This is one of those gaming books, that isn't really about gaming, but the gaming forms the framework for the story, which is told in two-column poetry (thank you!) and texting and some prose, depending on the character's point-of-view, and it's an awesome funny ugly-cry story all wrapped into one.
The kids -- BenBee, Ben Y, Jordan J, Javier -- are all in summer school after 6th grade because they failed the FART: the Florida Rigorous Academic Assessment Test. (No, this doesn't spell FART. No, they don't pick up on that until near the end, but it's hilarious in the beginning.) Now, my mother taught the equivalent class for high school for many years, only the stakes were much higher -- graduation, and all the societal / employment / college benefits that implies. The middle school setting allows the author a bit more leeway in how both the teacher and the students tackle retaking the test.
Because while the kids are on their second and third chances as "divergent learners" in summer school, so is their teacher, Ms. J, who's not really a classroom teacher (yes, there's a difference, and yes, many librarians can be and do both, but it takes a special person to teach middle school). She's a librarian also on her second chance -- a professional second chance.
So when BenBee's assigned reading book ends up in the toilet, and Ms. J takes a chance on allowing ever-silent Javier to pick the book they'll read (Save UR Server, a bit like a choose your own adventure book, but for a Minecraft-type game the kids all play), she's taking a potentially career-ending chance on her students.
They broker a deal with her: they'll read the book, if she plays the game with them in the last 10 minutes of each class. Really, plays the game. And she takes the deal, even goes so far as to suggest playing the game is "Typing practice". The kids are in heaven, although they think the book is kinda stupid because it offers "choices" that you wouldn't actually do in the game, but they're discovering what it feels like to finish a book, and they're not going to give up.
Until there's a disastrous professional observation of the class and Mrs. J by the school principal. I won't say what happens, just know, Ms. J's career is on the line and the kids come through for her -- while she comes through for them, in a big way you don't see coming (and had me in tears!).
I will say, I really appreciated the layout of the free verse poetry -- it's in two-columns, which prevents the book from being near 400 pages, which it would, otherwise. I really wish other verse books would adopt this layout of the text and decrease page counts, which can be daunting for middle schoolers otherwise.
Enjoy this wonderful read!
This is also in verse, and now Ben Y is exploring their pronouns, dying (dissolving) their hair, even as Mr. Mann, the mean school principal (is there any other kind?), promotes a stifling dress code and "Safe Space" where Ben Y and others feel anything but safe.
Ben Y idolizes the new, fashionable and super-confident Ace, who enters the afterschool Typing Club run by the venerable and much-loved librarian, Ms. J. If only Ace would notice Ben Y! But Ace's presence in their closed typing circle threatens the others in the group, most notably those who rely on Ben Y's best-friendship.
Then Ben Y's older, and very deceased, brother types back in the game chatroom created expressly for Ben Y, and they know something's not right. Because there is no such thing as ghosts.
Ben Y creates a tear-sheet, a one-page skewer of Mr. Mann, The Unauthorized Hart Times, and anonymously posts it around school. For a while, Ben Y is willing to hide behind Ace, let others think Ace created the funny caricatures and text about the unsafe "Safe Space."
Until they claim ownership and confront Mr. Mann, and then the battle lines are clearly drawn.
I won't spoil how it ends, or who's pretending to be Ben Y's brother, or what happens to Ms. J (hint: again).
On a total sidenote, I did have a bone to pick with the layout of the text of Ben Y. This is no comment at all on the author or illustrator. The graphics and textual representations of game chat and texts were super well done and the illustrations hilarious.
But I loved how, in the first book, there were two, sometimes up to three columns of text per page. The pagers were wider, too. The poems are only a few words per line, and the column layout and wider pages made for relatively few pages. In other words, the book didn't suffer from white space bloat and lots of excess pages, like so many other verse novels do.
Not so this one. By comparison, this is a heavy tome. It's 426 pages, even though I'm certain it's got far fewer words, overall, than Tristan Strong who punches through a comparable number of pages. But the text in this one is one column only, and the pages are not as wide. And the paper is heavy. I mean, hard- to-hold-up heavy.
I taught middle school and watched kids compare the widths of book spines during trips to the library. It made no difference if the total word count was lower. If the book looked huge and felt heavy, they'd choose a skinnier neighbor. Any skinnier neighbor. It's been a pet peeve of mine for a while now that verse books, in general, have so many pages they turn kids off on sight (on ereaders too). The first BenBee book brilliantly solved that problem and I'd love to see the multi-column format come back.