Young Adult Book Review: A Year in the Life of a Complete and Total Genius by Stacey Matson

I sometimes say that it seems like only yesterday that I was in high school.  In reality, it was 25 years ago!  Even though I’ve worked with kids every year of my life since 1992, I find that as I get older the generation gap gets wider and wider.  For writers trying to capture the voice of today’s youth, it’s a catch 22.  You have to craft a good narrative that is grammatically correct while at the same time capturing the nuances of natural teenage speech.  I admit it; I have not yet figured it out.  After reading Stacey Matson’s A Year in the Life of a Complete and Total Genius, I have found someone who has mastered the style and expression of modern teenagers.

I have never read a book like this one.  It’s structured almost like a stream of consciousness over an entire year of Arthur Bean’s life.  Yet we hear multiple voices in the text.  In essence, the book is every written communication Arthur writes or receives over the course of the school year.  He records his inner thoughts through his reading journal which he calls “RJ.”  We read correspondences from teachers as well as e-mails to and from  his writer partner, Kennedy Laurel, and tutoring reports from his tutoring partner and mortal enemy, Robbie Zack.  The effect is an in depth look at the internal and external life of a teenage boy.  After reading the first three pages, I was hooked!

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Arthur Bean is an unforgettable character.  His mother recently passed away and his father struggles with coping with the loss.  Rather than wallow in self-pity, Arthur exudes a self-confidence that borders on egoism.  He doesn’t try to put others down or bully kids to get his way; he simply has a perception that he’s pretty smart and can accomplish most anything he sets his mind to.  Unfortunately, he tends to think a lot about accomplishing things without ever actually doing them.  He’s the kind of student that would drive me bonkers, yet you can’t help but love him.  He has the best of intentions.  I admire his teachers for gently guiding him in the right direction.  I also feel sorry for his peers who have to tolerate his lack of production.

Throughout the narrative, Arthur searches for ways to get Kennedy to like him the same he likes her.  Much of this action takes place in his head since he can’t seem to get up the nerve to pursue her the way he wants to.  To make matters worse, Kennedy’s best friend is also Arthur’s chief rival and reluctant tutoring partner, Robbie Zack.  Robbie reveals to Arthur that he also likes Kennedy, but Kennedy has friend-zoned him and only has eyes for Sandy, a boy who doesn’t always seem to treat her the way Arthur and Robbie thinks she deserves.  Arthur thinks he has the perfect way to reach Kennedy’s heart:  he secures the role of Romeo opposite Kennedy’s Juliet in the school’s spring play.

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Unfortunately, Arthur makes choices that drastically change how others see him and how he sees himself.  While tutoring Robbie, Arthur steals some of Robbie’s work and claims it as his own.  As with most lies, once they come unravelled it’s impossible to stop the wave of consequences.  Arthur must come to grips with his own shortcomings and find ways to repair the damage he’s caused.

I read the review of this title in School Library Journal and I have to say that the magazine short changes this book.  The characters are not stereotyped at all.  Each has his own unique perspective and we come to like and dislike them at different points in the story.  But isn’t that how teenage life works?  One day we love each other and the next we can’t stand each other.  That level of teenage realism makes the book a winner to me.  Highly recommended!

Teacher Notes

Lexile 810
Accelerated Reader Lvl 5.3, 8.0 points
Reading Counts Lvl 5.3, 12.0 points

I really enjoyed this book.  I don’t see it as a whole class read or even as a read aloud, but if you have boys who are reluctant readers this book may do the trick.  The characters are easily relatable and the language is easy to follow.  I think kids will get a kick out of seeing each side of situations that arise in Arthur’s life.

On a side note, the correspondences between Arthur and his teachers is chocked full of ideas for writing assignments.  I had several Ah-ha! moments in reading Mrs. Whitehead’s directions to the kids.  Because the typeset is different for each speaker, it’s easy to skim through and find the posts that give directions for Mrs. Whitehead’s writing assignments.  Check them out!

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