young age. (Kinda like how my brother got malaria as a kid–or so my dad says–but he’s still alive now, healthier than ever. My brother, I mean. My dad’s alive, too.) ***Spoiler alert ends here.*** Georgia and Rafe also get in heated arguments, mainly concerning Rafe’s school rebellion. A rather far-fetched illustration also shows Rafe’s bedroom, which appears to be a ragged and torn-apart place with liquid dripping from the ceiling and a raccoon as his “roommate”. In the picture, he is conversing with a rat about what fraction of a blanket he received. Rafe is wearing his blanket half like a straitjacket, and he seems very deranged and insane. Many illustrations depict Rafe’s teachers as demonic, monstrous, and vile creatures, most notoriously “Dragon Lady” Donatello, whom Rafe uses to make stories of him as a knight facing off against this “dragon”.
1 1/2 out of 5 – Inappropriate Content – Rafe has a crush on Jeanne throughout the story, whom happens to be HVMS’s most popular female student. One of the rules Rafe breaks in the dress code is the clothes-size rule, and he breaks it (on Halloween, matter of fact) by showing up to school sagging. Georgia later references this as Rafe being “naked” at school.
2 out of 5 – Product Placement – One of the most centric elements of the story is an energy drink known as Zoom, which Rafe describes as “chocolate and Coke mixed together, and it has about eight cups of caffeine in every can”. As part of Operation RAFE, Rafe eats a Snickers bar in the school library.
1 out of 5 – Drinking, Drugs, and/or Smoking – Bear is a heavy drinker of Zoom and keeps a stash of it in the garage, which Rafe secretly steals from and sells to students at school like drugs, to make savings to pay back Miller.
Entertainment: A+ (5 points)
Fun: A+ (5 points)
Smarts: A (4 points)
Style: A+ (5 points)
Read-Again Ratio: A (4 points)
Humor: A+ (5 points)
CONSENSUS: Middle School, The Worst Years Of My Life has the unique sense of comedy and sincere drama that makes for one of the greatest realistic fiction titles of all time, showing both the upsides and downsides of middle school in Patterson’s own memorable and innovative way. Also for good use as a survival guide to middle school itself.
PRICE: On Amazon, the book costs $8 regular, $4 used, and $3.44 new. The Kindle edition costs $6. For those who say that hearing > reading, the unabridged audiobook version costs $10 regular, $6.23 used, and $5 new. At B&N, the book costs the same $8 regular, $5 used, and $4.49 new. The Nook Book edition is free. Does that help?
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Stay classy America,
Video of the Week: Now I know all this likely took a lot of effort to read through, so here’s some relaxing music to help you regather your cerebral elements and chill out for a bit. By the way, this song is called “Gentle Breeze” by Manabu Namiki, and it’s from the OST for Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2. (It’s a 2008 medical sim game for the Nintendo DS.) This video, since its release in summer 2009, has over 80,000 hits with almost a thousand likes. Eh, I’d rather not keep rambling about the video–after all, it’s supposed to be chill-out music.