The School for Whatnots by Margaret Peterson Haddix

In The School for Whatnots, popular children’s author Margaret Peterson Haddix explores how good intentions go awry.

The School for Whatnots by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Katherine Tegan Books (HarperCollins), 2022, 320 pages

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 8-14

How to Raise a Perfect Child

On the day Maximilian Sterling was born, fireworks lit the sky and his mother promised he would always be surrounded by love. Josie was born on the same day, but no fireworks greeted Josie in the charity hospital. No mother did, either, for her mother died giving birth. So her father, desperately poor and grieving, made a deal that would secure his little girl’s future and give her the leg-up he never had—namely, a good education. The best education money could buy, in fact, because she would share a classroom with Maximilian Sterling while posing as a whatnot.

Whatnots are the invention of Frances Miranda Gonzagaga: androids who look and act like children, except that they never fight, grab, or bully. Rich parents pay out the nose for whatnot schools so their rich kids will not learn these antisocial behaviors. For Max’s parents, it’s a way to keep their promise to surround him with love, always. They don’t anticipate that he and Josie will become fast friends (kindergarten friendships don’t last anyway), and certainly don’t suspect that Josie is not a whatnot. But what other surprises are in store?

Nature or Nurture?

The story takes place in a not-too-distant future where the gap between rich and poor has widened considerably. Some reviewers see it as a critique of capitalism—and one character is particularly harsh about “the rich”—but I don’t think that’s the point. The rich have their blind spots, but so does everyone else. Once readers suspend their disbelief enough to accept a whole classroom full of robots as credible children, it’s an intriguing story that raises interesting questions. Nature, or nurture? Does a perfect upraising produce a perfect child? When does protection become over-protection?

Both Max and Josie are believable personalities with their own strengths and weaknesses, and the story holds some real surprises. Some plot twists even flummox our narrator, who interrupts with frequent “asides.” Part science fiction, part fantasy, part character study, small part social commentary, old-fashioned storytelling pulls it all together and makes for an entertaining read.

Overall Rating: 4.25

  • Worldview/moral value: 4
  • Artistic/literary value: 4.5

Read more about our ratings here.                 

Also at Redeemed Reader:

  • Review: Haddix took on the speculative subject of multiverses in her most recent sci-fi series opener, The Strangers.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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