The Smartest Kid in the Universe  – Chris Grabenstein

 The Smartest Kid in the Universe  – Chris Grabenstein. Random House, 2020. 9780525647782 

Format: Hardcover

Rating:  1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

 Genre: Action/Adventure

 What did you like about the book? Everyone knows a kid like 7th grader Jake McQuade – a nice guy, but a bit of a slacker, a good friend and a kind big brother, but usually looking for the easy way out of any situation and always forgetting his basketball uniform on game day. He can’t compete in the brains department with his best friend, Kojo, or Grace Garcia, the girl he has a crush on.  Until one day when Jake finds jellybeans at the hotel where his mom works, and eats the entire jar, and soon finds himself solving complicated math problems in his head, quoting historical facts, and explaining scientific theories to anyone who will listen.  As it turns out, the jellybeans are actually experimental “IK” – Ingestible Knowledge, created by Hazeem Farooqi, a mysterious research scientist who has a secret underground lab at the local college.  The one thing Jake can’t master is Spanish, which he wants to learn both to help his little sister with her homework and to impress Grace Garcia.  Grace soon recruits Jake and Kojo to represent Riverview Middle School at a local Quiz Bowl competition in hopes of saving their school from shutdown and demolition.  Jake is even whisked away by the FBI to help crack a few interstate robbery cases.

As if all of that isn’t enough of a story, it is apparent that Riverview’s principal, the aptly-named Mrs. Malvolio, has a hand in the imminent destruction of the school, along with her real estate developer uncle.  There is a legend of a pirate treasure buried beneath the school, and both Mrs. Malvolio’s and Grace Garcia’s families claim the treasure is theirs.  The three kids get access to the treasure map left behind by Grace’s ancestors, and Jake uses geometry to figure out the location of the treasure, while Mrs. Malvolio hires a professional treasure hunter and thief to track it down.  There is an exciting showdown between the two parties before the rather pat ending, in which it is made clear that readers have been set up to anxiously await Jake’s next adventure.  This is another fast-paced endeavor from the popular Grabenstein, complete with archetypal villains, warm friendships among a diverse cast of young people, rapid-fire dialogue, and totally implausible scenarios.  Kids will gobble it up like a jar of jellybeans.  

Anything you did not like about the book?  For such a popular and prolific author, Grabenstein’s characters and dialogue do not always ring quite true to me.  While the premise of the book is wildly and appealingly unrealistic, the plot would benefit from characters that are more believable and banter that is a little less stilted.  Jake’s sidekick Kojo, an aspiring CSI agent, watches a lot of old police detective shows, and ends nearly every sentence with a Kojak-like “baby.”  Young readers won’t get the reference (even though it is explained), and it gets annoying really fast.

 To whom would you recommend this book? Readers of Grabenstein’s other series, including those co-authored by James Patterson, will not be disappointed by this new outing.  Fans of Stuart Gibbs or Dan Gutman’s Genius Files will also find it a good fit.

Who should buy this book? Public and elementary school libraries

Where would you shelve it?  Fiction

 Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles?  no

 Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City:  Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.

Date of review: 3/1/2021

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