The Homework Machine

It’s only been a few years since I finally was able to walk away from a book. I’ve always been a finish it at all costs kind of reader.  So, I’ve always been pretty tough on my students in that respect.  I don’t let them stop reading any book that bores them.  Attention spans are very short these days, and many children have the idea that they can just stop doing something just because they feel like it.  So in order to quit reading a book, a student of mine has to have a pretty serious chat with me.

Last year one of my top students and dedicated readers came up to me and asked if he could quit reading this book.  He wrote me a really well done letter explaining how boring it was and how nothing particularly happened and he just wasn’t interested.  I let him stop.

So I didn’t have very high expectations coming into this.  It wasn’t bad, but I can see his point.  The book is written with multiple narrators – it switched back and forth every few paragraphs, which I’m guessing will be very hard to follow for some readers.  There is a nice clear bold heading when we switch, but it’s easy to skim past that.  While we mainly hear from five people (four students and their teacher), others come and go requiring even more focus on the part of the reader.

The basic premise is that these kids start using a homework machine.  They hang out even though they’d never be friends otherwise (very Breakfast Club if you ask me).  One of them learns chess, and then there are some sections on chess strategies that I’d guess are probably completely mind-numbing to kids.  People become suspicious of our small group of friends and they are caught.  All of this is done with an incredible lack of suspense.  Because the book starts with them being caught, you already know what’s going to happen, so there’s nothing really driving you to go on, unless you really care about the characters.  And since you move back and forth between them so much, and they are clearly types, you just don’t care that much.

This is also a book that raises the question of stranger danger, but the kids handle it in a very irresponsible way.  This is absolutely something you would want to address with your students or children.  While the kids are involved with the homework machine, several of them are contacted online by a stranger who asks them to get in touch with him.  He knows details of their personal lives.  He even calls one.  A man approaches one of the girls while she is biking home and they assume it’s this same man.  The children talk about how they were going to tell someone, but they never do.  One of the students is clearly aware of the possible danger because he says he doesn’t respond to the guy because he might be a child molester.  It’s really scary to me that none of the students involved told an adult, and most of the time they didn’t even tell each other.  If anything like this happened in real life, I would hope that kids would understand that they absolutely must tell an adult and get help. In the end, he turns out to be harmless, but that might even bother me more. How often is it that an adult who is stalking you online, knows details of your personal life, calls you at home and follows you in person is really someone safe?

Also, this is book is pretty light in tone, the cover is cheerful and fun. Except then a character’s father is killed in a war. It’s pretty incongruous and doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose. I’m not sure why it was thrown in.

Sex, Nudity, Dating – There is the above mentioned reference to a child molester. A character gets her belly button pierced. Two characters end up dating and hold hands.
Profanity – “darn,” “jerk,” “sucks,” “heck,” “load of bull,”
Death, Violence and Gore – The police chief explains how a gambler was forced to parachute into the canyon and almost died. Miss Rasmussen tells how students used to be hit on the knuckles with a ruler in school. We learn that catapults could be used to fling dead bodies at the enemy. When Ronnie asks Sam about why he’s hanging out with Brenton, he threatens to bust his head open.  Judy’s family talks at dinner about moral issues including when is it okay to attack someone with a baseball bat.  Kelsey tells how she saw her father get hit by a snowmobile and die.  Sam’s father is sent to war. He tells people “my dad is going to shoot guys.” Sam asks his father if he’s shot anyone yet.  Sam’s father is killed in the war. They tell how the vehicle he was in was ambushed. They talk about his remains being sent home.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – Judy talks about how her mother became addicted to smoking and how she later quit when she was pregnant.
Frightening or Intense Things – Since this book is fairly current, Sam’s dad is killed in the Middle East.  For children of our servicemen and women this book might really trigger some serious worries and fears. The strange man who keeps contacting the children may bother some readers.

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