For most of us, peanuts don’t usually conjure up thoughts of sickness and death, but for Ambrose Bukowski that’s all they have to offer. The main character of Susin Neilsen’s Word Nerd has a serious allergy, but his real problem is the fact that he’s so awkward. His classmates tease him nonstop for the way he acts, the way he dresses, and the things he says. When they hide a peanut in his sandwich at lunch, the hospital visit afterwards convinces his overprotective mother to homeschool Ambrose.
One day Ambrose meets his landlord’s son Cosmo, who just got out of prison. You might not think that a nerdy kid and a twenty-something ex-con would have anything in common, but the game of Scrabble works in mysterious ways.
Ambrose hates Cosmo’s smoking habit and tattoos, and Cosmo doesn’t want to be seen with Ambrose when he’s wearing his lucky purple pants. Still, these two unlikely friends try to make things better for themselves, the only way they know how. But how can they play together when Ambrose’s mom won’t let him near Cosmo? And why does a scary-looking guy named Silvio keep showing up in front of their house, asking for Cosmo?
Word Nerd might just be the most mature-minded children’s book I’ve ever read. Ambrose is only twelve, but this book deals with several serious issues, most notably bullying, drug addiction, and the death of a parent, in unflinching ways. Peppered with a bit of rough language, the publisher recommends the book for ages 9 and up, but I would raise that recommendation by a couple of years. This could just as easily be a young adult novel.
I would also advise parents to read along with their children so they can talk about the subjects and issues that might be confusing or troubling to them. Nielsen’s book is a terrific one and a solid readalike for the Joey Pigza
series by Jack Gantos (for younger readers) or for Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
(for the older set). All of these stories deal with young people managing serious issues with humor and heart.