An Unwilling Einstein Who’s Full of Beans

By Chris Grabenstein

Back when I was in middle school, I was a big daydreamer, and most of those daydreams were of the “What if” variety. What if I could magically be the most popular kid in school? Or the most athletic? What if I suddenly knew how to talk to girls? Or I could fly? I made comics about these scenarios and played them out in my head when I should have been learning fractions.

So I had a feeling Chris Grabenstein’s latest book, “The Smartest Kid in the Universe,” was going to be right up my inner 12-year-old’s alley. And I was right. Complete with cutting-edge candy, a scheming principal, buried pirate treasure and the chance to ride along with the smartest middle schooler ever, this book is fast-paced and fun from beginning to end.

Jake McQuade starts out as the coolest kid at Riverview Middle School. He’s less into learning things than he is into video games and just hanging out. That is, until he accidentally eats a bottle of untested, intelligence-enhancing jelly beans in the green room of a conference his mother (an event organizer) helped plan. His mind, almost immediately, is filled with more information than he can handle. He starts spouting bits of wisdom and trivia like a walking Wikipedia, and speaking in obscure foreign languages; even his basketball skills skyrocket, since he can calculate angles and arcs with incredible accuracy. It’s a big transition. Especially for someone who’s always undervalued the power of smarts.

Thankfully, Jake has his best friend, Kojo, to help him adjust. A far better student, Kojo is an upbeat, cop-show-obsessed detective wannabe. Also along for the journey is Grace Garcia, the smartest student in school and Jake’s secret love interest. She’s completely confused by Jake’s “brain growth spurt” (as he explains it away) but implores him to join the school’s Quiz Bowl team nonetheless. Grace’s love of speaking Spanish (seemingly the only area of intelligence Jake didn’t pick up from the jelly beans) makes him realize he might need to actually do some studying of his own.

It isn’t long before Jake and his friends uncover a sinister plot (who doesn’t love a sinister plot?) — this one involving tearing down the beloved old cafeteria-food-smelling school. There’s also a long-guarded pirate-related secret, an attempt to tamper with the all-important Quiz Bowl competitions, an ancient unsolved riddle and — maybe worst — a foul-breathed snake of a real estate developer.

It’s pure jelly-bean-enhanced entertainment and a perfect escape. Lessons and moments of growth happen along the way, of course — being the smartest kid in the universe isn’t always a walk in the park — but what Grabenstein does best is create an engaging, likable group of kids, drop them into a crazy, over-the-top situation and watch the sparks fly. We know, from fantastic books like “Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library,” that Grabenstein is a master at this, so we can just kick back and enjoy it as it all plays out.

I laughed out loud at Jake’s transformation into an unwilling Einstein, unable to stop himself from overflowing with obscure facts and figures. And Kojo’s anachronistic love of Kojak (and his whole “Who loves ya, baby?” vibe) adds a quirkiness to even the most perilous, high-stakes moments. Throw in a mad scientist, a jewel thief and some spooky hidden caverns, and you’ve got yourself a rollicking good time.

My inner 12-year-old is anxiously awaiting the next book of Jake and friends’ suddenly brilliant adventures … and eager to try out their next big What if.

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