________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 1 . . . . August 29, 2008

cover Word Nerd.

Susin Nielsen.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2008.
248 pp., hardcover, $20.99.
ISBN 978-0-88776-875-0.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Michelle Superle.

** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.


The weeks passed and suddenly it was the night before the tournament. My mind was full of words and my stomach was doing somersaults (maestros, masseurs, molasses, amulets, armless, assumes, ass). It was impossible to sleep. Finally, after tossing and turning till about three o’clock in the morning, I got up to grab a glass of water. My mom was sitting on the couch . . . I sat beside her. She was looking through our favorite photo album, the one with all the pictures of Dad.


It’s not often you find yourself unable to put down a story about a loser you’re not even sure you like. But Word Nerd by Susin Nielsen is one of those stories. This novel for nine to thirteen-year-olds opens up the world of competitive Scrabble through the eyes of the protagonist Ambrose, bona fide loser, aged twelve.

      With the unlikeliest material—a geeky board game, a geekier still barely-sympathetic protagonist, and a host of even less sympathetic secondary characters (Ambrose’s claustrophobically overprotective mother; their jailbird neighbour), and a plot that doesn’t sound like it would zing along (Ambrose transitions to homeschooling and gets involved in competitive Scrabble), Nielson somehow crafts a strangely compelling story. You want to dislike Ambrose, with his narrow interests (Scrabble), his dire peanut allergy, his social ineptitude, and his clingy relationship with his horrible mother, but you can’t. You don’t want to be interested in his boring little life, but you are. As you make your way through “just one more chapter,” the action picks up until Ambrose actually begins to do interesting things such as helping a former criminal rebuild a more balanced life, sneaking out to play Scrabble games, and finally taking a stand against his mother. By the end of Word Nerd, Ambrose has grown and changed in startling and unlikely ways, which constitute as big a surprise as the pleasure the novel provides for readers.

      If those readers happen to be word nerds themselves, they’ll enjoy this novel even more. Not only does Ambrose noodle and riff with words throughout the narrative, but each chapter is also headed by a handful of scrabbled-up words. The tricks are smugly clever, but they work.

      It’s not likely that every child will be compelled by Ambrose and his unadventures, but the ones who are will be in for a treat.


Michelle Superle teaches Children’s Literature, Composition, and Creative Writing at the University of the Fraser Valley.

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