Don’t Care High by Gordon Korman is a wickedly good book, written back in 1985 when he was twenty two years old, just fresh out of college, and at around the height of his writing powers. It’s his first foray into Young Adult, but be prepared to be laughing up a storm and thinking about this book for a long time to come.
The book begins when Paul moves from “the boonies,” as his dad calls it, to the Big Apple. He’s going to school at Don Carey High School, but it’s not like any school he’s gone to before. In fact, the students have dubbed it Don’t Care High School because nobody cares. There is no interest or participation in anything. Students don’t care about having schedule mix-ups like five of the same foreign language class in a day or even having no schedule at all! The sign-up sheets on the walls are from the 1940s, and there are no sports teams or student government or anything like that.
Paul is lucky to meet Sheldon, however, a kid who just might actually care. He only transferred to the school in the middle of the previous year, so he still has a little ambition. For fun, he decides to get a kid named Mike Otis elected as school president, which is easy because no one else is running and the kid won’t even mind.
Unsurprisingly Mike wins, but he doesn’t do anything with his power. That’s up to Sheldon and Paul. Sheldon begins giving Mike credit for all the repairs and other nice things happening at the school, earning him a lot of popularity among students, even though they had nothing to do with it. When the school hears about it and removes Mike from president, though, then they’ve really done it. Mike is their president, and they’re going to do anything he says (or more accurately, anything Sheldon and Paul say he says).
This is a fantastic book. The characters are awesome and real, with funny dialects and nicknames. There’s a kid named Wayne-O whose mission is to see how little he can be at every class and still pass. There’s a hilarious kid named Feldstein who is the locker baron of the school. He owns many of the lockers, and (until Mike Otis’s rise) is the most powerful kid in the school. He can deny you a locker if he wants, and in exchange for a locker you owe him food that you may have to give him at a time in the future of his choosing.
Paul’s family is off the wall, with a crazy aunt, a mother who is always going to take care of her, and a dad who doesn’t see him much until he decides to teach him New York City driving (even though it’s illegal to drive in New York until you’re 18 and Paul is only 16). There is a hilarious radio program led by Flash Food, who relishes talking about the inconveniences of “the greatest city in the world.” There are also insane neighbors who Paul watches and observes but doesn’t understand, a TV character named Steve who inspires him, and risk-taking (but accident avoiding) cabbies.
The best character, though, is Mike Otis. Despite being the most popular kid in school, he doesn’t understand a thing of what is going on. His school records are of buildings, phone numbers, and past addresses that don’t exist. His car is said not to be made by any known manufacture. What is with this guy?
Gordon Korman moved from Canada to New York to attend film school, and the theme of the Big Apple recurs in a few of his books. The theme of a tribute to New York and all its craziness is present throughout the book, right down to the end.
This book has Korman’s classic pairing of two best-friends, one of whom is crazy and adventuresome and the other who is more cautious, but goes along with it anyways. Sheldon is the crazy one, and Paul the more cautious. Sheldon does come up with some really outrageous ideas, and the combination works great in this book.
The only negative thing about this book is that kids who have read a lot of Korman’s books will notice that many other jokes found later in his books were simply copied from this one. Mike Smith, in The 6th Grade Nickname Gang, is Mike Otis with a slight name change and about a thousand times less mysterious and heroic. Schooled also has an election won by someone who is unsuspectingly nominated, and the school in that book is named C Average Middle School instead of Claverage Middle School. There are probably others, but the fact is that many of Korman’s jokes in later books were originally used in his earlier ones, where they are often deeper and even more funny and powerful.
Don’t Care High is a hilarious book that will also make you think. You’ll be laughing up a storm, but you also just won’t forget characters like Feldstein or Mike Otis. Don’t Care High students at the beginning probably wouldn’t have cared about a book written about them, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!