Title: Word Nerd
Author: Susin Nielsen
Genre: YA Realistic Fiction
Number of Pages: 258
Out of all the Susin Nielsen books I’ve read, I think this one might be my least favorite. Don’t get me wrong, I still liked it! She’s one of my favorite young adult authors and can do no wrong as I’m concerned. Word Nerd just felt a little more detached from reality as far as the situations the main character gets himself into. And the protagonist… grr… he made me mad. I actually don’t think that’s a bad thing, bullied nerdy kids can be assholes too!
When the book started, I thought he was going to be a sweetly awkward dork character like Stewart in We Are All Made of Molecules or Wilbur in Tremendous Things, but he showed his mean streak really fast. The protagonist is a pre-teen boy named Ambrose who lives with his overprotective and perpetually broke mother in the converted basement of a Greek couple. His dad died unexpectedly when his mom was pregnant with him, and he keenly feels that absence in his life.
He might be on the spectrum (there’s an allusion to this when where someone suggests he’s autistic and he retorts ‘Of course I’m not. I’ve watched Rain Man.) His mom decides to primarily teach him at home after an incident where a couple of bullies put a peanut in his sandwich to see if he’s lying about being deathly allergic. Ambrose is obsessed with Scrabble, hence the title. He’s good at it but not as good as he thinks he is. When his upstairs neighbors’ son Cosmo gets out of prison where he served time for a string of B&E’s, Ambrose’s mom warns not to go anywhere near the man.
Cosmo’s gruff demeanor (he thinks Ambrose is an annoying know-it-all… y’know, he might have a point there actually) softens as the discover they share a mutual interest in Scrabble. They join a team and Ambrose weaves a bigger and bigger web of lies for his mother, who wants to know his whereabouts at all times so she can protect him from a multitude of unseen dangers. Ambrose has had enough.
Which is understandable but the way he treats his mom is just horrible. I don’t condone child abuse but when he delivers that line about ‘dad being sad about what a bitter old bitch she had become’ and she slaps him- good on her! Naturally he thinks she’s the one who owes him an apology. I wish he had told her he was sorry and learned to be more respectful, instead of her just making allowances for him.
Sometimes the mom’s character felt believable and other times when the plot suddenly required it her (s)mothering became over-the-top. Considering she didn’t know Cosmo to begin with and to her he was just a guy who’d gone to prison and was suddenly spending a lot of time with her twelve-year-old son, her concerns were pretty justified in that area. Like all of Susin Nielsen’s books, Word Nerd is full of quirky characters and situations but has also has a lot of heart and some serious themes. It feels lighter than most of her books (The Reluctant Diary of Henry K. Larsen and Optimists Die First are probably the most serious) but it takes its young protagonist’s struggles seriously. I might not have always liked Ambrose, but I thoroughly enjoyed his snarky, socially awkward, and complicated voice.