N.E.R.D.S: The Cheerleaders of Doom, by Michael Buckley (Amulet Books, 2011, upper elementary/middle grade, 288 pages)
The N.E.R.D.S are a band of technologically enhanced kids, agents of a secret organization that has taken each members nerdy weakness, and made it into a super super power. In this third installment of the NERDS series, asthmatic Matilda, aka Wheezer, gets a chance to shine when a new disaster threatens to destroy not just the earth, but the whole multiverse. But Matilda isn't being asked to put her mad fighting skills and arsenal of super inhalers to work. Something much worse is in store for her--she has to become a cheerleader, infiltrate a crack cheering squad, and find the rouge NERDS agent responsible for the impending disaster...a girl named Gertie, once known as "Mathlete."
Gertie, desperate for the money she needs to create a new, beautiful, cheerleading self, has invented a device that allows her to travel to alternate versions of earth, and pilfer them at will. Now she is no longer a homely nerd; she is that wonderful, beautiful, bubbly thing--a top notch cheerleader. For Matilda to infiltrate the cheerleading squad, and crack Gertie's disguise, she's going to have to do the hardest thing she's ever done in her live--shuck her tough, grungy persona to become a smiling, perky, pompomed girl who whoops.
But in the meantime, there's another young mastermind at work--a criminal one. Former NERD Heathcliff "Choppers" Hodges doesn't really want to live the rest of his life in a mental institution for the criminally insane. He wants to take over the world (in an evil way)...and Gertie's invention might be just what he needs.
This is the first NERD adventure I've read, and I found myself nodding in agreement as I remembered all the reviews of the series recommending the books highly for the 8-10 crowd. There's humor, action, suspense, delivered in snappy style; there are cool gadgets and neat technology, such as would delight even young readers who aren't nerds themselves, and best of all, there are actually interesting characters giving weight to the somewhat goofy story.
In this case, Matilda is forced to confront questions of identity--the process of becoming a cheerleader requires her to consider why she had created her own tough girl identity, and challenges her preconceptions of cheerleaders. The result is a more tolerant, self-aware (but still tough) Matilda! It's a subtle enough message so that it doesn't grate on the reader's nerves, but it's enough to make this more than just fun fluff.
As an added bonus, the kids who comprise the N.E.R.D.S are, as you can see from the cover, a diverse bunch. Matilda, for instance, is Korean-American.
Here's what I'm wondering--the first two books were told from the point of view of boy team members, and seem to be popular with boys. Now we have a girl central character, and Cheerleaders, no less! The (very doubtful) assumption that boys are reluctant to read about girls is all too prevalent...but I think the wacky zest of the series will have successfully captured it's young male readers, making that issue irrelevant in this case.
Here's another review at TheHappyNappyBookseller.
Thanks very much to the publisher, Abrams, for sending me a review copy for my Cybils middle grade fantasy/sci fi reading! There were so many holds on this one at my library that it might have proved difficult for me to get my own hands on it otherwise!