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For Readers Age approx. 14+
Grades 10+

Steel Trapp: The Academy - Review
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Publisher's Summary:

Pearson, Ridley. (2010). Steel Trapp: The Academy. New York, NY: Disney Hyperion Books. ISBN 978-1-4231-1532-8 . Publisher age 10-12. age recommended: 14+

Publisher's Description: Steven "Steel" Steel has been placed in an East Coast boarding school for gifted kids by his FBI agent father. He soon discovers that there’s a clubby element of the faculty and upper classmen that is very secretive and protective. To his surprise, his friend Kaileigh arrives to board at the school and it isn’t long before the two realize that this is not your normal boarding school. It seems a select few students are recruited, while still minors, to serve as special "translators" for the US Government. People—including diplomats and dignitaries—will say things around kids that they wouldn't otherwise dare speak outside of embassies. The willing student "agent" takes a semester abroad and ends up spying for his country. But there are dark elements at play at the school. Foreign agents may have penetrated the school's secrecy and may have sleepers in place: kids spying on future kid spies. There is conspiracy and competition among the elite faculty that threatens security. As Steel and Kaileigh are recruited for their first test run  of trying to break a ring of pickpockets in a Boston hotel—things go impossibly wrong. Betrayal and conspiracy cloud what should have been a straightforward assignment. And all too soon, their very lives are in danger.


Respect for self and others: This includes integrity (adherence to a code of conduct or value system), honesty vs. manipulation or lying, compassion, caring for others (characters not focused on getting their way no matter what) self respect--main character does not let others denigrate him or her; use of self control and self-discipline ; taking charge of own behaviour; fairness to others (such as taking turns and avoiding the blame game). Reader should ask themselves “How does the protagonist depict their peers?” “Would you want others to treat you this way? Should everyone act this way?” This includes true friendships that do not involve regular lying, deceit or manipulation; considering consequences of actions prior to acting; owning up to responsibility once an action has been taken.

Steel, the protagonist in this story, demonstrates good character throughout.  He approaches his work with honesty, even worrying about stealing near the end of the adventure. His reason for investigating the secret activities on campus are based upon his concern that a plot is being hatched that could harm the school or community; he is selflessly interested in protecting humanity. Throughout the story, he demonstrates wisdom and choices made through a desire to accomplish good, and is not brought down by Kaileigh’s own weakness and constant self-preservation first attitude.  We cringe when Kaileigh mishandles the first interrogation by Randolph and are relieved that Steel responds wisely.

Kaileigh’s character is disappointingly lacking in ethical strength and wisdom; it would have been more powerful had this duo of protagonists faced ethical challenges and equally overcame them, both growing in moral character and wisdom. She also has less self-discipline than Steel and is stereotypically more reactive or exhibiting less self-control, which seems to mirror the poor images of female protagonists fed to children in other forms of entertainment (as seen in cable TV, movies, gaming). Her character’s purpose seems foremost to be to create sexual tension with Steel; thus an opportunity was missed to create a meaningful character of depth in  whom readers could see themselves succeeding through virtuous behaviour and growing through moral challenges. 

The two protagonists do also recognize strengths in peers. Rather than glorifying Penny’s hacking escapades, it is pointed out as “...pretty cool. Just that he could do something like that”.  The illegal act is not glorified but, rather, the boy’s strengths are appreciated and put to use.  

“Seeing his predicament as opportunity instead of challenge” demonstrates the subtle way in which the author has created a protagonist (Steel) who is optimistic and collaborative. 

As their friendship transforms to a relationship, Kaileigh responds with stereotypical “flighty” female behaviour. Steel, rather that react to it, attempts to understand it.

Portrayal of Authority figures: The positive portrayal of parents, teachers, police officers and other “good” authority figures common in a child’s life is a positive influence upon the child’s own moral development. This includes actively-parenting mother and father figures. Minimization of parental involvement in the character’s activities or the portrayal of authority figures as inferior present poor role models. Also to be avoided are main characters that deceive parents and teachers to accomplish goals, and overuse sarcasm towards authority figures. Ask yourself “Are parents seen as positive or negative influence in the character's life?”

Authority figures are treated realistically while respectfully. A clear picture of each is painted for the reader but never denigrated. Lack of parental authority in Kaileigh’s life is presented in a manner that helps the reader understand this character rather than in a manner denigrating her parents.  Similarly, Steel’s perception of his parents is typical of a 14 year old boy without being degrading or disrespectful, allowing the father’s true character to be filled in at story’s end. Thus we see two kids with a desire for their parent’s love and attention, and Steel receiving it. Mirroring this is the homeless boy, Taddler’s, longing for a parent figure in Mrs. D.  

Body guards, police, faculty and staff, security and other authority figures (this story has lots of them!) are positively portrayed as competent challengers for the kids to outsmart rather than bumbling fools for them to manipulate.

Citizenship and Patriotism: Loyalty to family, team or group, school, community and world; caring for and being considerate of these groups. Pride to be part of that group or nationality.

The secretive nature of the academy coupled with Steel still recovering from learning his dad was an FBI agent, sets a background for a complex web of loyalties. Steel must uncover what those loyalties are and determine which are good and which are bad. There is heritage as his father is an alum of the school, school heritage as it is very old with a longstanding history, and secret societies of alliances. We see through his eyes as he uncovers bits and pieces of these alliances to fill in the puzzle, after which he must then determine the good guys from the bad.  Meanwhile, school pride particularly with teams and clubs is strong, and it is the culture of the school to join in that pride rather than be counter to it. As such, all aspects of group affiliation are typical and the protagonists choose healthy affiliations for the purpose of doing “the right thing”. 

The story has an underlying theme of family as Steel’s family bonds are contrasted with Kaileigh’s lack of bonds, further contrasted with Taddler’s lack of family altogether. While undercover at the homeless shelter, he shows compassion as he wonders that “the worst part of being homeless is not being poor but being separated from your family” and also feels empathy for Kaileigh’s situation too.  Kaileigh is the stereotypical “rich kid” whose parents are never home (although it is hinted they might be spies rather than jetsetters) and she is raised by a nanny, longing for her parent’s attention. Her character aspires to do the right thing but backs away from it in self-preservation, demonstrating the character weaknesses that evolved from the lack of strong family foundation. This is contrasted well with Steel, who always makes the better choice and (in spite of a father who was away on “business” much of the time) has healthy family support mentoring his character. We see the loyalty to his family, and particularly his father, then grow and mature at the end of the story.  

Simultaneously we see a mock family created amongst the homeless boys sheltered by Mrs. D. The emptiness of this “family” vs. the real family relations of Steel’s is contrasted well.

Justice and Balance: A just distribution between good and evil (with good outweighing evil in the presence of the storyline); demonstration of right and wrong; making decisions to enact the above values rather than simply choosing from two bad possibilities; Ask yourself “Is the emphasis on the positive elements or negative?”

There is a very strong demonstration of Good always prevailing over Evil. We are presented with contrasts within the academy (Steel & Kaileigh vs. the secret societies they discover) and outside (compared to the homeless boys) in a manner that we understand the mindset of each while still unable to be sure of “good guys vs. bad guys” until the end.  Thus the author is able to maintain the suspense and adventure without resorting to underlying dark themes or glorifying the bad guys.  While Kaileigh leans towards self-serving decisions, Steel always takes the “high road” and leads with wisdom in spite of her being the more dominant personality.

Aesthetic aspects Of life ExperienceLook for a storyline portrayal of beauty, health, and selfless love vs. hedonistic behaviours (sexuality, selfishness, obsessiveness, materialism), profanity, gore and violence. Are nature and environment respected or exploited? Look for dark elements; watch out for humor that is negative, denigrates others excessively, uses metaphors to denigrate the sacred.

Physical description of settings is sufficiently vivid to provide a richness to each scene in the story, particularly important since the Academy has a long past and heritage.  There is quite a lot of action without unnecessary violence or gore weakening it, thus maintaining strength in suspense.   

The school’s history includes religion, and this history as well as the chapel itself is treated respectfully in author description and character self-talk, such as “there was a reverence to the place...” (p. 150). 

Sometimes the beauty in a story is in what it lacks. Due to the academy setting of upper class “men” and “women” (juniors and seniors) having seniority over underclassmen, a strong subculture exists of power and bullying. However, it is not dwelt upon but rather mentioned just often enough to put the protagonists’ frame of mind into place.  As such, there is no name calling or denigrating of others.

Other things to Consider:Other aspects of this book of interest or importance. For example, does it portray Wiccan practices and accurate use of tools of which some parents might object, does it contain hidden meanings in metaphors that may prove offensive to some families; does it address personal issues such as puberty or pregnancy.

Sexuality:  Parents are reminded that the rule of thumb with children’s literature is the age of the characters should align with the age of the reader. The characters in this story are all 14-18 year old high school teens engaging in bullying and sexually-based “teasing” of that age. With that view, the author portrays well Steel’s confusion as he has his first crush, the awkward moments, misunderstanding of Kaileigh’s changed behaviour towards him, etc. His character reacts by trying to understand his own feelings as well as her behaviour, rather than reacting with any meanness on his own part.  His self-talk is sufficient description to allow the reader to empathize and understand what he is going through without unnecessary description or inappropriate behaviours. 

On the other hand, Kaileigh is portrayed as a somewhat dominating female who from the beginning of the story decides that their exit strategy is kissing (“making out”), a strategy they engage in twice.  Her verbal and physical teasing behaviour may be unfortunately typical of teen girls today (such as intentionally stretching over Steel on the bus to see out the window with Steel “apparently not noticing she was lying on him”), however there is no opportunity created in the story for her to learn how to express and develop her feelings towards him other than physically, which ultimately would be more effective and wise.  So from its beginning, threaded throughout the story is this sexual tension initiated by Kaileigh as the dominant personality over Steel.  

Thrown into the mix is Steel trying to interpret (and misinterpreting) the attention given to him by an upper class female, Nell. This confusion and tension could have been demonstrated with the closed-door scene having less emphasis on the physical (and sexually stimulating) contact between Nell and Steel, focusing instead on Steel’s misinterpretation and feelings; doing so would have achieved the same purpose and eliminating unnecessary inappropriate behaviour that ultimately is not later made into a lesson learned. 

An odd moment takes place in developing Penny’s character. We can already imagine he is the stereotypical computer nerd, skinny, hunched from bending over computers too long, and socially awkward so as to not possess the social awareness of respecting someone’s “space” around them. Thus, the scene of Penny sitting too close to Steel, considered just on its own would have been presumed as simply being deficient in social graces. However, preceding that with a wink from Penny which Steel interprets as feminine, making him uncomfortable in the attention then overtly implies same sex attraction. That then follows through and is presumed connected to Penny sitting too close to Steel.  All of which is unnecessary to the character and story line development.  

The end result is a well done adventure weakened a bit due to some Harlequin romance thrown in along with a moment of possible same-sex attraction, thus ensuring that all which is of pop culture and politically correct is included :>( The strength of the characters, and ultimately the story, would have been enhanced had they demonstrated manners of expressing typical feelings of puberty with the physical self-control that kids are actually capable of but rarely shown today in entertainment.  Doing so, in fact, would have differentiated this story from the thousands of others aimed at the same audience. 

Other miscellaneous moments: Example: After taunted by Taddler, Kaleigh is about to make a rude gesture (we know which one that is) but Steel stops her, and she announces he is a “butt wipe”.  (This is the extent of name calling in the story, demonstrating it takes a more positive development of its characters and is very well written).  Also, use of God’s name only once (“Good...God” expression).

So what do YOU think? Read our thoughts on the book and join in the discussion: Litland's Blog   

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