Fed up with the teasing that he and his classmates endure from bullies and mean girls every day, 11-year-old Barkley Smeelly devises an elaborate plan to convince everyone that Benjamin Hoagie Middle School would be a happier place if they could follow just one rule.
With even his teachers mistaking his last name for "Smelly," Barkley Smeelly is no stranger to being teased. After his first day of middle school ends with his best friend, Peter, getting a pudding cup smashed on his head and his mom telling him she's hired "The Nanny from Hell" to watch him in the afternoon because he's too young to be home alone, Barkley decides he needs to do something to gain more respect. Taking advice from a self-help book he finds in his dad's study, Barkley creates a set of rules that he wants everyone in his life to follow, eventually focusing on just one: "Treat people the way you would like to be treated." Barkley plans to unveil his rule by winning enough "Hoagie Dollars" for good behavior to become principal for a day. He organizes an assembly complete with a celebrity speaker, and everyone agrees to be kinder to one another. Although the plot feels thin at times, Barkley's self-deprecating charm moves the story along. The frustrations he feels as a child—old enough to recognize the things in his life he would like to change but too young to know what to do about them—are realistic and relatable. He and Peter make a touching team of underdogs as they trade inexpert advice about how to talk to the prettiest girl in their class. However, jokes about Peter's weight and flatulence feel out of place given the novel's message of acceptance. Barkley's success at the end is also a little too neatly won to feel truly triumphant.
Webb's (Amber, 2007, etc.) experience as a fourth-grade teacher helps him create a sweet if predictable story about the importance of a rule that kids—and adults—could be reminded of more often. (Fiction. 10-14)