Odd Ball is a new book set in my hometown, Victoria BC. It’s actually set in a real school – Central Middle School – though Stewart does change the school’s age range from grades 6-8 to 7-9, and presumably lots of other details as well.
So I was bound to read it at some point, despite the tragically Canadian cover. I picked it up now because it has just been nominated for the Victoria Book Prize (in the children’s category). Seeing as I had already read and enjoyed last year’s Death Benefits, and I was still looking for a good YA book to put in my teacher newsletter, I picked up Odd Ball over the weekend.
I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It’s a slim volume and a quick read, but quite quirky, and I caught myself chuckling out loud more than once. It reminds me most of Gordon Korman’s Schooled (a fantastic novel, as so many of his are) or Origami Yoda. But it isn’t a rip-off: it’s got a character all of its own. Like the two books above, it is told by many characters, particularly three middle school students: Kevin (the “coolest” geek of the school who refuses to accept this label because he can talk to girls unlike real geeks); Stephanie (a girl concerned about the deteriorating atmosphere of her school); and Paula (who is getting deeper and deeper into trouble at home and at school). Other chapters are descriptions of past or present events by an omniscient narrator, and contributions by Victor, a first-year university student and former Latvian.
The plot really centres around Jobbi, a recent immigrant from Latvia who is target number one for bullies at Central Middle School. While most students ignore or mock Jobbi and his thick accent, Stephanie and Kevin find something special in this kind and mysteriously insightful boy. Unconsciously and effortlessly, Jobbi demonstrates that he might just have the abilities to solve the school’s social problems and bring the student body together. It takes Stephanie, Kevin, a school dance, a trip to Latvia, some fancy skating, a sarcastic fortune-telling ball, and Jobbi’s unique sixth sense for matchmaking, but they make it happen.
As with Schooled and Origami Yoda it was fun learning about a very quirky character through the eyes of other people. The Baltic connection reminded me of Holes, particularly the way problems and solutions were passed down through the generations. Stewart also includes some good hockey scenes – you can tell he loves the game (though I can’t think of any middle school that actually has a team). And the themes of bullying and gangs were handled quite well – the stakes were real and worrisome. Occasionally there was a hint of a lesson-of-the-week kind of voice, particularly from the do-gooder Stephanie, but it didn’t harm the story in any serious way. Overall, I thought it was unexpectedly delightful and I’m looking forward to recommending it, particularly to teachers.