Pitch shook her head in amazement. "Is it just me, or is this place even weirder than our last school?"—Gordon Korman, Framed
"I have a prescription ferret," Ben said with a sigh. "I'm not a good judge of weird."
Gordon Korman and I go way back. I was in my early teens when I got his book A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag out of my older sister’s room. I quickly got hooked on his hilarious prose and zany, Rube-Goldberg-esque plots, and it wasn’t long before I’d amassed my own collection of his novels for teens and preteens.
The prolific Korman is still turning out books for this market, including both series and standalones. One of his most recent series, just completed a few months ago, is the four-volume Swindle series for middle-schoolers. These books focus on a group of kids (they move up from elementary to middle school partway through the series) who keep finding themselves involved in elaborate schemes—always in a good cause, of course.
In the first book, Swindle, Griffin Bing—also known to his friends as The Man With The Plan—discovers a Babe Ruth baseball card that he sells to a local collectibles dealer, S. Wendell Palomino, for $120, after the man convinces him that it’s only a knockoff. Then Griffin sees Palomino on the news, bragging about the newly acquired card, which he’s now claiming could bring in more than a million dollars. (As Griffin’s best friend, Ben, points out, they should never have trusted someone whose name, S. Wendell, sounds so much like “Swindle.”)
When Griffin confronts him, Palomino brushes him off: “A word to the wise: The world is a big fat scary place filled with people who’ll chew you up and spit you out if you give them half a chance. Consider this your first life lesson.”
But Griffin’s family is in financial trouble, and he’s not about to let it go at that. With help from Ben, Griffin puts together a team of kids from their class to help get the card back.
The resulting caper plays out like an old-fashioned heist comedy, in the tradition of The Sting or Ocean’s Eleven. Each kid on the team has a special skill: Melissa is a computer genius, “Pitch” is a climber, Logan is an actor, and Savannah has a gift for taming animals. Ben, with his small stature, can fit into tight spaces—and Griffin, of course, comes up with The Plan.
The ethics of the operation, of course, are debatable. Griffin and Ben discuss them as follows:
“A robbery? That’s stealing!”As it turns out, the police do get involved when things don’t go quite as planned. And Griffin’s parents. And the parents of the other kids. And suddenly, The Man With The Plan has to give some serious thought to the consequences of his actions.
“Not stealing,” Griffin amended. “Stealing back. There’s a big difference.”
“Are the police going to think so?”
“What would the police think about a store owner who rips kids off?” Griffin challenged.
A strong point in the series, as in many of Korman’s other books, is that adults aren’t stereotyped or lumped all together. There are bad adults like “Swindle” Palomino, and the pet-stealing Mr. Nastase in Zoobreak—the kind of adults that make it necessary for the kids to put together a plan and try to set things right. But there are a lot of good and likeable adults as well. While Griffin and his friends usually find themselves having to do an end run around the adults in their lives, in order to achieve their own Robin-Hood-like brand of justice, they genuinely love their parents, and their parents genuinely love them and want what’s best for them. And pretty often, even when a strong dose of parental discipline has been necessary, they all end up on the same side.
It’s not giving too much away to say that things work out in the end. In a Korman novel, things generally do work out in the end (except, perhaps, in his trilogy about the Titanic). Things follow a similar pattern in the next three books in the series, Zoobreak, Framed, and Showoff: crazily elaborate plots, a strong focus on friendship and family, and plenty of Korman’s trademark off-the-wall humor and quirky characters. (The misanthropic Russian dog trainer in Showoff, who addresses Savannah's dog as "my brother," is a comic creation not to be missed.) By the time Ben is regularly carrying around a ferret in his shirt to ward off narcolepsy, and Griffin, Logan, and Melissa have managed among them to spray-paint an entire dog show green, the wild and wacky has come to seem almost normal.
Parents should probably be aware of the element of “the end justifies the means” in Griffin’s approach to life. But I wouldn’t be too worried that readers might be inclined to follow in these kids’ footsteps. For one thing, the sheer magnitude of their schemes and the effort required to pull them off sound too exhausting for anyone to want to emulate. Also, as in many heist stories, the tone is almost that of a comic fantasy—rather like something out of Calvin and Hobbes. As with that classic comic strip, young readers are likely to read Korman’s books for the fun of the thing, and not to be influenced by Griffin’s sometimes dubious ethical code.
Then again, I never did give my sister back that book I swiped. . . .
Image copyright Scholastic. Review copies obtained from the reviewer's local library system.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.