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BOOKS: Nothing quite normal in 'Middle-School Cool'

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How would you like to play dodgeball with playground balls that fight back? Or suppose you could read an entire book by swallowing a pill?

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In "Middle-School Cool," by Maiya Williams, nothing is quite normal. But what would you expect from a school by the name of Kaboom Academy?

Actually, the students don't know what to expect.

"Middle-School Cool" features each of the eight students in Mister Mister's journalism class. Each chapter begins with a newspaper article about one of the school's experimental techniques, followed by the student's experience.

For example, when Victoria "reads" all the assigned books at once, she ends up with a weird mix of "Tom Sawyer," "Moby Dick" and "A Christmas Carol" in her brain.

When Leo (who is legally blind) uses the multiplication table, he multiplies himself. He ends up leading a giant rally to draw attention to the school's lack of accessibility for the vision impaired.

The story takes a turn when Mister Mister cracks under a fake interview. When Edie tries to interview the headmaster, Marcel Kaboom, she's unable to gain access to him. Together, the students band together to find the truth about their school.

In some ways, "Middle-School Cool" feels like a slapstick mix of Louis Sachar's Wayside School stories and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Yet the stories often give way to poignant situations.

When Victoria makes smoothies with the lunch lady's secret ingredients of confidence, patience and poise (as an antidote to a cookie disaster), her new friend Margo adds a dash of forgiveness.

Meanwhile, author Maiya Williams never forgets the joy of word play. The book's final chapters are full of surprises about Marcel Kaboom and the multiple arrangements of the letters in his name.

"Middle-School Cool" is occasionally heavy-handed in its criticism of traditional education. However, this off-beat story will likely leave a smile on your face.

"Middle-School Cool." By Maiya Williams. Illustrated by Karl Edwards. Delacorte Press, 2014, 240 pp.

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