Arthur Bean, the protagonist in this book, is a quirky, infuriatingly cocky 12-year-old who reckons he’s destined to be a famous, best-selling author and certainly doesn’t shy away from telling everyone so. When a short-story contest is announced, Arthur just knows he’s going to win. It’s great that his teacher Ms Whitehead allocates lovely Kennedy Laurel to be his creative writing partner for the contest, and he’s sure she’ll go out with him once she’s got rid of her current boyfriend. But then Ms Whitehead also insists Arthur is peer-tutor to his archenemy, the very stupid Robbie Zack, on their homework assignments. Forced to work together, Arthur and Robbie find they have things in common – Arthur’s mum has just died and Robbie’s has just left home, they’re both in love with Kennedy and desperate to play Romeo opposite her Juliet in the school production – and a grudging friendship develops.
The story is told through Arthur’s reading journal, his emails to and from friends, notes from teachers, homework assignments, and his and Robbie’s peer-tutoring progress reports, among other ways. While the short chunks of text will particularly appeal to reluctant readers and there’s a lot of humour in seeing all the very different points of view, this sometimes feels contrived: things are written down that would more naturally be conversations; few twelve-year-olds use email to communicate with friends (unless things are different in Canada where the book’s set); why doesn’t Robbie ever use spell check?
Clearly aimed at Wimpy Kid fans (there’s the inevitable comparison on the cover), this is an enjoyable, funny, light-hearted read. However, there are some surprisingly poignant moments, like Arthur’s contrasting Christmas tree stories. One describes his dad bringing the tree home that year but neither of them knew where the decorations were kept and it remained bare, slowly shedding its needles and blocking their view of the TV; the second describes the previous Christmas when his mother was still alive and they all decorated the tree to her singing, and she laughed and laughed when it fell over. There are some important messages – for instance while Robbie’s hopeless at writing and punctuation, Arthur has to admit he has much better ideas than him. Readers can also learn a lot about writing techniques from the assignments set, as well as the meaning of literary terms such as ‘ode’, ‘elegy’, and ‘acrostic poems’.