Bounders, by Monica Tesler, is a debut middle grade sci fi story that I feel can reasonably be described as a simpler, somewhat watered-down version of Ender's Game for younger readers, in which the characters aren't as formidably smart, and the enemy isn't as immediately apparent. In this future version of Earth, certain kids have been chosen to be the first class sent to space to train as bounders (which I understand to be a way of travelling vast distances through quantum particle manipulation); they might not be a smart as Ender and co., but they haven't been picked for their IQ scores. Instead, they have been bred to have the traits of the Autism spectrum, ADDHD, Executive Functioning Disorder, OCD, and all the other non-neurotypicalnesses that are diagnosable these days. These characteristics had been bred out of the human population, but it turns out that they are just what Bounders need to be successful.
On Earth, these kids, pejoratively called B-wads, were teased and bullied. Now they are headed up to a space station, the first class of "recruits" to become bounders. 12 year old Jasper, the main character (attention deficit disorder), and the other four kids in the group he's been assigned to, soon realize that there are secrets they haven't been told, and that there are reasons for the breeding program (and serious ethical questions about it), and reasons why there's a military aspect to the whole operation. Snooping around and seeing an imprisoned alien from a strange species he's never seen before is a bit of a giveaway. And then there are the gloves that let the kids manipulate their Bounding abilities, technology that is very different from anything developed on Earth....(the gloves are wicked cool, I must say, dating myself more than somewhat. I don't think they say "wicked cool" anymore).
I am pretty sure that a nine or ten year old who has never read Ender's Game, and who enjoys speculative fiction school/training mission stories, in which kids are forced to become loyal comrades to each other, will enjoy this one just fine, and am kind of thinking that kids who are aware that they've been labeled with various diagnoses will find it interesting to see the traits that get them into trouble at school, or make it hard to have friends, are valued here (although since it takes a certain amount of introspection to recognize that one has particular traits, and since introspection isn't necessarily strong in lots of quirky kids, this might be a somewhat moot point).
Because the Bounder kids are such a bunch of quirky misfits, there's a delicate balancing act required to make them people, and not just bundles of characteristics, a balance Tesler doesn't aways manage to achieve. One character in particular, a girl named Mira, is pretty far along on the Autism spectrum (non verbal, non compliant, no obvious awareness of social norms), but she is almost magical in her fey gifts, so much so that it made me a little squirmish. Especially when Jasper developed a Special Bond with her, and she became something close to his Magic Pixie Dream Girl. We never get much sense of her as a person apart from her fey-ness. But Tesler does do a good job showing the strengths of certain non-neurotypical qualities; one character is one of those information gathering type kids, and his attention to fact, to history, and to detail makes him great at military tactics. And Jasper's own ADD tendencies make intuitive manipulation of reality easier, in as much as reality is kind of optional for him in any event.
I myself enjoy stories of kids in school-type situations (as long as it isn't All about bullying, because bullying is so often not subtle; there is some here, a bit more than I'd have liked, but not enough to have affected my reading experience negatively). And I like kids in space learning that there's a lot more going on, that's high-level secret and dangerous. And this is very much a first story of a larger whole, setting the stage and introducing the proponents and the problem I am interested enough to want to keep going--I want to find out more about the aliens, and what is motivating them, and what they are thinking and feeling.
Short answer--not a must read, but not bad. One for the younger middle grade readers, who have not yet chased aliens into outer space.
Let's see what Kirkus says! I have added my comments in blue.
"While the origin of the Bounders is intriguing (agreed--it's very intriguing), it is not enough to overcome the dodgy science (I am perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief about science, especially in books for young readers who hare my ignorance of the possibilities of molecular resonance and quantum mechanics. If the science seems more like magic than anything else, that's ok with me), cardboard characters (cardboard is too harsh; see my thoughts above), and meandering plot (the plot of the book I read took me from Point A to Point B with no meanders at all. I would have welcomed a bit more meander, frankly. Maybe my idea of a plot meander is different). Slow-moving and lacking tension (well, it is a bit slow to get the "real" action, but sometimes the point of a book is the journey), this is one space adventure that is not out of this world (I'm not saying it's the greatest thing since sliced bread myself, but it is the sort of book I think an adult well versed in similar stories just can't appreciate as much as the target audience can).
(here's what else I think--I think I enjoy using Kirkus as a straw man a bit too much.)