My library purchased this book when it was named a Cybils finalist in January this year. I was trying to read all the middle grade speculative fiction finalists, of course, as it was the first year in awhile I hadn’t been a panelist myself, only this one was checked out every time I looked for it in the winter. Then of course we were quarantined and the library was closed. When we reopened, I still had to put a hold on it to be able to get it. Well done on the kid appeal, Cybils team! (And you still have time to apply to be a Cybils panelist yourself!)
Homerooms & Hall Passes by Tom O’Donnell. HarperCollins, 2019. ISBN 978-0062872142. Read from library copy.
Homerooms and Hall Passes is not just the title of the book, but the name of the role-playing game that a group seasoned adventurers meets to play once a week, taking a break by joining to create the non-adventure of life as students at James Alexander Dewar Middle School (for the curious, the real-life inventor of the Twinkie.) The beginning of the book gives us the map of the school and their character sheets. (I am not a role-player myself, but have enough in the family to appreciate the jokes.)
As the book tells us, some of them are playing analogous characters, while some are playing characters quite the opposite of their own natural inclinations. Here they are: Devis the Thief plays Stinky the Class Clown; Vela the Valiant, a paladin, plays Valerie Stumpf-Turner, Overachiever; Sorrowshade the Gloom Elf plays Melisssa the Loner; and Thromdurr the Barbarian Berserker plays Doug the Nerd. Their game master is Albiorix, an apprentice wizard.
When Devis steals a jewel from a cursed cave, the whole crew finds themselves actually at J.A. Dewar Middle School, still in their normal adventurer clothing. All of them face challenges – none of them has actually studied algebra, for example, no matter how high their character sheets say their skills are. But Albiorix doesn’t even have a character to inhabit, and having read every supplement in the game won’t give him a student ID number or a place to sleep at night. Maybe, just maybe, he can convince another new student, June Westray, to help them out? (I will note that Albiorix, as shown on the cover, looks African-American, though of course he isn’t from America and his skin color affects neither his culture nor what happens to him in the story.)
The language here is delightfully epic, as in this example: “Yet that feeling of triumph was destined to be fleeting. As the bell rang, the five brave companions proceeded from the gymnasium to their most harrowing middle-school challenge yet: math class.”
And each chapter begins with an excerpt from one of the player handbooks like, “Table 106b: Random Middle School Locker Contents. To determine the contents of a student’s locker, roll five times on the following table:…”
Yet as the companions slowly get the hang of middle school, they still wonder if they can find a way back home, and if all of them want to. The emphasis is definitely more on the adventure than on well-rounded character arcs, but I did care what happened to our team. And it is absolutely hilarious, especially for those who enjoy role-playing games themselves.
Book 2, Heroes Level Up, will be out October 6, so now is the perfect time to read this one if you haven’t already!