“The Recruit” by Robert Muchamore (2004)
I’ve read this book about twelve times in the last 7 years, so it feels like a bit of a cheat to be blogging about it now, but I really wanted to share my most recent reading of it on my blog, and in the process maybe attract some new devotees to all things CHERUB.
“The Recruit” is a wonderful young adult novel about a kid called James who hates school and has a short fuse and gets himself into trouble on a regular basis. Within the first chapter he has had a fight with a girl in his Science class, hurt her (unintentionally), knocked his Science teacher flying (no, he really didn’t mean to) and gone into hiding to avoid the obvious storm that is about to explode all over him.
The next 24 hours don’t turn out quite the way he was anticipating, though, and after he finds his Mum dead on the couch he is taken to a children’s home and life is looking grim indeed. After almost immediately getting caught up with the wildest boys in the home, James finds himself in more trouble than he’s ever known in his life… But just when things look impossibly hopeless he is knocked out and wakes up in the most amazing facility he has ever seen. Set on acres of bushland with sprawling buildings, tennis courts, basketball courts, fitness courses and smiling, healthy looking kids everywhere, James can’t believe his luck. But no one will speak to him and he has to find out for himself what he is supposed to be doing there. James, it turns out, is on the CHERUB campus, a secret training facility for kids who are going to become spies. The question then becomes, will James sit the entrance exam? Will he pass? And does he actually want to be a spy for the British government at just 11 years of age?
The reason I decided to blog again about this book this year is because of the experience I have had, teaching it to my year 10 class. Normally, The Recruit is my ‘go-to’ novel for year 7. It’s also been my novel of choice for year 11 or year 12 English Studies when teaching the Part of a Family module. And a couple of years ago I taught it to a year 10 class of boys who were put together because of their behavioural challenges. I experience massive success every time I teach this book. James is a very likable and realistic character and, unlike a lot of stories that start in a classroom, James reminds my students of someone they know… maybe themselves.
This year I am teaching our Learning Support year 10 class. My students are not diagnosed at a low enough intellectual level to qualify for placement in a formal support environment, but their literacy and comprehension levels are so low that they would be totally lost in a regular mainstream class. So, thanks to the commitment at my school to assisting students in this situation, and the hard work from the Learning Support faculty (this is not the same as the Support Unit, where IM or IO students are enrolled), classes like mine exist. Generally, the Learning Support faculty also teach our ESL classes. There are 14 students in my class, and each one needs about 5 times the level of one-on-one assistance that a mainstream student requires. For 4 of my 6 lessons a teacher from the Learning Support faculty – the wonderful and dedicated Peta – joins me to team teach. And every lesson a School Learning Support Officer (SLSO, formerly known as a Teacher’s Aide) – the fantastically patient and kind Rose – is there too. So, together, our aim is to try to assist the students to succeed in an academic environment that all too often they find totally incomprehensible.
Into this classroom I brought James and his adventure. Now that I think about it, there was never any doubt that I would choose this novel. And in the last 5 weeks, I have read this book to the students, a few chapters at a time, and they have completed lots of work on it. I mean it when I say lots of work. These are students who for the most part need support to write one sentence. But they have written so many sentences, and paragraphs while we have studied this book. They have done all of the same work that I have set for previous classes. I am so proud of them and how well they have worked. Their efforts are a testament to the success of this novel. It works. It works for bright and enthusiastic year 7 students. It works for senior students who brag about having never read a book for school, ever, until this one. And it works for students who are barely literate.
Never underestimate the power of an old fashioned adventure story. When it is a well written one, it gets them every time. Trust me, you want to read this book. And if you’re a teacher, you want to teach this book. Two years ago, after teaching this novel to a group of boys who openly and gleefully bragged about never having read any book set for English, not one, not ever, one of the most challenging boys in the class slipped me a note as he was leaving one lesson. It said, “Hey, Miss, sneak me the next book about James when no one is looking, OK?” These are the moments we live for. This is a book that creates them.
This time, the glory goes to a boy called Julian who said to me in week one of the term, “I hate books, Miss. I don’t like any of them.” I accepted the challenge to find him a book he would admit he liked. As it turned out, Julian was one of the most vocal students in the class during the last five weeks, as we recapped and ensured everyone was up to date before we did any work or reading each lesson. In his last lesson with me he was still reluctant to admit anything… but the proof was there in his enthusiastic recounting of the plot and his focused attention on the final few chapters. Finally, after a little gentle cajoling, Julian admitted it, he really did like the book. And I left that lesson with a smile on my face, knowing that, for this term at least, my work there was done…