Book Review: Merits of Mischief by T. R. Burns

And now, for the mom’s perspective…

Book Review: Merits of Mischief: The Bad Apple by T. R. Burns

From Amazon:

The start of a mischievous new middle-grade series has trouble written all over it.Twelve-year-old Seamus Hinkle is a good kid with a perfect school record—until the day he accidentally kills his substitute teacher with an apple.

Seamus is immediately shipped off to a detention facility—only to discover that Kilter Academy is actually a school to mold future Troublemakers, where demerits are awarded as a prize for bad behavior and each student is tasked to pull various pranks on their teachers in order to excel. Initially determined to avoid any more mishaps, Seamus nonetheless inadvertently emerges as a uniquely skilled troublemaker. Together with new friends Lemon and Elinor, he rises to the top of his class while beginning to discover that Kilter Academy has some major secrets and surprises in store….

When reviewing kids’ books, I usually prefer to let my son do the talking. After all, what matters is whether he liked it, right? In the case of Merits of Mischief: The Bad Apple, I find that I have a thing or two to say myself. Consider this the point/counterpoint version of Q&A with the Kiddo, if you will. And now for my rebuttal:

SPOILER ALERT! While I usually make it my policy to avoid spoilers in my book reviews, I’m breaking my own rules for Merits of Mischief. I’m assuming that anyone reading this is an adult and won’t be bothered by learning how the book ends. If this isn’t true for you — look away now! You have been warned: I will be disclosing the ending of this book. END OF SPOILER ALERT.

I’ll be blunt. I did not like this book. I knew early on that I was going to have a problem with it, but my son was hooked and didn’t seem to be bothered by the moral issues that bothered me, so onward we went.

The main character, Seamus, is a well-behaved 12-year-old who attempts to break up a lunchroom fight by throwing an apple across the room. Unfortunately, the apple hits brand-new substitute teacher Ms. Parsippany in the head AND SHE DIES. Yup, chapter one ends with a dead teacher, killed by the book’s hero.

Seamus isn’t proud of himself:

I killed her.

Some people say it was an accident. They say I didn’t mean to do it, that I was just scared and tried to help. That may be true. But what’s also true is that Miss Parsippany, who’d been a substitute teacher for all of four hours and thirteen minutes, was alive in homeroom and dead by lunch.

Because of me.

A week later, Seamus’s parents are dropping him off at Kilter Academy, reputedly a severe scared-straight type of reform school for seriously troubled kids. The building is gray and imposing, ringed by barbed wire, and with a very menacing armed guard waiting to greet Seamus. But the second that his parents drive away, the guard reveals that her gun is a water pistol, sheds the ugly uniform to reveal stylish clothing, and shakes out her long, pretty hair. It’s Annika Kilter, sparkly director of the Kilter Academy, and nothing is as it seems.

Kilter, it turns out, is a school dedicated to encouraging promising young troublemakers to live up to their potential. The grey walls are merely a facade; behind the prison-like walls are high-tech dorms filled with endless sorts of entertainment, a cafeteria serving unlimited treats, beautiful gardens, and all sorts of trouble-making gadgets. The school store (the Kommissary) sells a variety of gear, including bows and arrows, a tar-and-feather kit, Hydra Bombs, and flame starters and extinguishers. Students earn Kommissary credits through a complicated system of points: misdeeds are rewarded with demerits, good deed earn you gold stars. The trick is, it’s the demerits that are desirable, and the bigger the difference between your number of demerits and gold stars, the more credits you get toward stocking up on the weaponry of your choice.

Seamus is naturally baffled at first, particularly when Annika greets him enthusiastically and proclaims herself delighted to welcome Kilter’s first murderer. Seamus is assigned to room with Lemon, an arsonist who starts fires in his sleep. Seamus and Lemon begin to bond after Seamus sticks by Lemon despite a series of middle-of-the-night dorm room fires, and eventually they form an alliance with other students as well. Despite making friends, Seamus feels that he must hide the reason for his entry into Kilter from all others, believing (rightly, as it turns out) that his friends would turn against him if they knew what he’d done.

Students are referred to as Troublemakers, and the goal is to advance in trouble-making skills. As part of their studies, students are expected to “get” each of their teachers by pranking them in a way that demonstrates knowledge of that teacher’s field of expertise. Pranks include sniper-like attacks with paint ball guns, stealing items without being caught, staging fake fires, and unfortunate incidents involving bodily functions. First year students are assigned trouble-making specialties based on their perceived talents in a ritual quite reminiscent of a sorting at Hogwarts — minus the magical talking hat, of course.

Seamus is assigned into the Sniper Squad, and is soon in training with his tutor Ike on the advanced usage of arrows, metallic boomerangs, rifles, and anything else that can be aimed and thrown or fired. Seamus is determined not to harm anyone else, but finds himself at the top of his class as his skills cause him to successfully “get” more teachers than any other students.

Exhausted yet? I am. Now is probably a good time to recount all the little things that bothered me so much about this book:

1) It makes no sense. Not that I’m a stickler for reality — I appreciate a zany approach to kids’ books as much as the next fun-loving reader. Take, for example, the Wayside School books — clearly, a set of rules apply that don’t exist in real life, wacky things happen, and it’s all for fun. Here, in Merits of Mischief, the story is presented as taking place in an ordinary boy’s life, but the pieces don’t hold together. So Seamus is sent off to reform school one week after killing a teacher? What happened to the legal system? Was there a trial? Weren’t there any witnesses? Doesn’t the accidental nature of the incident come into play? And what about this reform school that the parents send Seamus to — didn’t they check it out at all?

2) Hold on, Seamus is assigned to share a dorm room with a kid WHO STARTS FIRES IN HIS SLEEP! Lemon has had something like 12 different roommates assigned to him, none of whom last more than a day (and a fire) before moving out. Somehow, it’s supposed to be a sign of Seamus’s loyalty that he sticks by Lemon, despite the fact that he almost chokes to death one night from smoke inhalation. Um, no. I don’t care how zany a school this is supposed to be — leaving a kid to burn to death isn’t a good idea.

3) The kids are rewarded for their bad behavior — but the behavior isn’t about solving mysteries or figuring out physical conundrums, a la Mysterious Benedict Society. Nope, Lemon the arsonist is assigned a tutor to teach him even more fire-starting skills. Seamus, the alleged killer, is assigned to become an even better sniper. No ultimate purpose is ever defined, other then teaching the students to become better troublemakers. What will they do with these skills? Are they being trained to join some sort of secret agent force? We don’t know.

4) The teachers show a remarkable lack of awareness or concern. When a girl is injured at the end of the book during a major trouble-making assignment, the teaching staff continue celebrating the success of the trouble-making and refuse to assist the girl, leaving it up to her friends to get her medical treatment.

5) Finally… the book is about a kid who KILLED A TEACHER! Although as an adult reading this book, I was pretty sure it would turn out that she wasn’t really dead, my son had no idea and spent the entire book rooting for a kid who KILLED A TEACHER. Sure, Seamus feels bad about what happened and writes unsendable emails to Ms. Parsippany expressing his regret — but in point of fact this is a kid who caused someone’s death and who then gets to attend a super-fun high tech academy where he’s expected to make trouble. It makes no sense.

We do find out – on the very last page — that Ms. Parsippany is in fact alive and well. Seamus receives an email from her (which, as my son pointed out, shouldn’t have been able to happen, as the book very clearly states that the email system only works within the Academy itself). Her email simply says that she just returned from vacation and received his emails (huh?), that she appreciates how he feels, and that she’d be happy to keep corresponding with him. And that’s it. No explanation. The end.

The Bad Apple is the first book in a projected Merits of Mischief series, and I assume that someone who keeps reading will eventually find out more about why the Academy exists, how parents can send their children to a school with no knowledge of what happens there, and how Seamus ends up punished (if you’d call it punishment) for a crime that never happened. As is, The Bad Apple answers none of these questions… and it’s not mysterious, it just feels like poor planning.

I found Merits of Mischief: The Bad Apple to be a poorly executed but presumably well-intentioned book for kids. It seems to aim for fun and adventure, in the spirit of The Mysterious Benedict Society, mixed in with the excitement of a boarding school for specially gifted children, perhaps akin to a Muggle Hogwarts — but it misses its mark by a mile.

I like to let my children find their own way through book likes and dislikes, and so I didn’t drop this book in the middle. However, I found the moral fuzziness at the heart of Merits of Mischief quite disturbing, and would be perfectly happy to not read any further in the series. Fortunately, book 2 doesn’t come out until sometime in 2013, and I’m assuming my kid will have moved onto other things by then.

All in all, while my son enjoyed the story, I’d mark Merits of Mischief with a big red “not recommended” sign. On to bigger and better, I hope!

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Merits of Mischief by T. R. Burns

  1. The book is a wild adventure that challenges a students critical thinking. Can the child your working with identify the moral controversy? And what is the point of the story? Addressing the point of the story, a boy does something very bad by accident but it doesn’t make him a bad person. He is put in a place where he is not only allowed to be a bad person but is also being trained to be a bad person. However, amidst all this, he keeps his conscience and his sense of morals. He makes friends with outcasts, challenging further the expectations and stereotypes of the society he is in. And in the end of the book when the girl is injured we see not only the main character reaching out to help, but also those who have been affected by his moral standing. The book is an analogy with an excellent point to make if you are willing to look through the unconventional packaging. I would defiantly recommend it for children who don’t particulrly enjoy reading or those who have a short attention span.

    • Well, I’m glad you enjoyed the book and found it meaningful! It most definitely did not work for me, but anything that gets kids reading is a step in the right direction.

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