The Homework Machine
Simon & Schuster, 2006 146 pages
Alternating points of view account the adventures of four fifth graders from Arizona's Grand Canyon country who develop a real homework machine. Sam, also known as Snik, befriends smart-kid and seatmate Brenton after Brenton reveals that he invented a homework machine. Two other seatmates, Judy and Kelsey are brought in on the secret and the four young people meet at Brenton's house to see the amazing machine in action. Brenton feeds his homework into a scanner, the computer reads the assignment and completes it using sources from the internet and then prints it out in his own writing. The handwriting of the other kids is added to the program and an unofficial after school club is born. Soon the kids fall into a routine of meeting at Brenton's house and completing their homework with the help of the computer they name Belch and before long they become reliant on it, as they form new friendships with each other. Meanwhile, Snik learns how to play chess from Brenton and bonds with his soldier father through the game. Snik's Dad gets sent to war in the middle east with tragically sad results. A mysterious stranger is stalking the "D Squad", as they become know as, and other students and teachers become suspicious. Finally, the jig is up and the crew knows they must delete the program, except Belch seems to have a mind of its own. How will they get out of this predicament?
I have been recommending this title and using it for book discussion for years. It is as universally perfect a children's book as you can get. Gutman offers a great concept, a racially diverse cast of characters made up of both boys and girls, an intriguing setting, a rapidly moving plot, and a little mystery all wrapped up in a perfect package composed of the perfect length for a children's book: 150 pages. There is something for everyone here and all readers seem to enjoy this story, including those of the reluctant variety. Gutman does a great job with the alternating points of view and gives each narrator a distinct voice. The name of who is speaking leads into their narration, further eliminating confusion. Gutman also manages to throw in some ethical questions. perfect for book discussion, such as the pros and cons of homework, the value of hands-on projects, what makes a good teacher, respecting the military while being against war, the awesome-ness of chess, the ethics of cheating, the importance of honesty and the true meaning of friendship and popularity. With so much going on you would think that this book would be frantic and disjointed, but this is not the case. The linear plot reaches a satisfying conclusion with all threads being wrapped up, including the identity of the stalker. All the characters leave the story older and wiser for the experience. Readers who enjoy this story can follow it up by cracking into the sequel The Return of the Homework Machine. A Homework Machine is every kid's fantasy and that alone makes this book a slam dunk with the intended audience.