Friday, May 29, 2015

How to Survive Middle School and Monster Bots (A Howard Boward Book)

If nothing hooks you faster than humor, especially quirky humor, check out Ron Bates' book How to Survive Middle School and Monster Bots.
Written in first-person, the story starts with an enticing tongue-in-cheek setup delivered by a highly intelligent and altogether nerdy middle-school-aged boy named Howard Boward. It goes something like this: Whatever you’ve heard all over the internet about the trouble at Dolley Madison Middle School, forget it. Howard is here to reveal the real story… but, just so you know, the robots started it.

The tale goes on to comically relay Howard’s struggles with bullies, his dealings with Stick (“For those of you who haven’t met Stick—and congratulations on that, by the way—he is my fifteen-year-old brother and the source of most of the misery in my world”), his one-sided rivalry with neighbor Gerald (Gerald is actually nice, but Howard sees him as a threat), a Winter Formal dance, and a robot building contest.

When Howard learns about the robot-building contest, he confronts two feelings. The first emotion is confusion over the fact that rather than striving to outdo each other, the sponsoring club members work together to help each other build their robots. It seems that winning is less important to them than collaborative effort! That idea is foreign to Howard, who has a tendency to be self-centered in his worldview.

The second sentiment he feels is determination to demonstrate his intellectual superiority. However, because of his unchecked pride, Howard messes with something from the first book in the series, a mysterious and dangerous “goo” that causes an evil robot to form overnight. Unbeknownst to him, the robot secretly begins to build an army of robots that eventually threaten to take over the town (or at least ruin the Winter Formal).

The book does not contain any overt references to faith or Christianity. Nevertheless, it carries a subtle lesson about not judging others by appearances and doing to others what you would have them do to you. Readers also see Howard transform (not fully, but steps in the right direction) from an amusing but egocentric (and somewhat unlikeable) character to one opening up to the idea that he can work with others and treat them with kindness and respect despite his circumstances.

What I Like: Except the bully situations, I enjoyed most of the humor in this book. Ron Bates has a background in comedy, and it shines through. The robots antics were amusingly crazy, and Howard’s constant conversation with the reader proved entertaining. I had several laugh-out-loud moments, which is rare for me (despite my love of humor). I also like how the members of the robot club value teamwork, encouragement of others, and general kind behavior, and that those concepts were rooted in their faith. Overall, the book held good, clean fun.

What I Dislike: As a public school teacher, I was a bit dismayed by the depiction of bullying in the book. While I realize it was played up for comedic effect, I don’t like readers finding humor in the mistreatment of others, nor do I like the stereotype that teachers or a school would not take steps to curtail such abusive behavior.

Keep in mind that the story revolves around Howard, and he is NOT a role- model for readers. (Rather, readers see the role in the somewhat minor characters of Trevor, Gerald, and science teacher Mr. Z, which is, I believe, a saving grace in the story.) Despite those criticisms, I still enjoyed this story. It was refreshingly winsome in style and delivery. Parents may just want to be aware of some of its limitations and address those accordingly.

Overall Rating: I waffled between Very Good (because of the bullying) and Excellent (because of the humor); in those cases, I give the benefit of the doubt: Excellent.

Age Appeal: 8-12.

Publisher Info: Zonderkidz, 2014; ISBN:978-0310736080; Hardcover and Kindle, 224 pgs., $12.99.

Buy it Now at for $9.99 (although has the link in their system incorrectly, so I cannot attach it) or buy the e-book for $4.99

Buy the hardcover at for $10.61 or the Kindle edition for $4.99.
Special Info: Check out the first book in the series, How to Make Friends and Monsters.

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