The Homework Machine

by Dan Gutman (2006)

Dan Gutman is one prolific guy. He’s written, well, too many books to count. He’s one of the most popular and read authors by American children in the 21st century. From school to series to historical fiction, you’ll find a Dan Gutman novel in backpacks in every classroom in America.

What makes a Dan Gutman novel tick? He can really write. Quick, crisp, clear, funny, memorable, and suspenseful. With well drawn, distinguished characters he knows how to show, not tell. He knows how to keep you guessing and make you care. And he really makes you want to read the next chapter.

The Homework Machine, our first Gutman offering, is a perfect example. Four kids in 5th grade – stuck together as the D Squad. A ne’er-do-well (Sam), a goody goody (Judy), an apathetic girl (Kelsey), and a brainiac (Brenton). How will they get along? With the Homework Machine, of course. A solution – and a problem – that catapults the plot forward.

Gutman is a genius in how he frames and tells his story. He has each of these four characters (and a handful) of others tell the story in retrospect – filling in gaps and coloring in moments and slowly revealing and explaining their emotions – in quick usually one paragraphs excerpts. It sounds unusual but it is easy to understand, even easier to care and follow, and works so briskly you will struggle to maintain a One School, One Book three-week pace. (That is, of course, a good problem to have – when you’ve chosen a book that families want to read faster than the assigned pace.)

The Homework Machine is engaging and winning, funny and moving. Gutman can really turn a phrase that resonates with kids: “Homework is like a punishment you get for just being a kid;” “Pink hair. Blue hair. It doesn’t matter to me;” chess is “a lot like war, but in slow motion;” “I can make mistakes just fine on my own;” “It was a lose-lose situation.”

And Gutman excels at how his characters slowly come to pick up on subtle differences and understand each other better. It works because of his deft hand writing each character in the first person. It may be a set up for these four characters to end up liking and appreciating each other. But Gutman pulls it off convincingly. The Homework Machine is not just played for laughs. It’s a source of wisdom and a catalyst for actual self-understanding. Isn’t that what children’s literature is for?