A good reviewer always emphasizes positive aspects of a novel before the negative. However, I'm reversing the order this time because "The Weirdo" has such wonderful possibilities as a required reading book.
I am a generous star-giver, mainly because I rate a book based on its genre and type of book. I don't compare a young adult book with literary classics. I don't compare a thriller with a reflective thematic book. I wanted to give "The Weirdo" five stars, but the book has three problems.
The minor problem first: I don't like the title. Once we know "the weirdo," a severely disfigured teenager, burned in an airplane crash, the title loses its fear factor, which is never a problem for the other major character, Samantha (Sam) Sanders. The second problem--and a major one--is time sequencing. When the "kid reviewers" say the story is confusing, they are right. As an experienced reader (English teacher and librarian), I was confused, especially concerning the pivotal night-in-the-swamp episode. This time-line problem is caused by the writer's alternating narrative chapters by the Chip Clewt (the "weirdo") and Sam. The problem arises when Taylor merges them toward the end, making the time sequence for that important night episode confusing.
The third problem concerns "boring" as reported by "kid reviewers." Again, they are right. Halfway through, I set aside the book and read two others. When I picked this one up again, the pace picked up and the story went faster (also reported by "kid reviewers"). What causes "boring" are some chapters by Chip, written as beautiful college journal entries, which describe various aspects of the swamp. They really are a necessary part of plot and character development to show Chip's dedication to preservation of this beauty.
As for the positive points: What I want to emphasize is the book's important value as an addition to the young adult genre and ecological impact. The setting is the Dismal Swamp, National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, here called the Powhatan Swamp. In fact, the University of North Carolina, in conjunction with public schools, created a middle school resource unit, using "The Weirdo" as the central focus of a multi-disciplinary study. See Comment below for more information.
The two stories are rich in possibilities for teaching this novel. Sam's story takes place outside the refuge and involves suspense, mystery, and her father, who is a hunter for both pleasure and food. Chip's story is set inside the refuge and involves professional bear tagging for the local university, his isolation because of disfiguring injuries, and his opposition to lifting the ban against hunting in the refuge.
What ties the two stories together are an old murder, a missing person, and the potential lifting of the hunting ban. The most beautiful part of the novel is the developing relationship between Sam and Chip. That alone makes this novel worthy of being read.
All the positive aspects of this novel far outweigh the negative. In fact, "The Weirdo" is the required novel for summer reading for our incoming 8th grade class. My innovative, research-based principal and a former science teacher personally picked this novel because of the teaching unit mentioned earlier. Here in our corner of Louisiana we also have a national wildlife refuge, which is available to schools for field trips and guided nature walks. It will be incorporated into the unit.
This review is dedicated to the middle school teacher. Please read this novel. Think collaboration. Think possibilities.