Fifth grader Bell Kirby loves systems and structure. He uses them to excel in his school’s Creator’s Club, he creates an enviable habitat for his pet chincilla, Fuzzgig, and he stays under the radar, away from the school bully, Parker Hellickson – who also happens to be the principal’s son. When Daelynn Gower shows up – a new kid in town, straight out of homeschool, with rainbow-colored hair and a personality to match – and befriends Bell, she puts all of his hard work and systems at risk. Because Daelynn can’t help but be noticed. But when Daelynn finds herself in the bully’s sights, Bell finds himself at a crossroads: back in Parker’s good graces if he stands by and lets the next kid take the abuse, or stand up for himself and his new friend.
This is a strong story about bullying, looking at it from a less examined point of view. What happens when your bully moves on to another kid? Bell struggles with this because he’s relieved, but he knows that even standing by, pretending not to see the bullying, is wrong. When he learns that he was another kid’s relief from being in Parker’s sights, he knows, even more, that he has to take a stand. It’s a topic that can contribute to a meaningful class discussion. Jake Burt gives us fully realized characters here. Bell loves building and creating things to order his world, likely influenced by his military parents, who pass that love for structure onto him: he messages with his father, who’s stationed overseas and sends him engineering puzzles to figure out; his mother, a major in the US Army, is working on her Ph.D. and is referred to as a “mad scientist” by Parker. Parker is an unrepentant bully who uses the fact that his father has his own blind spot when it comes to his son’s bullying, brushing aside repeated complaints and believing the thinnest of excuses while letting readers glimpse into a home life that may not be ideal for Parker, either. His father talks down to Bell’s mother on several occasions, and she needs to correct him about her rank in the Army on at least one occasion, noting that she outranks her husband.
Woven into this story is Bell’s interest in systems and creating, and bringing a great STEAM challenge into the plot. The Creator Club challenge for this school year is to recreate one of Leonardo DaVinci’s creations, DaVinci-era style. No Internet. No electricity. Working by candlelight and looking up information in books. It’s a great subplot about friendship, teamwork, and cooperation. There’s also some great references to The Wizard of Oz throughout the book – see how many you can find, and challenge your readers. The one question that came up for me multiple times throughout the reading: Who is the Tornado here? I don’t know about you, but I got a different answer each time I considered it.
Author Jake Burt’s website offers updates and more information about his books. John Schu has an interview with Jake Burt available at Watch.Connect.Read, and The Tornado has a starred review from School Library Journal.