Artie King is your basic sixth-grade everyman who is just trying to get through life without getting into too much trouble. His buddies, Wayne and Percy, are at his side as he deals with his principal, the evil Mrs. Dagger, and a gang of bullies known as The Horde. Looking over it all is a kindly science teacher, Mr. Merlyn, and his pet crow, Oberon, who provide subtle and not-so-subtle guidance.
The story opens with an extended bit of slapstick involving a remote-controlled airplane, Oberon, a stray sandwich, one of the bullies, and a soft drink. This ends badly, with a bowling ball flying through Mrs. Dagger's windshield, and Wayne must come up with $300 to pay for a replacement.
By happy coincidence, the school is having a robot competition for its annual Dragon Day celebration, and the top prize is $300. The Horde traditionally wins by bullying one of the smart kids into building a robot for them. This year, that kid is Artie's friend Percy, but through an unlikely series of events, Artie and Wayne enter anyway.
Convinced that they can't build the robot themselves, they seek out a mysterious kid, Evo, who won the competition in a previous year. Evo provides them with the Rod of Doom, a universal remote that will shut down the other team's robot. It seems like a good idea until Artie realizes (with some gentle nudging from Mr. Merlyn) that this would be cheating. So Artie must make a choice: Cheat and win, or play it straight and risk losing.
Naturally, Artie makes the right choice, after a lively debate with his pals, and he and his smart friend Gwen cobble together a robot. In the end, the Horde's evil ways trip them up (secondary moral: Don't steal somebody else's Buffalo wings--they might be laced with hot sauce) and Artie and his friends carry the day.
Cammuso's style is exaggerated but simple enough for young readers to follow. Often a panel contains just a single element, allowing the readers to put them together in an almost cinematic fashion: We see a toy airplane plummeting through the air, we see the bully raising the cup to his lips, and we know what's going to happen next. There are no narrative text boxes at all, and conversations are simple and to the point. The writing is witty in a sixth-grade way without being crude or juvenile (well, mostly); Frankie and his friends talk like real kids, and the adults are more exaggerated, which fits a kid's-eye view pretty well.
This is the second book in the series; I hadn't read the first, The Dodgeball Chronicles, but I had no trouble following this story. There are some bits of backstory--Artie has a magic locker, for instance--but it's all pretty clear from context. And the magic is almost incidental to the story, providing a nudge in the right direction but not the solution to all problems--that comes from the kids themselves.
-- Brigid Alverson