Smith, Greg Leitich. NINJAS, PIRANHAS,
AND GALILEO. New York: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0316778540.
In Smith’s debut novel, three best friends navigate the murky waters of early adolescence, facing such challenges
as overzealous parents, crotchety teachers, science fair projects, and young love.
The three main characters in the book are believable, if a little quirky. Elias is the youngest child in a family
of classical musicians and scientists. He feels that he doesn’t quite meet the high expectations set by his older brother
and sisters. Shohei is the Japanese, adopted child of an Irish Catholic family.
His parents are determined to help him embrace his heritage at every opportunity, from Japanese food in his lunches to special
lessons in ikebana (the art of Japanese flower arranging). Finally, there is Honoria, the budding young scientist who
is also an excellent defense attorney in the Student Court. Elias describes her as someone who “likes things that are
creepy, slimy, and have big teeth.” (p.33) She is also struggling with how to tell Shohei that she likes him as more
than just a friend.
Although the book’s setting of a prestigious private school in Chicago is fictitious, there are many elements
found there that are common to most middle schools. There are the rivalries that spring up among students, like the one between
Elias, Shohei, and Honoria and Christopher Robin “Goliath” Reed and his friends. There are teachers like the dull and sometimes mean Mr. Ethan Eden, who
Honoria describes as having “outlasted three deans of the elementary school, six mayors of Chicago, and seven presidents
of the United States.” (p. 9) And finally, there is the questionable food served in the cafeteria, described by Shohei
as “a little greasy, and the hamburgers are mostly soy, but at least the Jell-o isn’t too soupy, and there’s
always the Tater Tots.” (p. 11) There are some unique aspects at the school which add interest, such as the Student
Court, where students who break the rules are tried and sentenced by their peers. Another unique aspect is that all of the
students come from privileged families and are of above average intelligence.
The plot for this contemporary realistic novel tells a story that could have happened, and will appeal to preteens
and young teens. When Elias is forced by his father to enter the school science fair, he decides to “play Galileo”
and redo his older brother’s science fair experiment about the effects of classical music on plant growth. He gets the
idea from “one of the prime commandments of modern science: Thou shalt obtain experimental confirmation.”
(p.6) He’s sees this as a way to appease his father with minimum effort on his part. Against his better judgment, he
agrees to let Shohei, somewhat of a slacker when it comes to school, collaborate on the project. Honoria, who is very serious
about the science fair and dreams winning the gold medal, is tackling the ambitious project of training piranhas to choose
bananas over meat. Both of these experiments take some hilarious turns and provide conflict for the story. For instance, Honoria is hounded by Freddie Murchison-Kowalski, the head of the Union of Students
Concerned about Cruelty to Animals because of her piranha experiment. When Freddie asks her how she can “justify cruelty
to poor, defenseless creatures,” Honoria says rather wickedly, “Stick
your hand in, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” (p.88) Running throughout this main plot is a love triangle.
Elias has a crush on Honoria, who has a crush on Shohei, who wants to help Elias win Honoria’s heart. The climax of
the story is threefold. First, Elias must face the consequences for his acts of ‘malicious hooliganism and vandalism’
following an unjustly low score on his science fair project. Second, Shohei confronts his parents about their constant attempts
to help him embrace his Japanese heritage; and finally, the three friends begin to deal with the pain and embarrassment of
secret love revealed.
Smith tells the story from the perspective of each of the three main characters in a pseudo-diary format with the
speaker noted in bold type at the beginning of each section. Although this allowed the story to be revealed from each person’s
perspective, it took a little getting used to, and I had to refer back on several occasions to confirm who was speaking. This
may be confusing for some less proficient readers. This fresh story of friendship
and honesty also sends the message, without didacticism, that being smart can
be cool, too. It is a light, funny tale perfect for middle school students.
Fantasy & Young Adult Fiction