KA Holt is just amazing. Her approach to middle grade novels is creative and exciting, keeping readers engaged with verse, throwing scribbled notes and blackout poetry, drawings and doodles in to catch readers where they live. I loved Rhyme Schemer and ended up using blackout poetry in my library at the time to get kids looking at words differently. Now, Holt takes on “divergent” kids and uses Sandbox, a game similar to Minecraft, to reach readers. Four characters: BenBee, BenY, JordanJ, and Javier are four kids in summer school for failing a Florida state standardized test (not-so affectionately referred to as the FART). Their teacher is Ms. J, a librarian-turned-teacher who’s got her own assessment she’s sweating over; she has to turn these “divergent thinkers” into readers that can pass the FART. The book unfolds through each tween’s narration, told in their very individual styles: free verse, stream of consciousness, and art. Ms J isn’t your normal type of teacher, and these kids – “the kids under the stairs”, as that’s the area where their classroom is shoehorned – aren’t your typical students. Each is grappling with bigger issues than the FART, and Ms. J eventually understands that she’s got to meet these kids where they live: namely, Sandbox.
BenBee and the Teacher Griefer has it all: grief and loss, learning disabilities and overbearing parents, a teacher willing to do the unconventional work to reach her students, and… Spartacus. The characters are realistic and relatable, fully realized on the page; the frustration with standardized testing and the “one student size fits all” approach, and the pressure on teachers to cram students into that one-size-fits-all model. The book is voraciously readable and deserves a spot next to the most popular Minecraft adventures and the best new kidlit.