Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Review - Five Flavors of Dumb

Author/Illustrator: Anthony John
Publisher: Dial (November 11, 2010)
Reading Level: Young Adult
Source: Copy for Review
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Description from GoodReads:

The Challenge: Piper has one month to get the rock band Dumb a paying gig.
The Deal: If she does it, Piper will become the band's manager and get her share of the profits.

The Catch: How can Piper possibly manage one egomaniacal pretty boy, one talentless piece of eye candy, one crush, one silent rocker, and one angry girl? And how can she do it when she's deaf?
Piper can't hear Dumb's music, but with growing self-confidence, a budding romance, and a new understanding of the decision her family made to buy a cochlear implant for her deaf baby sister, she discovers her own inner rock star and what it truly means to be a flavor of Dumb.

With a great concept and a very cool looking cover, I wondered whether Anthony John's new book FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB would be a shining star or hit a flat note.  Could he pull it off in a way that was believable and entertaining?  Or would there be a significant amount of creative license taken to make for a good story?

Honestly, I approached this book with a critical eye.  After the first 6 or 7 chapters, I sent an email to a graduate school friend of mine who works with deaf teens.  We had both attended Gallaudet (note: the main character in the book has a goal of attending Gallaudet University - the world's only University for the Deaf).  I peppered her with questions, and I thought seriously about her answers and my experiences with the Deaf community.

My initial protest began when Piper (the main character in the story who is Hard of Hearing) claims that she has had the same hearing aids for nearly 10 years, I rolled my eyes.  Yes, hearing aids are expensive. Yes, they come in all kinds of bright colors which young children like. But seldom would a 17 or 18 year old be wearing the same pair of hearing aids as when they were 7 or 8 years old (i.e., the character would have physically outgrown her hearing aids automatically necessitating new ones). And even with "olympic precision" lip-reading, we are talking about someone getting only 46% of spoken language?! I was concerned that if John had taken some creative licenses to fit his story or failed to get some basic details correct where would the rest of the story go? So I took a deep breath, reminded myself that the average reader would not know these facts and pushed on.

It wasn't hard to move on with FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB.  Despite my initial irritation over some technical stuff, I was really enjoying John's writing.  The short chapters made it feel like I was flying through the story.  But there was so much more about this book that kept propelling me forward.

First, I like books that I would call "ensemble" stories. Meaning that all of the characters truly play an important role in the book and develop along with the main character. This is an ensemble book - Piper may be the main character but her family, and the members of the band all have significant roles to play and they all grow and develop over the course of the story.

Second, yes, there is some romance in the book...but we don't spend page after annoying page reading about every detail of how wonderful, or beautiful the lusted after romantic target is. It is subtle and appropriate to the story.  Plus I really found myself wanting the two of them to get together.

Third, not only does the book focus positively on a character with special needs but also has characters of various ethnic/racial/socio-economic backgrounds. Yay for diversity that is not overly done but included in just the right way.

Fourth, I actually appreciated many of the adults in this book even with their flaws. Piper's relationship with her parents is one of the things in the story that seemed the most honest and real.  There is a natural conflict when you are a deaf child dealing with hearing parents - this is one part that I felt John nailed. Along with how John describes Piper's reaction to her sister's cochlear implant.

I also liked the interesting advice and mentoring she received from Baz, Mr. Belson, Tash's mom, etc. And though Piper's brother Finn is not an adult (so maybe this should go under another point but...) - I found myself pleasantly pleased with how that relationship developed. It was surprising in a very good way.

Finally, despite my initial irritation over the technical details and sometimes wondering if John was trying to fit some of his thoughts about deafness to his story, I definitely found myself loving the book. The book's back drop of Seattle, mentions of Nirvana & Cobain, and Hendrix provided a complimentary and story enhancing references. Once I started it, I pretty much couldn't put it down resulting in several hours of lost sleep that evening.

After completing the book and pondering the technical vs. the literary, I am giving this a 4.5 out of 5 stars.  I will say that I was a little relieved to discover through an email conversation with the author that he had actually based some of the things I had questioned on real incidents.  Yes, sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.

In 2009, the stand out YA Realistic Fiction story for me was Allen Zadoff's FOOD, GIRLS & OTHER THINGS I CAN'T HAVE.  I loved that book. It made me laugh and it moved me emotionally.  I know that we haven't gotten to the true end of 2010 yet, but I would have to say that Anthony John's FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB is currently sitting in my top spot for YA Realistic Fiction for the current year.  It is funny, smart, touching, and just a great read.  I would encourage to find this book and read it.  And I look forward to future books by this author.