Middles School Series #2. 288 p. Little, Brown & Company, May 7, 2012.978-0-316-20671-6. (Reviewed from arc provided by the publisher.)
At the end of Middle School the Worst Years of My Life, things were looking up for Rafe Khatchadorian. Despite his attempt to break every rule in the school handbook, Rafe’s teacher, Ms. Donatello, aka The Dragon Lady, saw some promise in Rafe and arranged to have him admitted to an art magnet school for grade 7. All that literally goes up in smoke when Swifty’s, the diner Rafe’s mom works at, burns to the ground. The family moves to the Rafe’s grandmother’s apartment in the city, where he will attend public school. Ms. Donatello strikes again, she arranges for Rafe to interview at Cathedral School of the Arts, an arts magnet school in the city.
Convinced he blew his interview, Rafe complains to his mom, “Even I wouldn’t let me into this school.” But, wonders of wonders, he’s accepted and once again, believes that he’s got it made. Only, he discovers he still has regular education classes as well as art classes. Also, not only are his classmates way more talented than he, each student’s work is subject to “crit,” or, peer review and Rafe’s first crit is rough. Two boys seem bent on destroying Rafe’s meager confidence, but one boy, Matt, seems friendly and tells Rafe not to sweat it. He even helps Rafe get back at them a little. The two become friends. Friendship is new to Rafe, so he doesn't notice or accepts Matt's inconsistencies.
As in the first book, Leo the Silent is on hand to offer Rafe moral support during his low times. Familiarity with the first book is not quite necessary (but recommended) as Rafe takes time to catch the reader up. Middle School Worst Years of My Life was remarkable because it was surprisingly deep for such an irreverent and humorous story. The twist at end was rather breathtaking. I simply did not see it coming. Even though I had received an arc of it at ALA, I didn't get to it until September when the students in both Ms. Frazer's language arts classes all told me that it was The. Best. Book. Ever! She had read it over the summer and thought it would be a perfect read aloud to start the year. So I moved it up on TOM and was pleasantly surprised.
Middle School Get Me Out of Here is filled with Rafe's energetic black and white illustrations. He's quite endearing despite himself. He has some good reasons for the emotional roller coaster he can't seem to get off, but much of it is perpetuated by his insecurity, his social awkwardness and his impulsivity. He really, really wants to make Cathedral work. He really, really doesn't think he's a good enough artist and is already worried that he won't be asked back.
There’s added tragedy as well. It felt forced, a bit piled on and, for me at least, stretched credulity past where I was willing to accept. I also didn't think it was necessary. The story worked without the family secret. Still, the fan base for the first book is strong in my library and the ride to that point of contention was amusing and diverting. I'd read a book about Rafe's eighth grade year.
I passed the arc to Ms. Frazer, who is thrilled. Just that morning, one of her students told her about the sequel and that his mom pre-ordered it. She told her class that if it's as good as the first, it will be the last read aloud of the year.