“THE TRIBE: HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS” (Book Review)
Spencer Pendleton is starting out at a new Junior High and now has to cope with all the miseries attached: cocky bullies, snobby princesses, crabby teachers, and flare-ups of his asthma. While struggling to fit in with his indifferent classmates, Spence attracts the notice of a very unique clique, former students who’ve slipped the noose of the school system by forming a stylized native gang, burrowing in behind the drab walls and acoustical ceiling tiles of their building and sourcing weapons from discarded detritus like middle school Mad Maxes. Now this clan of tween terrors wants a new recruit to share in their agenda of disruption and disobedience, and Spence must make the choice between accepting a numbingly normal scholastic career or seizing the chance to truly belong to something for once in his life.
Although Clay McLeod Chapman’s THE TRIBE: HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS (Hyperion) is intended for younger readers and holds no shortage of grue and of gross-outs (a pre-teen losing a segment of his finger to a radial saw is the most explicit of these events), this book shouldn’t be shelved next to more genre-specific spook fare for kids, such as the GOOSEBUMPS series or the mysteries of John Bellairs. HEADHUNTERS isn’t frightening, nor is it exactly striving to be. It’s more an adventure tale with a dark heart; pinning allusions to LORD OF THE FLIES and other literature of the wild spirit prominently onto sleeve. It also happens to come with more depth of theme, in questioning the interchangeable relationship between rebellion and conformity, than the majority of ostensibly “adult” novels with which this reviewer usually comes into contact.
Weighty though HEADHUNTERS may feel at times, Chapman couches the heady stuff with playing up to his young audiences’ splintered attention spans and taste for toilet humor. Food fights, spitball snipers, and a disgusting festival of bodily evacuation that caps off the book will cause chuckles for anyone unopposed to messy mayhem. Our smart-ass narrator Spence is an appealing, sympathetic character, and most importantly, he’s funny: Chapman gifts him with the quips and pressure-defying retorts of an action-movie hero. Good thing, as HEADHUNTERS is the first volume of a proposed trilogy and sequels are looming. There is a bit of a disconnect between the beginning of the book, which describes prankish shenanigans and classroom embarrassments that might have readers expecting another DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, and the later chapters veering off into some very serious and emotional material, especially in Spence’s deteriorating relationship with his Mother. That territory is perhaps a tad more than the frankly ridiculous premise of kids living and scavenging behind walls like full-grown BORROWERS can support, but it’s not from lack of trying on Chapman’s part.
Speedy, snappy and splattery (well, that’s mostly from firecrackers meeting frogs in chapter one) enough to hold the focus of young boys while carrying substance to satisfy any grown-ups that may have wandered in, HEADHUNTERS is the kind of quarry that’s definitely worth stalking at your local bookstore.