Video games are very real for tweens today. As a teenager forty years ago I tried to knock a white blip across the TV screen in a game called Pong. It was fun for about 30 minutes, but I never really thought I was playing table tennis. Now video games feature realistic graphics, complex story lines and internet-based game play. Video game players become immersed in alternative realities that closely emulate real world experiences.
That’s the premise behind The Nerdy Dozen, the first volume of a tween adventure series by rookie author Jeff Miller. And while this initial installment doesn’t exactly generate the all-time “high score,” it does provide an interesting foundation for future novels in a genre that should be popular with tween readers for years to come.
Series authors have to build “a world” in the first volume, and Miller builds his world around Neil Andertol. By day, Neil is a quiet, often-bullied middle schooler – a nice guy with not much to show for it. But by night, he’s “ManOfNeil,” video game player extraordinaire. Neil spends hours every night playing Chameleon, an ultra-realistic online combat flight simulator. In fact, Neil holds second place on the list of high scorers. Then one-day the government comes calling. Chameleon is really a top-secret new fighter jet. The real plane and crew are missing, and no other pilots have the training needed to rescue them. Of course, Neil is willing to help, and can’t wait to fly a real Chameleon jet.
That’s the first act, and it’s a good one. The second act is even better, as Neil meets eleven other high-scoring video game pilots. Miller does a good job introducing some memorable characters – all tweens, all a bit nerdy, and with one exception, all really nice. The group gets a few hours of military training, and the reader gets a chance to meet each character (including Neil’s nemesis Trevor.) But there’s no time to waste: a top-secret airplane and three pilots are missing. It’s up to the Nerdy Dozen to rescue them. As a reader, I’m ready for adventure!
Unfortunately, the second half of the book – the actual search-and-rescue – is a let-down. (Spoiler alert: skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know the whole story.) It turns out that the Chameleon was stolen by a reclusive, failed video game designer. He plans to sell the plane’s top-secret cloaking technology and use the money to buy-out all of the world’s video game companies. Then he’ll close the companies, forcing everyone to play his mediocre game (which is based on ostriches.) We’re not really sure how this mastermind forced the Chameleon to land on his private island, or why we needed even more Chameleon jets to rescue the first one. And wouldn’t it be easier just to make better video games? As far as evil geniuses go, this guy is neither.
The last chapter finds Neil safe at home. A top-secret envelope from NASA is left on the doorstep, paving the way for another Nerdy Dozen adventure.
So, the actual concept gets an A+, but the first adventure gets a C-. Miller is a solid writer and The Nerdy Dozen is frequently exciting, humorous, and fun! I’m hoping that future books in the series will feature more plausible plot lines, and not feel a need to pander needlessly to the video game crowd.
Tweens – especially those tasked with justifying video game play to the “older generation” – will appreciate the book, and those of us who grew up on Pong will appreciate the group’s teamwork, and their ability to turn-off the video game and function in the real world. Buy two or three copies for your school library, and include the series in your classroom library. Who knows? – you may have a “nerd” in your class who is just waiting for the government men in black suits to knock on his door.
Note: The Nerdy Dozen #2: Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind was released earlier this year, and The Nerdy Dozen #3: 20,000 Nerds Under the Sea is due out next month.