One of my favorite resolutions: to read as many potential Newbery novels as possible before January 23 when the winner is announced.
I just finished The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer, a delightful look inside the world of competitive Scrabble. Sort of like the documentary Word Wars--only with preteens, and with a far more uplifting and satisfying story.
Duncan Dorfman, the only child of a struggling single mother, has a strange secret power: he can read printed text with his fingertips. Duncan, a nobody in his new school, impulsively reveals his gift to Carl, the president of the school Scrabble team, who immediately grasps its usefulness. Carl chooses Duncan as his partner for the upcoming tournament and insists that he use his fingertip power to skew the odds in their direction, even though Duncan is uncomfortable with the idea of cheating.
Meanwhile, far away in Oregon, April Blunt feels like a square peg in a round hole in her sports-loving family. Besides Scrabble, April has another obsession: years ago, she met a boy at a motel swimming pool. Though she doesn’t know his name, he was a kindred spirit, and April longs to find him.
In New York, a boy named Nate Saviano is living someone else’s dream. Twenty-six years ago. his father lost the Youth Scrabble Tournament. Haunted by his failure, he believes that if he shapes Nate into a winner, he will finally be able to move on. But Nate is tired of the constant study his father demands. He longs to be an ordinary kid again; going to school and skateboarding with his friends.
These three twelve-year-olds and their equally quirky Scrabble partners, Carl, Lucy, and Maxie, meet at the tournament in Florida, where their hopes, dreams, and fears collide. Wolitzer handles the large cast of characters admirably, differentiating them fully and making each one authentic, engaging, and memorable. The boy-girl relationships strike a perfect middle-grade balance--these preteens like each other, but without overt romantic overtones. For example, when Nate and Maxie win a stuffed alligator at the cheesy amusement park, Funswamp, they decide to take turns keeping it--“joint custody,” according to Nate. Because the characters are so well-drawn, even the more implausible plot elements--Lucy’s skill as an amateur hypnotist, Nate’s father’s extreme trauma over a childhood loss, April’s obsession with the mystery boy, Duncan’s discoveries about his own father--become believable.
Besides being a gripping and satisfying story, the insider information about Scrabble will sharpen readers’ interest in the game itself. After reading about two-letter words, anagrams, and the quest for the elusive bingo-bango-bongo, I was ready to dig out the old Scrabble board and put my knowledge to use. Considering the current popularity of Words With Friends, there will be no shortage of youngsters who will enjoy a book about this topic!