Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Book of the Week: HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL by Donna Gephart

How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephart is very enjoyable and very funny. But I should warn you, it’s also a little sad in places, so you’ll be alternately laughing and sniffling. That’s the best sort of story and you’re going to have a good time. Here’s the lowdown:

Eleven-year-old David Greenberg idolizes Jon Stewart (me too) and wants to host his own talk show when he grows up. In the meantime, he hosts his own YouTube show from his bedroom. Each week he gives the very funny acne forecast, which is just a close-up of his sister Lindsay. He also gives his top six and a half lists, which allow all sorts of comedy moments for Gephart. Oh, and there are lots of clips of David’s hamster, Hammy. More on him in a moment.

Alas, when we meet David, it is the summer before he starts middle school. I didn't care for middle school myself and David has my sympathies. His crazy, chain-smoking cousin Jack warns David that he needs to work out. Middle school is a whole new world of pain and David has to be ready. And worst of all, he has to stay away from bathrooms as on his birthday, the eighth graders will gang up on David and give him a swirly. Here is David’s very funny reaction to the news:

I can’t have my head flushed. I may never recover from the psychological trauma. What if some weird bacteria from the water travels up my nose and infects my brain and I die a slow, horrible death?

During the summer, David’s best friend Elliott insists on spending all of their time at the mall searching for some girl he likes. Therefore, David doesn't have time to make videos and this escalates into an argument that escalates into a full fight between them the first day of school. Police officers bust up the fight and for me this moment was evocative of prison movies. And this is appropriate. I often thought of middle school as a prison, and as in prison, it is important to pick a fight your first day lest you lose respect of your fellow cell—er, classmates.

Meanwhile, David makes a new friend in Sophie, a girl he maybe likes as more than a friend. Could it be she likes him back? Sophie really digs David’s YouTube videos and she sends them around and the next thing you know a video he made of his hamster Hammy goes viral and David becomes internet famous. The video might even be shown on The Daily Show. The song Hammy dances to is MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This, which Gephart refers to as “old.” That really bummed me out. When I was David’s age, I owned Hammer pants.

All of this is the ‘A’ story and it works perfectly. When I was a kid (apparently a long, long time ago) I did our school’s video announcements and I filmed my own television shows. We didn’t have YouTube. Back then, if you wanted to share a video, you had to load your film canisters on the back of a brontosaurus and ride it to your friend’s house on the other side of Pangaea. This got a little easier once we invented the wheel:) All this to say that I identified completely with David. I got his struggle to survive middle school and to deal with suddenly becoming locally famous due to a love of video.

But that’s the ‘A’ story. This is book is really about its ‘B’ story, which Gephart reveals rather brilliantly by dropping the following hints for the first thirty pages:

That’s why my best friend, Elliott Berger, is coming over to watch the Daily Show episodes I’ve recorded. Mom and I used to watch them together. She always said the host, Jon Stewart, stood up for the little guy, which is funny, because Jon Stewart is a little guy—five feet seven inches.

I imagine my picture on the cover of Entertainment Weekly… someday. If Mom ever saw me on a magazine cover in a store, she’d probably borrow a stranger’s cell phone right then and there and call me, screaming with excitement.

…because my mom plays the tuba. Played the tuba. Now her tuba sits in our living room, even though nobody’s touched it for two years.

I wish I could e-mail Mom and tell her about this new one. But I can’t. And even if I could, she wouldn’t be able to watch it anyway. I’m sure she’ll catch up to the twenty-first century. Someday.

And at last, Gephart stops hinting and tells us what's up:

I wonder why Mom had to move to a farm in Maine to “find herself.” Couldn’t she have found herself right here in Bensalem with us, instead of running off with the Farmer? His real name’s Marcus, and he’s too cheap to have a computer or a phone or even electricity in their house. Mom would have to go into town to call us, which she never does.

Lindsay says Mom’s not finding herself; she says Mom’s just selfish and has some sort of disorder.

I agree with Lindsay. I think David’s mom sucks and I hope she gets diarrhea from eating all her stupid organic beats (she grows them with Marcus). But love her or hate her, David’s mom isn’t really the issue, although her absence is a big part of what this book is really about. I’m not going to tell you how her story intersects with the book’s main plot because that would be a big fat spoiler, but just trust that it does and when it does, you might just cry a little. Ninjas don’t cry, but you might, Esteemed Reader. So be warned.

Gephart adds in very short flashbacks along the way to explain the actions of David’s mother, and the flashbacks do make her more empathetic. Even so, I personally can understand someone abandoning a marriage that isn’t working, but I can’t wrap my head fully around a parent leaving their children. And it doesn’t really matter. I suspect some will like David’s mother more than I do, but the real story is David and his reaction to his mother’s actions. And I liked David quite a bit. 

There’s a lot of other wonderful stuff in this book just waiting to surprise the lucky reader and I won’t give all the secrets away in an online review. But this book has everything. It’s very funny and emotionally involving and I highly recommend it. I want to close by sharing some of Gephart’s prose with you and then we have a video trailer featuring a singing hamster to enjoy.

But first, here is a scene between David and his new friend Sophie whom he likes quite a lot. For me, this scene captures a lot of what it’s like to be a boy noticing and caring about girls for the first time, and it’s very funny:

“Your family’s quiet when they eat,” Sophie says as we stand by the door, waiting for her mom to arrive.

“I can’t tell her the truth—that remembering Mom has a way of doing that to us. It’s been two years now, and sometimes I wonder if it’ll ever get easier.
“Yeah.” I shrug. “They’re kind of weird about that.” Shut up, David. “Afraid of choking or something.” Really, shut up! “I choked on a nickel when I was little.” Oh my gosh! Shut up!
“Yeah, I saved it in a jar in my closet.”
“It’s sort of green now.” Please strike me dead. SHUT UP!

Here's a great description that made me laugh:

Her skin is so tanned and wrinkled that her face looks like the hindquarters of an elephant. “Welcome to math class,” the woman says in a raspy voice. She sounds like she spent her life working at the Smokin’ and Chokin Cigarette Factory. “I’m your teacher, Ms. Lovely.”

And finally, as promised a singing hamster:

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.  


  1. Hammy Time! I really enjoyed this book.

  2. Thanks for the review! This is already on my to-read list, and now I'm looking forward to it even more!


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