Disclaimer: I work in website development and possibly like many in my shoes, my rose-colored glasses melted in the Hunger Games dumpster fire that is the post-Recession American tech industry. As a result, I keep waiting for the day I get annoyed with the pervasive (though likely still necessary) STEAM in Kidlit trend.
The day I got the first book in the middle grade science fiction Elements of Genius series, NIKKI TESLA AND THE FERRET-PROOF DEATH RAY, was not going to be that day. And not just because the book is printed on graph paper, and that is even more awesome than it sounds.
Author Jess Keating of B IS FOR BLOBFISH and MY LIFE IS A ZOO fame returns with another promising quirky/brainy middle-grade series.
Nikki Tesla is fine without human friends, homeschooled and staying under the radar to avoid the spectre of her dad’s malicious suicide a few years ago. That is until Nikki’s BFF Pickles the ferret uses Nikki’s “death ray” (it’s a misnomer really) to burn a giant hole in the floor of the Teslas’ house.
To avoid prison time for her mom, Nikki takes a deal with some government agents to go to a boarding school called Genius Academy (think a sunnier version of X men + James Bond minus the casual misogyny and lame sophomoric puns).
Nikki – as well as the reader – is intrigued by her classmates at Genius Academy. From obvious historic geniuses like Mary Shelley and Wolfgang Mozart to more obscure ones like Grace O’Malley, Keating has taken some of history’s acclaimed geniuses and morphed them into an ethnically and gender-diverse crowd of present-day preteen prodigies, ranging from just-charming-enough to hilarious.
“My name is BERT, not Albert. Note the distinct lack of prunes in my diet.”
Nikki, who reads like a slightly cheerier and much more sensitive version of early 90s Darlene Connor (with about 50 more IQ points), is a relatable and engaging narrator. Her desire for the friendship of her classmates, plush budding crush on Leo (daVinci, not DiCaprio) is something a lot of smart kids (raises hand) will relate to.
When Nikki’s death ray is stolen from Genius Academy headquarters, she must learn to do the scariest thing of all – trust in her new friends – to keep an evil villain from destroying the world.
Despite the classic comic book storyline, NIKKI TESLA AND THE FERRET-PROOF DEATH RAY is a wild ride of twists, turns, and gotchas with science and history Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout and an unexpected meta-teach of the scientific method at the climax. I loved the backmatter encouraging kids to explore more about the real Nikola Tesla, whose legacy certainly doesn’t lack for intrigue.
With a mind-blowing cliffhanger at the end, I’m looking forward to the second Elements of Genius book.
Thank you Kidlit Exchange and Scholastic for the ARC, provided in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and various and sundry standard disclaimers.
NIKKI TESLA AND THE FERRET-PROOF DEATH RAY releases tomorrow, July 9 from Scholastic.