The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

Gr 4—7—Three kids meet at a youth Scrabble tournament and help one another work through various issues. Nate has an overly competitive father, while April wants to get noticed by her sports-obsessed family. Duncan's situation is more complicated: he has the power to see things with his fingers, a potential secret weapon in Scrabble games. This fantastic element fits awkwardly into an otherwise realistic novel, and the fact that Duncan barely uses his talent for anything but Scrabble seems odd. The boy's eventual principled actions are offset by a dishonest ruse he uses, behind his mother's back, to get into the tournament. The narrative switches smoothly to capture the points of view and experiences of the three protagonists, although personalities and feelings are frequently spelled out rather than shown through action or dialogue. An anticlimactic attempt by a former player to sabotage the tournament fails to add much drama. Though Duncan is the only character with much depth, the other kids are likable and appealing, and the Scrabble background is neatly rendered in a way that even nonplaying kids can enjoy. The inclusion of tricky game strategies and insider terms like "vowel dumps" and "coffeehousing" bring the tournament scene to life, and the players all have different, believable reasons for their connection to the game. Consider for fans of "puzzle novels" Eric Berlin's "Winston Breen" books (Putnam) and Jody Feldman's The Gollywhopper Games (Greenwillow, 2008).—Steven Engelfried, Wilsonville Public Library, OR
Twelve-year-old Duncan's unexplained ability to read printed material by touch makes him good at cheating while picking Scrabble tiles. When he meets April and Nate at a Scrabble tournament, they all discover there is more at stake than their need to win. This story of unique friendships, with its mild supernatural bent, is entertaining and engaging.
The discovery of Duncan’s special “power,”the only magical detail in an otherwise realistic story, is an engaging start to this enjoyable, often humorous, read. Duncan’s moral dilemma is explored in a convincing way: though he tells schoolmates about his power in order to gain popularity, he struggles with his conscience about how he’s willing to use the power. It’s gratifying when Duncan has a chance to see if it is “actually useful”or “just some kind of cheater’s trick.” Kids will relate to the three main characters, twelve-year-old Duncan Dorfman, April Blunt, and Nate Saviano, who are all trying to find their own identities and acceptance within their respective family and/or school circumstances. Meg Wolitzer’s descriptions are memorable (the living room of Duncan’s great-aunt’s house is “squirrel-colored”; Carl Slater, a popular and mean kid, is “smart in the way that an animal in an Aesop’s fable is smart”; and a sign at a store named Thriftee Mike’s reads: “THIS COUNTER IS FOR CUSTOMERS WITH UNDER THRIFTEEN PURCHASES.”). It is clear that Wolitzer knows and loves Scrabble: rules, ter minology (such as “vowel dumps”and “bingo-bango-bongos”), anagrams, mnemonic devices, and word lists are all seamlessly incorporated into the story. Readers who aren’t already Scrabble fans may be fascinated with the game by book’s end.

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