The Trouble With Mark Hopper
Written by Elissa Brent Weissman
Recommended Ages: 9-12
The Trouble With Mark Hopper is about two (very different) boys named Mark Geoffrey Hopper, and the intersection of their lives at the beginning of sixth grade. It's a middle grade novel with all the elements of a good story--mistaken identity, lots of comic twists and turns, great characters (who change and grow), strong tension and some underlying poignant moments.
The story takes place in a town called Greenburgh, where Mark Hopper has lived all of his life. He is the smartest kid entering the sixth grade, and he knows it. In fact, he's developed quite a reputation in the years leading up to middle school, arguing constantly with teachers about his grades (he believes he deserves 100% on everything) and talking incessantly about how smart he is to his peers. Understandably, he is not at all well liked by kids or adults. He lives with his mom and his equally obnoxious older sister Beth. His dad has just moved out.
Enter the new Mark Hopper who has just moved to Greenburgh with his mom, his older sister Beth, and his grandfather (his father has had to stay behind in their old town while he tries to sell their house and get a new job in Greenburgh). This Mark Hopper is pretty much the exact opposite of the other Mark Hopper: He's friendly, easygoing, a fairly average student and a fantastic artist.
The first few chapters are quite funny as they detail the chaos involved with registering the new Mark at his new school, which includes a mix-up with their schedules (honors classes vs. regular classes, band vs. art), and a fairly inept administration and computer system. Weissman does a very nice job developing each of the Mark's personalities. What is remarkable is that she never tells you which Mark she is talking about, it's always just "Mark," and yet you quickly figure out which one it is. It's very tightly written.
While The Trouble With Mark Hopper can best be described as a "school story," along the lines of Andrew Clements' stories, it has some really great moments in each of the boys' homes. In fact, it's through their home situations that you begin to understand why one Mark is so disagreeable and the other so wonderful. Smart Mark's father is really distant and unpleasant, while the other Mark's Grandpa Murray is a warm and memorable character. His relationship with his grandson is a pleasure to observe. In fact, it's the boys' relationships with their families where the story dips a little deeper; making each one a more fully developed three-dimensional character.
However, what makes this a page-turner for kids is what happens at school. The differences between the two Marks become evident right away. Artistic Mark goes about those first few weeks of school making friends, working hard in his classes and showing what a great artist he is. He decides to enter an art contest and paints a loving portrait of his Grandpa Murray, as a surprise for his birthday. The other Mark continues to be obnoxious, humiliating the new Mark in Honors Math by announcing his poor grade to the class. The teacher then assigns him to be Mark's tutor. It is during these tutoring sessions that they begin to get to know one another. Mark lets the other Mark know that he is aiming to win the Mastermind Tournament, something his father won three years in a row when he was in middle school. When he discovers that there is a newly added teamwork portion to the Tournament, he realizes that Mark might be able to help him out because he has done a lot of team building in his other school. Their math tutoring sessions turn into something more mutual. A twist to the story occurs when Smart Mark finds out that there’s an artistic element to the Tournament, and he decides to steal the Grandpa Murray painting and claim it as his.
You begin to see that there are a lot of things going on to hold a reader's interest. I think that 4th, 5th and 6th graders will be riveted as the story unfolds. It's a very good read with characters that kids will recognize from their daily lives. There are a lot of things to discuss, making this a good classroom read. Questions like "what makes a good friend?" or "what kind of role models do each of the boys have at home?" will generate lots of discussion. Weissman has created a story where the characters come alive, so that you genuinely care about them after you've read the last page. I would love to read a book about the Mark Hoppers in seventh grade!
BookNosher Tidbit: Scholastic Magazine recommended The Trouble With Mark Hopper as a best summer pick for new middle schoolers.