“But sometimes your talent — your tiny, weird skill, or even your power, just has to get out.”
Just ask Duncan Dorfman, who has just moved to a new town with his mother. Fed up with bullies, loneliness, and money troubles, he reveals that his right hand can read words and drawings with his eyes closed. This catches the attention of Carl, leader of the school Scrabble club. Carl has plans for Duncan and the Scrabble tournament… And Duncan has plans of his own. But first he has to get there, which is more complicated than he thought.
April Blunt was born with her own power: spelling, which underwhelms her hyper athletic family. If she and her friend Lucy could win the Scrabble tournament, maybe her family would believe it was a sport and pay her some attention. And maybe she could find that boy she met by the swimming pool a few summers ago. But how?
Nate Saviano would rather skateboard with his friend Maxi, or even go to math class. Instead, he is inadequately homeschooled by his father, who drills Nate in Scrabble mercilessly because he can’t forget the tournament he lost over 20 years ago. If Nate could win the tournament, maybe he could be a kid again.
They need their wits for more than Scrabble, though, when worthy opponents include overprotective parents, shady strangers, and life-size alligators as well as their own insecurities. The writing is clever and occasionally sardonic — Carl is “smart in the way that an animal in an Aesop’s fable is smart.” April’s neglect is captured in one sentence, after she gets in a single remark edgewise about Scrabble: “Then, satisfied that they had given April enough time to talk about what interested her, they all began a discussion about the pros and cons of different brands of cleats.” There are some pretty tense dilemmas that rival the game itself, interspersed with humor and Scrabble tips. Word gamers and word people will appreciate their role in the plot as, together and in their own way, the characters try to “make it right.” Whatever that means…
Like Duncan, Ambrose needs a way away from bullies. So would you, if somebody almost killed you with a peanut. What could be wrong with learning Scrabble and self defense with the convict who lives upstairs? If you’re Ambrose – a preteen with a funny hat, an overwhelmed and overprotective mother and a mouth that has no filter – plenty. Like bricks, and girls, and unsaid thoughts. And the mysterious word UOME. Word Nerd plays with dilemmas similar and sometimes identical to those in The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, but with a less whimsical and much darker awkward humor. It’s funnier and more believable by virtue of its discomfort. Here again are Scrabble tips: Swear words count, and Word Nerd employs mild ones. Anything stronger is partially censored with a dash.
Word people may particularly like these novels, but in-depth appreciation of Scrabble isn’t necessary. Both books demonstrate that, more than two-letter wordlists or bingo-bango-bongos, what matters is making sense of the nonsense and luck you’re dealt.