The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, by Meg Wolitzer (Dutton Juvenile, Sept. 20 2011, ages 9-12, 256 pages)
Life as a new middle school kid in Drilling's Falls was worse than joyless for Duncan Dorfman, aka Lunch Meat, a boy lower than a nobody in the middle school pecking order. When he can't stand it any longer, he breaks his word to his mother, and demonstrates the one thing he's sure makes him special.
Duncan can read with the fingertips of his left hand.
And soon he finds himself approprited by the uber cool head of the school scrabble team, a boy driven to win...and having a partner who can pick out any letter he wants from the scrabble tiles is a surefire way to triumph at the Youth Scrabble Tournament. Duncan has never played the game before, but the prize money would be a big help to his mom...and maybe he won't have to use his power in the end....
Across the country, other kids are preparing---April Blunt, determined to show her sports-mad family that Scrabble is a worthy competitive endeavor in its own right, and Nate, whose father (still devastated by his own loss in the final round of the YST years ago) has pulled him from school, to coach him obsessively in acceptable 2 letter words and other Scrabble skilz (which stinks for Nate, who misses skateboarding with his pals something fierce).
All these kids are consumed by Scrabble, and all are determined to win (even Duncan starts finding anagrams marching across his brain). And they are about to meet across Scrabble boards in a hotel in Florida....
Their story is about more than Scrabble (although details of competitive Scrabble playing pack its pages). It is, in essence, the archetypal middle grade story about finding who you are and what you might want to be.....and as such, it's an enjoyable story--bits of humor, interesting characters, and (for me, at any rate), an fascinating set-up. The dilemma faced by Duncan--would it be cheating to use his power, and how much is at stake if he doesn't--is also interesting, although it got somewhat overshadowed by the larger social dynamics of the group of kids, and in the end was almost a non-event. Enough so that, although he certainly has a magical gift, making the book "fantasy," it reads much more like realistic fiction.
It is a fact that a four page list of acceptable two letter scrabble words adds little narrative umph to a story. That being said, it is also a fact that a reader can skim such Scrabbilian esoterica. For those of us who enjoy minutiae, the scrabble details that Meg Wolitzer packs into her book add value. But one can't help but wonder what an actual 10 or 11 year old kid, who has maybe not played very much Scrabble, is going to make of it...One hopes that they just enjoy the story of three middle school kids, each with their own backstory, coming together for a short, intense burst of camaraderie, and returning home to lives changed by the experience.
(review copy received from the publisher)