Stack Overflow: Gaming the System

Reading Time: 8 minutesToday’s Stack Overflow has a mix of books: some are about or based on games, and some are about fighting the system. Some are a little bit of both.

The Terrible Two Get Worse

The Terrible Two Get Worse by Jory John and Mac Barnett (illustrated by Kevin Cornell)

This sequel to The Terrible Two (which was mentioned in this Stack Overflow) features the two biggest pranksters of Yawnee Valley—Miles and Niles—once again pulling pranks on their favorite target: Principal Barry Barkin. But when a prank goes too far and Barry is fired, the school ends up with another Principal Barkin—Barry’s father, who turns the school into a no-pranking zone. As the Terrible Two watch the numbers tick up on the new “It Has Been __ School Days Since Our Last Prank” sign, they begin to despair that Principal Barkin is indeed “Principal Invincible.”

This book is still funny and goofy, like the first, but it also felt a little more thoughtful, if a book that involves stinky cheese pranks can be said to be thoughtful. In this book, Miles and Niles aren’t just out to cause chaos or hilarity with their pranks—they’re actually fighting injustice.

Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics

Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein

This is a sequel to Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (reviewed here). Kyle Keeley and the rest of his team have been living it up since winning Mr. Lemoncello’s competition. But it’s not easy being on top: kids all over the nation are upset that they didn’t get a chance to compete, and everyone thinks they could do better. So Mr. Lemoncello announces a new competition, the Library Olympics, and Kyle’s team is invited back to defend their title. But that’s not the only challenge Kyle faces. Charles Chiltington is still sore about being disqualified from the original contest (for cheating), and at his behest, his mother forms the League of Concerned Library Lovers, who attempt to take all the silliness out of the Lemoncello Library once and for all.

Lemoncello is like a books-and-games version of Willy Wonka: a zany character who isn’t interested in following anyone else’s rules, but the members of the League of Concerned Library Lovers have some nasty tricks up their sleeves. The descriptions of the contests are silly and fun, and kids may enjoy this mix of games that require very different types of skills. The only thing that bothers me is that Mr. Lemoncello is supposed to be the creator of a bunch of world famous games—but when you read the descriptions of the games, they’re just copies of things like Taboo or Sorry. And some of the preliminary competitions (for kids who want to enter the Olympics) are riddles that are laughably easy: it would have been nice to include some original ideas or tricky puzzles. Still, it’s a fun story about a library-based competition.

Click Here to Start

Click Here to Start by Denis Markell

Ted Gerson loves escape room games. He’s a bit of a prodigy at them, and it’s a point of pride that he’s never had to resort to a walkthrough to beat one. When his great-uncle dies and bequeaths his junk-filled apartment (and a few cryptic clues) to him, Ted starts to feel like he’s in a real-life escape room game, following clues and adding things to his inventory to solve the puzzles that will lead to … what? Buried treasure? Some more junk? Ted teams up with his best friend Caleb and Isabel, a new kid whose dad wants her to make some friends before school starts—but at first she’d rather be reading, and Ted and Caleb feel a bit uncomfortable hanging out with her.

The relationships between Ted and Caleb and Isabel are a little stereotypical, but I do like that each of them brings their own strengths to the story, and the story comes to a fun conclusion. There is room for a sequel, perhaps, but not necessarily—a few of the mysteries aren’t totally explained by the end, but this particular story is wrapped up.

I really enjoyed this one, at least partly because I like escape room games myself. But it’s more than just a book about clever puzzles: you also learn a bit about World War II. Ted’s great-uncle was in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in the war, which was made up mostly of Japanese American soldiers–and that ties into a subplot involving the Monuments Men, those responsible for recovering artwork stolen by the Nazis (and sometimes subsequently acquired by Allied soldiers). Ted’s dad is an English professor, so there are also various literary references scattered throughout the book.

Both of my kids enjoyed it as well—they’re both into escape room games themselves, and I think that aspect really drew them into the story.

Josh Baxter Levels Up

Josh Baxter Levels Up by Gavin Brown

Josh Baxter is at yet another new middle school, where he manages to make an enemy on Day One. All he really wants to do is play videogames, but his mom has suspended privileges until he gets his grades up. So, naturally, he uses things he learned from his videogames and applies them to his own life … with mixed results. He does manage to make some friends and brings up his grades, but everything he does seems to make Henry Schmittendorf (aka The Mitten Monster) hate him just a little bit more.

The book is a fun read, with lots of references to gaming thrown in, and every chapter ends with a status update showing Josh’s current level, health, and new skills unlocked during that chapter. It’s a bit Scott Pilgrim-ish, but for middle schoolers. Sure, some of the characters are a little stereotypical (particularly Henry the bully) but we do get hints that there’s some more depth to each of them.

Genius: The Game

Genius: The Game by Leopoldo Gout

Rex is a Mexican American teenager and one of the best programmers in the world. Tunde is a young Nigerian who can build just about anything from parts he finds in the local junkyard. Painted Wolf is a Chinese activist (not her real name, of course) who exposes corruption on her blog. Together, they are the LODGE, well-known in certain circles for being able to solve just about any problem—which makes them shoo-ins for The Game, a worldwide competition set up by Kiran Biswas, the teenage CEO of OndScan, one of the most powerful tech companies in the world. Kiran claims that this is a competition that will “change the world.”

Brilliant young minds from across the globe have been invited to OndScan’s headquarters in Boston, where they will be given a series of challenges. The prize? Funding for a top-notch research lab anywhere in the world. Rex wants to get access to OndScan’s quantum computer, hoping to run his WALKABOUT program to find his missing brother. Tunde is under pressure to win the competition and build a powerful GPS jammer for a corrupt warlord who holds Tunde’s small village as a bargaining chip. And Painted Wolf has somehow attracted the personal attention of Kiran himself—does he know her real identity, and what is his real agenda behind this competition?

The book is a fun read: I enjoyed the international cast of characters and the way that real-world problems were pulled into the story, even while these kids are pulling off over-the-top exploits. Sure, a lot of the solutions are a bit hand-wavy, but no more so than your typical action thriller, and I liked the way the book switches perspectives between the three protagonists. However, I will warn you that the book kind of leaves you hanging at the end: it’s setting things up for more, so don’t expect all of the loose ends to be tied up just yet.

MARTians

MARTians by Blythe Woolston

Zoë Zindleman, aka “Last Girl,” has just graduated from high school a year and a half early. Well, so did everyone else in her class: “in the interest of efficiency,” the school is being shut down permanently, and the students will be referred to appropriate entry-level positions, most likely at AllMART or Q-MART.

In this dystopian young adult novel, the world is pretty much run by big-box stores, the suburbs are dying, and Zoë is running out of options. Her mom has moved away to seek a better life, leaving Zoë to fend for herself: wait for her house to be foreclosed (it’s been on the market forever, but nobody is moving into this neighborhood) or move into the Warren, a strip mall that has been turned into a refuge for other left-behind kids. Zoë’s story is almost Kafka-esque; the bureaucracy and consumer culture threaten to swallow her up—her employee nametag says “ZERO”—but she’s determined to find her own way out.

The book is depressingly familiar: our world is as terrible as this, but you echoes of our current consumer culture amplified and exaggerated in MARTians. Even as Zoë tries to navigate this strange new world, it’s hard to believe that she’s actually going to find a way out of it. Even if she escapes AllMART, where would she go? Q-MART is likely no different. It reminds me a little of Feed; it’s a cautionary tale, meant to keep us alert to where we might go and to remind us not to walk numbly through life.

How to Turn $100 Into $1,000,000

How to Turn $100 Into $1,000,000 by James McKenna and Jeannine Glista with Matt Fontaine

Okay, this isn’t technically gaming the system, but it is about learning how the system works. This book on finances, written for kids, starts with the audacious notion that you can become a millionaire—without resorting to some get-rich-quick schemes. It explains how to make short-term and long-term plans, how to set (and stick to) a budget, and the power of compound interest. It even touches on things like how to get a job (resumes, interviews) or start a business and the difference between a job and a career. There are explanations of taxes and investments, and a list of ways not to become a millionaire.

Honestly, it’s a book that I think would be great for a lot of adults, even though it’s written for a kid’s perspective: easy to understand, cute illustrations, and fun examples. I assigned my own kids to read it, because I think it’s a good foundation for understanding how money works and how to prepare for the future. So far the older daughter has read it. She said she was expecting it to be boring and only started it because I insisted, but once she started she actually thought it was really good, and has now been asking me questions about how to get a job or earn money so she can start putting some plans into action.

Disclosure: I received review copies of these titles.

Get the Official GeekDad Books!