– a gift for scrabble
– a talent for saying the worst thing at the worst possible time
– a severe allergy to peanuts.
He also has an overprotective mother, so when the school bullies slip a peanut into his cheese sandwich, and he ends up first in anaphylactic shock and then in the hospital, his mom swoops in and decides that it will be much safer if Ambrose finishes out the school year at home through correspondence courses. Of course, Ambrose may have complicated things by telling his mother that the aforementioned bullies were his best friends. And by telling everyone at school that his family was rich, and spent weekends at their chalet in Whistler, and the only reason he was in a public school was to mix with “normal” kids… you can see why they didn’t take his peanut allergy seriously when he told them it might kill him.
Ambrose and his mother are not rich. They live in a basement apartment–their landlords are Mr and Mrs Economopolous, the elderly Greek couple who live upstairs. The Economopolouses have taken to saving Ambrose from health-food dinners alone while his mother is teaching, feeding him home-made (peanut-free) moussaka and letting him watch The Amazing Race. But then their youngest son, Cosmo, gets out of jail and comes back home to live with his parents.
Ambrose thinks Cosmo is clearly the coolest thing ever. Ambrose’s mom is less than impressed, and bans him from visiting upstairs. Ambrose figures that what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. And since she doesn’t approve of Ambrose visiting in the same house, it’s a really good thing she doesn’t know when Ambrose and Cosmo start hanging out… and playing scrabble… and join a weekly scrabble club together… and if that sounds complicated, you should see what happens when Cosmo falls in love, his pre-jail buddies track him down and the Scrabble tournament comes up….
This is not just a book for anyone who’s ever done a victory dance when they hit the triple word score with a q or x. Ambrose is a perfect mix of adolescent insecurity and social awkwardness, but ends up being sympathetic never the less. He’s a lot like the plot of the book, a discongrous mix of things (Scrabble! Ex-cons! Peanut allergies!) that come together into something quirky and oddly endearing that’s more than the sum of its separate parts.
Sidenote: Word Nerd is on this year’s Rocky Mountain Book Award shortlist, for grades four to seven and is also on the Ontario-based Red Maple Award list for grades seven and eight, and was the subject of a parent complaint in Hamilton due to, ironically, language. Here’s an account at Susin Nielsen’s blog, and a bit of follow up.
On a more positive note, here are Ten Questions With Susin Nielsen from Open Book Toronto.