A fifth-grader becomes a bully’s tool but then learns to stand up for himself and others.
In this contemporary, middle-grade novel, Dillon (Okay Kevin, 2017, etc.) introduces a protagonist who is first swept up into an alliance with the class bully, then devises a strategy for disentangling himself and defending his fellow students. James is a classic good student, always obeying his teacher and earning plenty of “PAWS tickets,” the school’s method of reinforcing positive discipline: “When all the kids had trouble settling down, Miss Johnson would notice me and say, ‘I like the way James is sitting,’ and slowly but surely the other kids would start to follow what I was doing.” But he also wants to be liked by the popular kids and sees his chance to help Richie, a skilled mimic of students and teachers, by pointing out traits for the boy to imitate. Richie, a smooth manipulator, wants to win the Premier Student of the Year Award and schemes to use James’ observations as a way to make it happen. James gradually realizes that Richie is using him but finds getting out of the student’s intrigue difficult. Eventually, James learns about resistance and leadership skills through a school project on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and he leads his classmates in their own form of nonviolent resistance. Although the school librarian sends James to primary sources to deepen his knowledge of King’s philosophy, the book does not address the substantial difference between the legal and institutional racism the civil rights leader combatted and the social discomfort James deals with. (The characters’ races are not identified.) James’ relationship with his first-grade neighbor Mikey, on the other hand, is expertly portrayed, providing a more solid basis for the lessons learned. The book remains earnest in the presentation of its anti-bullying theme.
A boy bravely promotes decency in this heartfelt, message-driven tale for young readers.