A middle school student solves his problems with a seemingly magic journal.
Charlie Burger's middle school experience begins badly. After getting pantsed on the first day and getting weird mixed signals from his (female) best friend, Franki, Charlie is about to write off the whole thing and wait for a fresh start in high school. But things start to turn around when he writes his first story in a journal given to him by his goofy science teacher. The fictional exploits of Dude Explodius start to mirror Charlie's own social life: coincidence or magic? Kelley's debut is an ambitious one, mixing typical middle school concerns like bullies and hormones with relatively more complex issues. Franki's home life involves a drunken stepfather and utility cutoffs, both of which the author smartly presents with bold simplicity instead of exploiting them for sentiment. The relationship between Charlie and Franki is the novel's highlight, shining so brightly it's easy to forgive its shortcomings. The bully storyline plays out like far too many others of its type, and the journal's magical back story is muddled. The novel's most bothersome device is Charlie's grandmother, who conveniently shows up at all the right moments to dispense advice and then disappear.
A sweet exploration of an evolving friendship burdened by some tiresome tropes; should Kelley focus on the former and move past the latter, she will do well. (Fiction. 10-14)