June 25, 2009


Gifted, Book 1: Out of Sight, Out of Mind. By Marilyn Kaye. Kingfisher. $7.99.

Gifted, Book 2: Better Late Than Never. By Marilyn Kaye. Kingfisher. $7.99.

     Basic summer-reading-for-fun recipe for preteens and young teenagers: keep it light and maybe flirty, typecast characters so readers don’t need much brain power to figure out who behaves how, toss in some interpersonal drama, and if you really want to be trendy, add a dash of the supernatural. And there you have Gifted. Enough said.

     Well, not quite enough. Marilyn Kaye handles the formula with skill, using language transparent in its simplicity to advance plots that move quickly enough so readers ages 10-14 will be able to breeze through the Gifted books with barely a pause for some suntan lotion and a beachfront or poolside hookup or two. The underlying idea here is a clever one: what if “gifted” students weren’t necessarily smart but were actually, you know, gifted with unusual powers? What if Meadowbrook Middle School had nine of them, and all were thrown together into a special class to learn about their powers and how to control them, even though – outside the class – they have little in common with each other and don’t even necessarily like each other very much? What happens if you add a mind reader to a speaker-to-the-dead to a girl who can see the future?

     What happens is actually pretty predictable: everything gets tangled, confused and mixed up. But the “occult powers” gimmick keeps these books from being merely conflict-at-middle-school lightweights. Oh, they’re still lightweight, but with differences here and there. Out of Sight, Out of Mind focuses on Amanda Beeson, who is beautiful and popular and (what else?) the Queen Bee of the school. Her talent, if you can call it that, is jumping mentally into other people’s bodies: she’s a body snatcher. This is not necessarily a good thing, as Amanda discovers when she wakes up one morning to find that the face in her mirror belongs to Tracey Devon – an unpopular utter nobody with whom Amanda would not deign to associate. But now she is Tracey, and can’t wait not to be her anymore. “She’d thought of a way to occupy her time and actually do a good deed while she was here. (Not that good deeds were a habit with her, but she figured she might be rewarded for it by positive forces and get out of Tracey’s body even sooner.)” But nope, it doesn’t work like that, and soon enough, another of the Gifted, Jenna Kelly, figures out that the apparent Tracey is really “Little Miss I’m-Too-Cool-for-Words Amanda Beeson,” and things become even more complicated when it turns out that Tracey too is Gifted – she has the ability to become invisible. So where exactly is she while Amanda is in her body? And will Amanda learn empathy from temporarily being the sort of person she has always scorned? And what’s the deal with Serena Hancock, the new student teacher foisted on the Gifted class that has been firmly under the icy auspices of the woman known as Madame? All will eventually be revealed – well, not all, but enough to whet readers’ appetites for another volume in this series.

     And that volume is Better Late Than Never, where the focus turns to Jenna, the one who figured out that Amanda was in Tracey’s body. Jenna is the streetwise, hard-shelled rebel among the Gifted (Tracey, of course, is the mousy girl; and then there are future-seeing space cadet Emily Sanders, talk-to-the-dead handsome hottie Ken Preston, and so on). Actually, the focus here is on both Jenna and Tracey, who are evolving a friendship despite Tracey being ignored by almost everyone even when she is not invisible, and Jenna being the child of an absent father and a mother who is in and out of rehab. Emily’s prediction of a tall, handsome stranger entering Jenna’s life leads Jenna to wonder if maybe her father is about to come back: “An image flashed across her mind: a family, made up of a mother and a father and a daughter, living in a real house, having a normal life… [But] she was not optimistic by nature, and she wasn’t going to start looking on the bright side of everything now.” The pattern of these books is pretty clear by this second volume: the teens, despite their psychic powers, are going to turn out to be just plain folks with everyday worries and problems, and are going to learn to handle life partly by figuring out how to cope with their powers and partly by learning how to lean on each other. But their underlying personalities will keep peeking through – as when Amanda again takes over someone’s body in this book (on purpose this time). The phrase “if she’d known then what she knew now – about people and feelings” is applied here to one character, but is likely to be applicable to all the Gifted as the series continues, as it will after summer is over: the third volume is due out in October.

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