In the opening scene of Jess Keating’s new middle-grade series, Elements of Genius, Nikki Tesla’s pet ferret sets off Nikki’s fully functional death ray. The child prodigy and her ferret survive, but Nikki’s bedroom doesn’t, and she is shipped off to a secret school – the Genius Academy – where she joins six other children whose brilliance matches her own. Almost immediately, a villain steals her death-ray invention, and socially awkward Nikki has to find a way to work with her fellow students to retrieve it.
The seven main characters are all based on outstanding figures from history: “Bert” Einstein is a whiz at physics; “Mo” Mozart excels at music and math; Mary Shelley is a master storyteller; “Charlie” Darwin offers a naturalist’s perspective; Grace O’Malley has a pirate’s confidence and magnetism; and “Leo” da Vinci can do just about anything. Ostracized and bullied in ordinary schools, this crew flourishes at the Genius Academy, where their individuality and talents are encouraged.
Keating, author of the popular My Life Is a Zoo series, packs the book with adventure, suspense, and witty references to popular culture, history, science, and literature – all the while exploring familiar dilemmas for this age: How do I fit in? What makes me special?
The novel does have storylines running in all directions and a few too many geniuses, brilliant ideas, and snappy comebacks. Also, not all of the main characters are fully developed, and this occasionally makes it difficult for the reader to keep track of which genius is which.
However, the book’s strengths far outweigh its flaws. Lissy Marlin’s amusing illustrations add another layer of humour and information to a lively story that encourages creative thinking and celebrates knowledge as power. Keating’s new series promises to be smart, engaging and hilarious.