Thursday, October 29, 2015

Book Review: Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ by Claudia Mills (2015)

In the fourth book of the Franklin School Friends series, Simon Ellis finds himself at odds with his best friend Jackson, who feels threatened by the fact that Simon is always successful at everything he attempts, from video games to classroom assignments. When a school spelling bee is announced, along with the rule that the students must work in teams, Simon is worried, both because he prefers to compete alone, and because he does not want his friendship with Jackson to be strained further by the differences in their spelling abilities.

After three books about girls (Kelsey, Annika, and Izzy), it is nice to see this series exploring a male point of view. Simon has appeared in the other books, just as the girls appear briefly in this story, but giving him his own voice and the opportunity to speak to his struggles fitting in as the "smart kid" in class is a welcome addition to an already successful series. Many kids can relate to either Simon's or Jackson's point of view, and they probably also know teachers, principals and parents like those portrayed in this story.

Unfortunately, the message of this book is a bit muddled by events near the end of the story. While it is clear early on that the author sympathizes with Simon's desire to get along with his friends without sacrificing his intelligence, Simon's behavior during the spelling bee itself doesn't quite match this worldview. The only way Simon is able to gain acceptance among his peers is to make a mistake. While the "nobody's perfect" lesson is an important one, it doesn't make sense for it to be the moral of this book. If the story had been told from Jackson's point of view, it would be perfectly logical for him to reach this conclusion after seeing Simon misspell a word. For Simon, though, there is still no answer to his fundamental question of how to react when a friend is jealous of his abilities. This is an issue that many gifted kids undoubtedly face, and it is a shame that the story doesn't deliver even a potential solution, other than the suggestion that Simon and Jackson might be drifting apart.

Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee Champ is not the best book of this series, but even with its flaws, it is still a compelling read that fans of the previous books are likely to enjoy. It would make an especially good addition to libraries in classrooms where spelling bees are regularly held, as well as to most public and elementary school libraries. The Franklin School Friends series will continue in summer 2016 with book five, Cody Harmon, King of Pets.

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