Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick – Review by Angie Miller

Once a year I break down and cry in front of my students.  It is a cardinal rule not to do this–never let them see the weak chinks in your armor.  But each year as I read aloud Rodman Philbrick’s novel Freak the Mighty to my middle school students, my emotions can’t be contained; my voice gets shaky, my eyes well up, and I finally have to set my book down, look up, and just weep.  Usually I am not the only one.

Because you see, as I stand in front my classroom this is what I encounter:  students with difficult behaviors silent and still, their eyes gobbling up every word as they follow along.  Students who have personal histories they didn’t think anybody else could possibly understand, with triumphant looks on their faces that say, “This character–he’s me. And I’m going to be okay.” And students who have learning disabilities wiggle their way comfortably into a text that speaks to their struggles.

To have a kid who has not completed an ounce of work all year beg to bring the book home so he can finish it early..to hear a self-proclaimed-anti-reader ask if he can borrow the book when you are done because he wants to read it again…those are reasons alone for tears, let alone the magnificence of a storyline that speaks to kids of all backgrounds and abilities.

In the end though,  it is the characters who create such intense reactions for me and my students.  Max, the mouthy, self-doubting narrator, tells the story of his friendship with Kevin, a.k.a. Freak.  Max and Freak are complete opposites. Max bumbles through life insecurely in an immense body that reminds too many people of his (eek eek, as Philbrick would write) father, the notorious Killer Kane. He struggles with a learning disability and is misunderstood by his well-intentioned grandparents who take care of him.  But when Freak moves next door, Max is given reason to explore his life and the meaning of it a bit more.  Freak, a boy who suffers from a rare form of dwarfism, lives a sheltered life due to his protective mother and physical disability.  He compensates by dreaming big–he reads the dictionary, imagines magical quests, and engages with the world through reading. The unusual partnership of  the two boys–one who is physically able but learning disabled and the other who is physically disabled but gifted and talented–makes for an engaging adventure that speaks to all readers.

Through this timeless novel, Philbrick keeps his readers on their toes with Freak’s hysterical antics and then, at unexpected moments, poignant insight.  When Freak sits atop Max’s shoulders at a fireworks display, narrating the origin of the colors by yelling out, “Copper! That’s copper powder combusting with oxygen!” and later, “Good old strontium nitrate!”, kids sit and giggle at the the image playing out in their minds.  But later, when Freak declares that, “life is dangerous,” you see some nod in silent agreement.

In fact, it is these “Freakisms” that give the book a multi-layered texture.  His insights like “Remembering is just an invention of the mind” and “You can think your way out of anything, even pain” and “Books are like truth serum–if you don’t read, you can’t figure out what’s real” are sprinkled throughout the book adding depth to the already intense plot that involves a boy’s coming to terms with death and memory.  Whereas, quips like, “Microsurgery is such a bore.  Didn’t anyone ever tell you that?” and “Television, the opiate of the massives” help maintain a lighter tone in a novel that could otherwise become too heavy for 12-14 year olds.

And heavy it is.  As a reader, you are dealing with adolescent boys whose backgrounds involve murder, abuse, and abandonment.  And as the two boys take off on neighborhood adventures (otherwise known as quests), they encounter bullying, alcoholism, and kidnapping. Meanwhile, the theme of inevitable death is ever present as an underlying thread that pulls the storyline together. It is the very grace of Philbrick’s pen that buoys the darkness of reality in a sea of hope.

Freak the Mighty is the quintessential “laugh out loud, cry real tears” kind of book for middle school readers.  I have yet to encounter a kid who didn’t sympathize with Max’s insecurities or be completely enamored by Freak’s quirky charisma.When the book is finally closed and set down, the characters have already woven their ways into being part of your own character.  You yearn to be a little more clever, a little more adventurous, a little more willing to live in the present. Whatever it is, this story will transform you in some way, and you will not be the same person, because, like Freak says, “No one stays like they are…Everybody is always changing.”

Angie Miller, a veteran middle school teacher, and freelance writer, is the 2011 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year and a TED2012 speaker who just finished reading Freak the Mighty to her 7th grade, and yes, cried.  She spends her free time setting words on paper–hoping they are the right ones, hiking, tending goats and chickens, running, and gobbling up books.  To read more of her writing or to book her as a speaker, visit boundlessangie.blogspot.com. You can find her on Twitter as @angiecmiller74.