Monday, March 25, 2013

2014 Contenders: 33 Minutes ...Until Morgan Sturtz kicks my butt, by Todd Hasak-Lowy

In exactly 33 minutes (after social studies and lunch), Morgan Sturtz is going to kick Sam Lewis's butt. Sam knows this because yesterday, in front of several witnesses, Morgan told him, "I am totally going to kick your butt at recess tomorrow." As the minutes tick by, Sam slowly reveals to the reader the events that led up to the threat of butt-kicking, and chronicles the unraveling of his best-friendship with Morgan. Along the way, he keeps up a wry and melancholy commentary on the bleak landscape of middle school.

When I pick up a book with "butt" in the title, I expect a certain kind of book. Captain Underpants. The Day My Butt Went Psycho. In some senses, 33 Minutes delivers as expected. There are food fights, dopy teachers, and all the trappings of schoolhouse slapstick comedy. Just beneath the layer of flying tater tots, though, this is a surprisingly poignant story of lost friendship and adolescent alienation.

The tension between these two tones works primarily due to the strength of Sam's narrative voice.
He's the quintessential middle school outsider - behind his schoolmates physically and far ahead of them intellectually, he is puzzling to his peers and exasperating to many of his teachers. Since his grades and behavior are irreproachable, though, his emotional pain goes unnoticed, especially by his parents. Like many weird kids before him, he puts up a brave front of sarcasm and dry wit.

The other characters vary in complexity. Some of the teachers are caricatures, as are most of the students. We see interesting hints of Morgan's hidden depths, though all through Sam's fairly self-centered lens. Another kid, Chris, the troublemaker behind much of the Sam-Morgan strife, is basically a cipher and a plot device. We see enough of his background to guess at his motivations, but, like Julian in last year's Wonder, he's never allowed to redeem or explain himself.

Setting is disgustingly vivid. The smell of the lunch room is described as "bleach-and-tuna-fish air freshener." Descriptions of the rest of the building are comparably apt. Effectively made me not want to visit a middle school anytime soon.

33 Minutes is a surprisingly strong book, and one that will be an easy sell to reluctant readers. I'm not sure it will show up on the Newbery discussion table, but if it did, I'd have a couple of questions for it. 1. Is Sam's voice too self-aware at the end? In the last chapter, it sounds more like the hindsight of Adult Sam than the foresight of Middle School Sam. 2. Do the cartoons take away from the narrative? They felt unnecessary to me.

Published in January by Aladdin Press. 

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