Saturday, April 20, 2019


Written by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts

Illustrated by Laura Park

(Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

I'll admit to Patterson-envy. It's one thing that his name is a constant on the adult fiction bestseller charts, but he has a solid stake in the middle grade list as well. Always another book, always another hit.

Oh, to be James Patterson!

This is the sixth book in the Middle School series, centered on Rafe Khatchadorian, a young comics artist with a knack for getting into trouble. The story begins with the news that the arts school Rafe planned to attend in the fall has closed. Thus, he is faced with going back to Hills Village Middle School. Reentry is not exactly a no-brainer since Rafe was previously expelled from HVMS. Moreover, Vice Principal Ida P. Stricker is now the principal and her equally rule-thirsty sister, Charlotte P. Stonecase, is the new VP. Rafe cannot return to HVMS unless he successfully completes a week-long intensive wilderness survival program prior to the start of school. And so Rafe, his mom, his grandmother and his sister Georgia head off  to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. As his car-mates sing a robust version of "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain," Rafe stews over his predicament, changing the lyrics:

     You'll be miles from civilization when you come!
     You'll be fighting dehydration when you come!
     You'll be riding on the river,
     Maybe eat some raccoon's liver,
     And you can't bring e-lec-tron-ics when you come!

Under the stern leadership of Sergeants Fish and Pittman, Rafe and seven other troubled (or in trouble) kids have to work through a series of nine challenges, from tower climbing to fire building to white water rafting, all of which require teamwork and grit. Participants must earn a certain number of reward tags at various points during the week in order to continue on the tortuous quest.  

The story sets the perfect tone and pace for middle grade readers with lots of humor tossed in. The comics which can take up part of a page or run across several pages complement  the narrative and are usually even funnier than the main story.  They portray chronically unfortunate Rafe, sometimes under the name Loozer, as he encounters his nemeses, be it Principal Stricker, Sergeant Fish or serpent-transforming Carmen. Kids could find great satisfaction just from skipping to all the comic sections--and surely some will do just that--but it's worthwhile to read the entire book, taking in the comics as text breaks.

My one quibble is it's a challenge to distinguish the seven other campers without most of them being single-trait caricatures. Veronica is the quiet talker, Burp is the pathological liar. Only Rafe's frequent task partner, Carmen, gets to become a fleshed out character and, even then, the information is limited. This really is The Rafe Show.

And an entertaining show it is. It's easy to see why Rafe Khatchadorian helms an eleven-book series. Kids will relate to the trials and humiliations of Rafe as he goes from one book setting to the next. Gosh darn it, Patterson--with a hand from Tebbetts and Park--knows what he's doing! 

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