Sometimes, being smart just isn’t enough
It’s been a rough semester for Howard Boward, science genius. Not only is he having to dodge winter’s most feared weapon (snowballs), his close friend, Winnie McKinney, is barely speaking to him. If that weren’t enough, he’s the favorite target of some bullies who seem determined to make life at Dolley Madison Middle School as miserable as possible. But then Howard learns about an upcoming robot-building contest—finally a chance to show off his science skills and beat archrival Gerald “G-Force” Forster! Unfortunately, the only way to win is by using his secret “monster goo,” a formula that has terrifying side effects. Can Howard resist the temptation? Or will he unleash a robot rampage that could destroy the town—and ruin the school dance?
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About the Author
Ron Bates is a novelist and humor columnist who writes about secret laboratories, monsters, bullies, robots, cafeteria food, and other perils of middle school. A former newspaper reporter, he is the author of How to Make Friends and Monsters, How to Survive Middle School and Monster Bots, the comic book series Brawn, and numerous poems and plays for kids who like to laugh. He lives in Texas.
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How to Survive Middle School and Monster Bots
A Howard Boward Book
By Ron Bates, André Jolicoeur
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Ron Bates
All rights reserved.
The Adventures of Turtle Boy
"Howard ... what are you wearing?"
Mom was standing by the kitchen stove in pink flannel pajama-bottoms and fuzzy blue slippers. She looked at me the way a detective looks at a crime scene.
"Stuff," I said.
I reached across the breakfast table and grabbed the box of Cheerios, then shook it to make sure I wasn't going to pour out a big bowl of dust.
"Yes, I can see that," she said. "But why are you wearing it?"
"Dolley Madison Middle School frowns on nudity," I said.
I sneaked a glance at her over the top of the cereal box. She was rubbing her temples like she does when she's getting a headache.
"Don't do this, Howard. It's too early for one of your stunts."
I loaded up my spoon with a pile of little Os and shoved them into my mouth.
"What's the problem?" I said.
Mom's stare turned into a glare.
"You know what the problem is. You look like ... like ... like ..."
"He looks like a turtle."
A turtle? Who said that? We both turned our heads. There, sitting at the far end of the table, was a sweatshirt that appeared to have swallowed a teenager. Could it be? Why, yes—it was Katie Beth Boward! Imagine that, my seventeen-year-old sister had taken precious seconds away from her iPhone just to call me a reptile. And in her own voice, not a text message!
"Nobody asked you," I said.
"Hey, if you want to be a dork ..."
"Stop it," Mom said, stepping between us. "Katie Beth, quit picking on your brother. But, Howard, your sister is right. You look like a turtle."
It was true. I did look like a turtle—and for a good reason. Turtles are awesome! They come naturally equipped with a hard, protective shell they can retreat into at the first sign of trouble. That means they're completely invulnerable to any attack—which, in my humble opinion, is nature's most amazing wonder. And I'm not just saying that as a turtle-loving junior scientist. I'm saying that as a kid who gets beat up a lot.
A turtle shell is every young nerd's dream.
The funny thing is, I wasn't really thinking about turtles when I started getting dressed that morning. I was just thinking about padding. For reasons I will be happy to explain later, I wanted to make my skinny, pencil-like body as cushy as possible. So I put on an undershirt, covered by a flannel shirt, covered by a lifejacket, covered by a turtleneck sweater. My scrawny legs were crammed into stretchy sweatpants stuffed with a thick layer of Bubble Wrap and cinched with my Sunday belt. But the best part was what went on the outside: a thermal-insulated, water-resistant, arctic explorer-style bubble parka!
You've seen these, right? The puffy ones? The ones that if you try to put your arms down, they spring back up like a jack-in-the-box? The ones made from the same stuff they build bounce castles out of? And when you wear it, you look like a waddling, earthbound version of a balloon in the Thanksgiving Day parade?
Mine is lime green.
"Why would you want to go to school looking like a turtle, Howard?" Mom asked. "You have corduroys hanging in your closet!"
"Corduroy chafes me," I said, and took a giant swig of chocolate milk.
Mom pushed a runaway hair out of her face and looked at me. It was a tired look. And that's when the conversation went where all our conversations eventually go—to the sigh.
"Howard," she sighed, "this is why ..."
She never finished the sentence. She didn't have to. I knew it would have been something like, "This is why you come home with your underwear pulled over your head," or "This is why they laminated your algebra book," because, deep down, that's what everyone really thinks. But everyone is wrong.
The reason I come home with my underwear over my head is because I'm in the seventh grade and the seventh grade is filled with angry, oversized, wedgie-obsessed jerks. I mean, is it my fault I have brains instead of muscles? That my hair looks like a giant cotton swab? That my orthodontia can be seen from space? No. Yet I'm the one who ends up getting noogies and grief. How is that fair? I mean, I don't think my mom was really blaming me. I think she was just being a mom ... a mom who firmly believes all of life's problems can be solved with nicer pants.
And maybe grown-up problems can, but not middle-school problems. Because middle-school problems involve bullies, and it's entirely possible for a bully to like what you're wearing and still not like you. They don't even need a reason. Honestly, I can't think of a single thing I've ever done that would cause someone to want to harm me or my underpants—well, except maybe that thing with the monsters. Did I mention there were monsters? Yeah, earlier this semester, I created a mob of large, goo-filled monsters that attacked my classmates and nearly destroyed the school ... Popularity-wise, it was not my finest moment. Still, I'm a little surprised things went as badly as they did—maybe the monsters should have been wearing corduroys?
Oh well, live and learn.
As for the laminated algebra book, that was my idea. Neatness counts.
I looked up at Mom and returned her sigh. Was it even worth trying to explain? Probably not.
* * *
As I told you earlier, I had a reason for dressing myself up like a walking mattress: it was battle armor. I, Howard Boward, was at war. You see, at that very moment, an old enemy was waiting for me just outside our front door—and his name was winter!
Winter, as I'm sure you know, is God's way of telling us to stay in the house. Think about it—it's cold, it's gray, there's ice everywhere. I'm just saying there's a reason he gave bears fur and us hot chocolate with mini marshmallows. The evidence against stepping outside is as plain as the nose on your frostbitten face.
But the surest sign God meant winter to be an indoor season is the horrible white menace that attacks us from above: snow, nature's fluffiest weapon!
This year, it was everywhere. Which is why I couldn't believe it when Mom made me lose the lifejacket and the Bubble Wrap and anything else that wasn't technically considered "clothing." It was madness! But for the sake of family harmony, I left them in a sad little pile in the hallway. Then I walked out to face the frozen wilderness alone and defenseless.
Well, not completely defenseless. She let me keep the parka. And when it came right down to it, that was really all I needed. It was huge and plump and weatherproof—an invincible shield against any attack.
I managed to maneuver my way through the neighborhood until I reached the sidewalk in front of dear ol' DMMS—that's Dolley Madison Middle School, for those of you who are unfamiliar. I don't know what your school is like, but mine is a terrifying land of meatloaf and predators. Which is why I paused when I came to the curb—one more step and I'd be in bully country. Quickly, I adjusted my gigantic scarf around my face as a possible defense against attack and tried to yank down my hat as far as it would go. The only parts of my face not covered in some kind of knitted armor were my ears and eyes.
And I still didn't hear or see it coming.
The force of the snowball knocked me flat on my back into a snowdrift, and, like the turtle I so admire, I lay there helpless, my arms and legs pathetically paddling the air. Wet, freezing slush filled both eyes and my favorite nostril. I could hear the sound of laughter nearby—a loud, ugly cackle like a hyena celebrating a kill.
"Oh, epic! Epic! Did you see that? I caught How-weird right in the face!" a familiar voice rang out. "One in a million shot, dude!"
A few seconds later, I could make out two large, blurry figures standing over me. As my vision came back into focus, I saw that one of the blurs had shaggy blond hair and a stupid grin on his face. It was Kyle Stanford. He'd been the thrower, which explained why he looked so happy. Next to him was a pile of muscles and black hair that I instantly recognized as Josh Gutierrez. I wasn't surprised to see them together—bullies often run in pairs. Reaching down, they each grabbed a sleeve of my jacket, and, for a fraction of a second, I actually thought they were going to help me up.
They weren't, of course. Instead, they began pushing my arms up and down in a furious, sweeping motion. When they were finished, they rolled me out of the way and looked down at their handiwork. It was a perfect snow angel. At least it was until Josh pulled off his mitten and used his finger to draw a pair of horns on my outlined head. Then he drew a pointy tail. Finally, next to the indentation, in big, snowy letters, he wrote "HOW-WEIRD WAS HERE!"
"How-weird," if you haven't guessed, is me.
I watched as the two of them slapped their hands together and marched away in triumph. Winter had scored its first knockout of the day.
This morning had gone terribly, terribly wrong. Slowly, I climbed to my feet and stared down at the strange winged image with the spiky horns and the thin, arrow-tipped tail. It was no snow angel—it was a snow devil! Clearly, my turtle powers were no match for this kind of evil.
It was time to admit that if I were going to survive the horrors of winter, I'd need the help of someone so dark hearted, he made Kyle and Josh look like Cub Scouts.
And, unfortunately, I knew just where to find him.
* * *
A pair of thin, green eyes stared back at me through the crack in the bedroom door.
"Stick," I said, "can I talk to you?"
For those of you who haven't met Stick (and congratulations on that, by the way) he is my fifteen-year-old brother and the source of most of the misery in my world. He eyed me suspiciously and scratched the top of his helmet-like haircut.
"What do you want?" he said.
"I want to be bully-proof," I said. "Can you train me?"
Slowly, Stick's mouth bent upward into a wicked grin. His fingers came together and formed a disturbing triangle in front of his chest.
"I knew this day would come," he said.CHAPTER 2
"Where do you think you're going?" I asked Reynolds Pipkin.
Reynolds is my annoying eleven-year-old neighbor. People think I hang out with him, but I don't. It's more like I'm the sun and Reynolds is a tiny, insignificant planet that orbits around me. I didn't really care where he was going, but I still felt like he should ask permission before breaking away from my gravitational pull.
"I'm going over to G-Force's house," he said.
I raised one of my eyebrows until it was a dangerous-looking spike.
"I want to see his robot," Reynolds explained.
Now, normally, the sight of Reynolds Pipkin leaving is the pleasantest part of my day. But before he could take another step, I moved in front of him.
"Robot?" I asked.
"Forster has a robot?"
He nodded again. "He just finished building it."
Reynolds looked at me blankly and blinked like an owl. Apparently, my rage breath was fogging his glasses. I showed him my best fake smile and moved out of the way.
"I see. Well, that sounds just dandy, Reynolds," I said calmly. "We'll both go."
* * *
"Well, look who's here," the red-headed nightmare greeted us when we walked into his yard. "Nice hat, Boward."
I was wearing my wool-knit cap, the one with the ear flaps and moose antlers. I put it on before we left because it makes my brain look bigger.
"Nice mittens, Gerald," I said.
That's right, "G-Force's" real name is Gerald. And he was wearing mittens. And they were nice.
We locked eyes. I've been going to school with Gerald Forster since kindergarten and, for some reason, he's gotten the idea that he's my academic rival. In his dreams!
OK, he has a slight edge on me in English and we're dead even in math. But in science, the only subject that really counts, he's a full 3.4 percentage points behind my average. Three ... point ... four! The humiliation must be killing him.
"We came to see your robot, G-Force," Reynolds said.
That's another thing—who calls himself G-Force? It's not even a nickname. A nickname is something that someone else forcibly attaches to you, like How-weird or Nerdly McStinkpants. Something you spend hours erasing from the boys' room wall. You don't just get to go around saying "Hi, I'm Gerald, but everyone calls me G-Force," because that's just wrong! Plus, it's a total lie. Everyone does not call him G-Force. And I know that for a fact because I do not call him G-Force.
"Yes, let's see it, Gerald," I said.
He hesitated, staring at me out of the corners of those two narrow peepholes he calls eyes. Gerald has freckles and that's fine, but when he scrunches up his face, they all squeeze together into one giant super-freckle. He was scrunching it now.
"Well, I guess it'll be all right," he said. "Just don't touch anything."
"I'll try to restrain myself," I said.
He gave me a smart-alecky look and led us across the yard. When he pushed a button, the garage door rolled back, and I could not believe what I saw.
"Wow," I whispered.
It was clean. You could actually put two whole cars in there! If you'd ever seen our garage, you'd understand my amazement.
Gerald walked over and pulled back a greasy white sheet covering something in the corner. There it was—his masterpiece. It looked a little like a toaster oven on wheels.
"That's a robot?" I asked, somehow managing to hold back outright laughter.
Reynolds scratched his head.
"Maybe that's how they look when they're babies?"
Gerald smirked. It was almost as if he was proud of this embarrassment!
He picked up a silver remote-control box and pushed a small, plastic handle. The toaster went forward. He pushed the handle to the right and the toaster turned right. Then he steered it out into the driveway. We followed.
"Pipkin, hand me that basketball," Gerald said.
Reynolds just blinked.
"It's the orange one," I whispered. Pipkins are not known for their athleticism.
Reynolds grabbed the ball from a bin in the garage, and Gerald took it. Then he pushed another button on the remote control. Suddenly, a long metal arm unfolded from the side of the toaster-bot. On the end of the arm was a bowl that looked kind of like a giant ice-cream scoop. Gerald put the ball in the scoop and steered the robot into position in front of the basketball hoop at the side of the driveway.
"Now watch," he said.
The robot cocked its arm and flung the ball into the air. It went straight through the net. Gerald moved it out farther, and it shot again. It scored again. By the time the demonstration was over, Gerald's robot had made seven out of nine shots.
I couldn't make seven shots if you gave me a ladder.
"Unbelievable!" I gasped.
"Thanks," Gerald said.
Thanks? Wait, had I just given Gerald Forster a compliment? I shook myself out of my robotic daze.
"I meant unbelievable that it didn't get a single rebound," I said.
Gerald frowned, and his super-freckle appeared to be very angry.
"Why did you build a robot anyway, G-Force?" Reynolds asked.
"It's for a contest. I'm in this club, Believer Achievers. They sponsor a lot of science events and stuff."
Wait a minute—there was a group building robots and doing cool science stuff and I wasn't part of it? How could that happen? It was like trying to play chess without your king!
The rectangular robot backed up, pulled forward, and parked itself inside the unnaturally clean garage.
It was a near-flawless performance. My stomach hurt.
"Well, thanks for showing us your little toy, Gerald," I said. "If they decide this contest with a game of H-O-R-S-E, I'm sure you'll do well."
Then I turned around and stomped the three blocks back to our house.
Excerpted from How to Survive Middle School and Monster Bots by Ron Bates, André Jolicoeur. Copyright © 2014 Ron Bates. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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