60 pages • 2 hours readChris Tebbetts, James Patterson, Illustr. Laura Park
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Middle School, the Worst Years of My Life, published in 2012, is the first of the 15 mid-grade novels in the Middle School series, which includes several New York Times bestsellers. James Patterson is the originator of the series and co-author of each book. Chris Tebbetts, Patterson’s collaborator for this title, has also penned several other mid-grade book serials. The book is profusely illustrated with cartoon drawings by Laura Park. The plot of this coming-of-age graphic story concerns the travails of Rafe Khatchadorian, the narrator and main character, as he attempts to acclimate to the sixth grade. Complicating his life are encounters with a vicious bully, his attraction to a very popular girl, his mother’s brutish live-in fiancé, and the extensive middle school code of conduct rules he suddenly feels compelled to break. His only friend, Leo the Silent, encourages him, though not always, to do the right thing. The novel became a 2016 motion picture of the same name. While the book was originally published with a hardcover in 2011, the Hachette Book Group 2012 paperback version is referenced here.
Content Warning: The book contains one reference to an incident of domestic violence.
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Rafe Khatchadorian, the first-person narrator, begins with a preview of what will happen, providing an image of himself, his nine-year-old sister Georgia, and his only friend, Leo the Silent, riding in the backseat of a police car. Rafe speaks directly to his readers, explaining he is about to enter the sixth-grade year. Rafe describes Hills Valley Middle School (HVMS) as an old building that now serves as a penitentiary for kids. He introduces several of the novel’s important characters, including the principal, Mr. Dwight; the assistant principal, Mrs. Stricker; and his English teacher, Mrs. Donatello, whom he calls “the Dragon Lady.” In his first-period class, Rafe encounters the school’s chief bully, “Miller the Killer.” Two more significant things happen on his first day. First, he sees the popular and pretty Jeanne Galletta, immediately falling for her. Second, Leo encourages Rafe to begin Operation R.A.F.E., an acronym for “Rules Aren’t For Everybody.” He decides to break every single rule in the code of conduct. He begins by leaving the assembly and pulling the fire alarm.
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At home, Rafe encounters Carl, his mother’s live-in fiancé. Rafe calls Carl “Bear” because of his appearance and attitude. In sequential cartoons, Rafe illustrates the furnishings and toys he wishes he had in his room compared to the little he actually does have. Jules, his mother, works double shifts to keep the household afloat financially. She makes breakfast on the second morning of school and asks how the first day went.
After a week of minor mischief, Leo tells Rafe he must start breaking significant rules. Rafe responds by disrupting Mrs. Donatello’s English class with his own Shakespearian stanza, delighting his classmates—including Jeanne Galletta.
Rafe decides to institute the No Hurt Rule, meaning he alone must bear the risk of injury or punishment resulting from Operation R.A.F.E. His project begins to attract the attention of others, as Vice Principal Stricker leaves a voice mail—which Rafe erases—about his behavior. Miller threatens Rafe for trying to be a bad boy.
In detention on Wednesday, Mrs. Donatello arranges to speak with Rafe alone in an attempt to understand his motivations. Jules discovers that Rafe erased Stricker’s message and confronts him. She asks if he has been speaking to Leo again, which Rafe denies. When Rafe talks to Leo, it comes to light that Leo is imaginary.
Rafe gets even for Bear’s churlish behavior by stealing his Zoom colas and selling them out of his HVMS locker. Jeanne surprises Rafe by asking why he misbehaves. He explains Operation R.A.F.E. and emphasizes the No Hurt Rule.
For Halloween, Rafe stealthily puts on a hooded ninja costume and dashes through the HVMS hallways until Mrs. Stricker tells him to take off the outfit. Pulling off the ninja suit, Rafe runs off in only his underwear, which lands him in the principal’s office. Encountering Jeanne afterward, Rafe inadvertently refers to her student council speech of two months prior, revealing that he has a crush on her and embarrassing himself profoundly.
Several days later, when Jules takes Rafe and Georgia to Swifty’s Diner, where she is a server, Georgia blurts out that Rafe ran naked at HVMS. Rafe apologizes sincerely and promises to start being good. Over Leo’s objection, Rafe temporarily shuts down Operation R.A.F.E.
Even though he receives compliments for behaving nicely, Rafe discovers he is still unhappy. Miller, who bullied Rafe for trying to be naughty, now bullies him for trying to be good. Miller steals Rafe’s Operation R.A.F.E. notebook and forces him to buy it back one page at a time. To make money, Rafe resumes selling Zoom out of his locker.
During the holiday season, Rafe helps Jeanne with a fundraiser. Afterward, she humiliates him by refusing his request to have pizza together. He gets his second-quarter grades, which are terrible. He burns the report card along with a letter requesting a conference. When his mother finds his grades on the HVMS website, she authorizes Bear to check his homework daily, causing Rafe to lose trust in his mother.
In a dispute over the notebook, Rafe climbs on Miller’s back, and Mrs. Stricker stops their fight. Rafe ends up in Stricker’s office with his mother. He learns he will have tutoring with Mrs. Donatello and also peer tutoring weekly with Jeanne. With Leo’s encouragement, Rafe resumes Operation R.A.F.E., hoping at least to have fun while misbehaving.
Rafe prints 100 copies of a picture he drew of Miller as a chicken laying an egg, and then convinces Miller he did not create it. Eventually, he sells enough Zoom to buy back his notebook. Rafe conceives of a final Operation R.A.F.E. project and procures the supplies for it.
In a tutoring session, Jeanne points out that Rafe’s unimproved third-quarter grades might cause him to repeat sixth grade. Devastated, Rafe flees to the boys’ restroom. Jeanne follows. Mrs. Stricker confronts them in the restroom. Jeanne gets detention for the first time. Feeling guilty, Rafe runs into the girls’ restroom to draw another detention for himself, and then shuts down Operation R.A.F.E. because he violated the No Hurt Rule.
Leo convinces Rafe he has nothing left to lose and thus must go through with his final project. Rising at 4am, Rafe creates a mural on a blank HVMS exterior wall. He draws himself as a knight battling the monsters who are the school’s administrators and teachers. The police arrive and take him home. Exiled to his room, he wonders if expulsion is inevitable. After a package arrives on his doorstep that night containing photocopies Miller made of Rafe’s notebook, Rafe hears Jules and Bear arguing outside and realizes something bad has happened. He finds that Bear pushed Jules off the front steps. Rafe stands by his mother and tells Georgia to call 911. One police car takes Bear away, while a second, with the children, follows the ambulance that takes Jules to have her wrist X-rayed. Once home, Rafe cries uncontrollably.
The next day when Jules and Rafe enter the school for a conference, Miller taunts him, and Rafe attacks the bully. After the fight, sitting with Jules, Mr. Dwight, and Mrs. Stricker, Rafe learns the school will expel him. Mrs. Donatello barges into the meeting to suggest that Rafe receive the opportunity to enter Airbrook School, an arts-based middle school for non-traditional learners. Jules reveals the drawings from Rafe’s notebook, which will become the basis for his portfolio. She explains that Rafe had a twin brother, Leonardo, who died from meningitis at age three.
He concludes the narrative by explaining that he must take summer school classes and is very bored by going to work with his mom every day. However, he conceived a new project: writing this book that the reader just finished.
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