The tiles, and the behavior of the children and the adults, all fall into place, a bit more conveniently than they do in Scrabble or in life…But the lessons learned are good ones, and it's hard to quibble with a story that brings together a tween in a mustard shirt and one with magenta hair to play a board game that promotes mental dexterity and linguistic ballet. Any kid who thinks it's cool that MARASCHINO is an anagram of HARMONICAS is cool with me. No wizardry required.
The New York Times Book Review
The lives, families, and story lines of three 12-year-olds intersect at the annual Youth Scrabble Tournament in adult author Wolitzer's (The Uncoupling) entertaining middle-grade debut. Possessing a supernatural power that gives him an unfair advantage in Scrabble, the title character wrestles with his conscience and a desire for increased social status offered by his conniving partner. Meanwhile, Nate's obsessed father homeschools him in Scrabble only, hoping his son will win the tournament he lost in his youth, and April's sports-fixated family cannot comprehend word games. Themes of competition, passion bordering on mania, and teamwork weave through the narrative, as the protagonists face the consequences of parental choices and flaws—which provide plentiful humorous moments—and contend with ethical struggles of their own. The tournament proves a great equalizer as families wealthy and poor, blended and nuclear, enthusiastic and indifferent support their children's ambitions, and quirky players meet kindred souls from many different corners of the country. Readers don't have to be Scrabble enthusiasts to enjoy this novel, though a passion for it may well develop by the end. Ages 8–12. (Sept.)
Children's Literature - Margaret Orto
Three quirky kidsDuncan, April and Natehailing from different parts of the country, travel to Florida, along with their Scrabble partners, to compete in the Youth Scrabble Tournament. As they befriend each other while competing, their back stories come to light, and it turns out that each of these unique pre-teens has a high-stakes motivation to win the championship. Wolitzer's ability to weave the game of Scrabble with the game of contemporary life is impressive. She also makes the game of Scrabble accessible and interesting; readers who don't know the game will learn to play and lovers of the game will pick up some great tips. The mystery of which team will win first place and $10,000 will keep readers turning pages. As they read, they will also contemplate such modern day concerns as parental pressure, blended families, money issues of a single-parent family, being an outsider in a sports-obsessed family, and bullying and peer pressure. The magical element, Duncan and his special fingers that can "read" tiles without seeing them, seems out of place in such an otherwise realistic story, even though it provides him with the "real" dilemma of whether to use his power or not. Anyone who picks up this book will enjoy the romp through this rarefied world that Wolitzer has created. The challenge, of course, will be to get a child to pick up a book about the fairly obscure world of Scrabble playing and competition in the first place. Reviewer: Margaret Orto
School Library Journal
Gr 4–7—Three kids meet at a youth Scrabble tournament and help one another work through various issues. Nate has an overly competitive father, while April wants to get noticed by her sports-obsessed family. Duncan's situation is more complicated: he has the power to see things with his fingers, a potential secret weapon in Scrabble games. This fantastic element fits awkwardly into an otherwise realistic novel, and the fact that Duncan barely uses his talent for anything but Scrabble seems odd. The boy's eventual principled actions are offset by a dishonest ruse he uses, behind his mother's back, to get into the tournament. The narrative switches smoothly to capture the points of view and experiences of the three protagonists, although personalities and feelings are frequently spelled out rather than shown through action or dialogue. An anticlimactic attempt by a former player to sabotage the tournament fails to add much drama. Though Duncan is the only character with much depth, the other kids are likable and appealing, and the Scrabble background is neatly rendered in a way that even nonplaying kids can enjoy. The inclusion of tricky game strategies and insider terms like "vowel dumps" and "coffeehousing" bring the tournament scene to life, and the players all have different, believable reasons for their connection to the game. Consider for fans of "puzzle novels" Eric Berlin's "Winston Breen" books (Putnam) and Jody Feldman's The Gollywhopper Games (Greenwillow, 2008).—Steven Engelfried, Wilsonville Public Library, OR
Wolitzer turns to writing for young readers with an ever-so-slightlymagical tale of friendship and what it takes to be a winner.
Just before starting in a new school, 12-year-old Duncan Dorfmandiscovers he can read through the fingertips of his left hand. His single mother makes him promise not to tell anyone. When he just can't take being a nobody any longer, though, he shows his table mate at lunch and draws the attention of Carl Slater, who is determined to win the national Youth Scrabble Tournament by any means necessary. In Portland, Ore., April Blunt and her Scrabble partner practice regularly and search for a boy April met and lost touch with. In New York, Nate Saviano is struggling under the yolk of homeschooling (which is just his father's way of making him study 24/7 to win the tournament; Mr. Saviano lost when he was 12). The teams bond over Scrabble boards, helping each other win in ways that surprise even them. The novel is shot through with Scrabble words and rules in a way that is reminiscent of Louis Sachar's The Cardturner (2010). Readers will identify with and root for the characters as their tales intertwine to a satisfying if slightly too cheery close.
Word wizards aren't the only ones who will enjoy this readable rumination on ethics, competition and identity. (Fiction. 9-14)