UngiftedUngifted is the story of Donovan, a very academically average kid, who through a series of circumstances accidentally ends up in the district’s school for the very gifted. It’s not like he’s actually brilliant and no one ever noticed—it doesn’t take long for everyone to realize he doesn’t have the academic chops to be there. But he joins the robotics team and starts to become friends with some of the kids in his class, and they quickly learn that he does have something to offer. However, as soon as the superintendent figures out where he is, Donovan is sure to get yanked from the school and probably punished for accidentally destroying the gymnasium at his previous school.

The story is told in varying viewpoints, with each chapter titled with a word beginning with “un-” along with name of the POV character and their IQ. So we see the story through Donovan’s eyes, along with the superintendent who’s out to catch him, several kids in his class, and some of the teachers.

The plot isn’t terribly realistic, but a lot of the portrayals of characters are very recognizable and easy to identify with. I appreciated the general lack of a villain—even the superintendent isn’t actually evil so much as he just wants everything to run smoothly. Every character had some nuance and grew a bit through the book, even the ones I thought were hopeless.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid


Donovan has very little self-control, and that’s what gets him into trouble. His decisions are terrible, and often disastrous—the kind of thing that’s only funny in a book or very much in retrospect. He doesn’t think things through, like using a big stick to clobber the globe of a statue of Atlas that’s sitting on the top of the hill. Should the globe have come off and rolled down the hill, destroying the gymnasium where the big basketball game was happening? No, of course not. But why smack the globe in the first place?

Donovan’s two best friends are “the Daniels.” I never really learned to tell them apart, and there’s no need to. They tend to egg Donovan on, then sit back and watch the fun when things get out of hand. When Donovan starts actually caring about something and starts thinking things through a little, they’re disappointed and find new ways to put him in difficult situations, hoping to see the fun they’re used to. They start out as really awful friends, and get worse through part of the book. But toward the end they start to grow up a bit, and they’re redeemed pretty well by the end.


Donovan’s older sister Katie is pregnant and living with them while her husband is deployed to Afghanistan. Her husband’s dog, Beatrice, is living with them, but hates Katie. Donovan is the only one Beatrice will respond to. Donovan’s mom really wants to believe that Donovan is secretly gifted, so it hurts her to realize he isn’t. Donovan’s dad never truly believed Donovan was gifted, which hurts Donovan on some level, even though it means his dad isn’t disappointed when Donovan gets kicked out of the school. Home is tense, but it’s obviously a loving family at the core of everything, even if they’re sometimes not very nice to each other.

Intelligences and Stereotypes

The gifted school requires kids to be academically gifted. However, a lot of the kids don’t quite have the social intelligence they’d like, and they have a tendency to be logical and rational rather than creative. Some of them long for the normalcy of a regular middle school, and Donovan represents that for them. He also tends to see things in different ways, like naming the robot they’re building for the robotics competition. He provides an energy and a glue that brings the team together, even if his biggest contribution to building the robot is downloading funny pictures to decorate it. However, years of video games have made him really good at controlling the robot when it’s in radio-controlled mode.

Each of the kids in the gifted school is intelligent in their own way, and their personalities are varied. There are some stereotypes, but I appreciated that the gifted kids weren’t all the same and they do grow and change through the book.

When the two middle schools come together, there’s a lot of teasing and cruel, stereotypical things are said. Katie, too, sometimes uses stereotypical terms when talking about the kids. This angers Donovan, who is starting to appreciate his classmates at the gifted school. Katie and the Daniels eventually learn to appreciate these kids who don’t quite fit their expectations of “normal.”

Academic Expectations

The actions of the gifted kids are interpreted differently than the same actions at the regular middle school. A paper airplane on the bus is an experiment in aerodynamics in one place, grounds for suspension in the other. Donovan, wanting to stay at the gifted school, tries really hard academically, but he just can’t cut it. He’s working harder than he ever has, and barely pulling C’s. However, when he goes back to his regular school, he discovers that the challenge of the gifted school was good for him—he’s now making A’s, even without trying too hard. So there is something to the idea of getting as much out of kids as you expect to get out of them, but it doesn’t magically make Donovan a genius.

Fitting In

Donovan knows he doesn’t belong at the gifted school, even though he makes better friends there than he ever had at his regular school. He’ll never really fit in there, and in the end it’s not where he ends up. However, after a few weeks at the gifted school, he also realizes that he no longer fits in at his regular school. He’s changed, and he isn’t interested in the things his old friends are interested in. He ends up very much caught between two worlds—a position I think a lot of middle schoolers can identify with. This isn’t tied up neatly, but he finds a way to keep both to some extent, as he sort of drifts between them.

Noah, by far the most brilliant kid at the gifted school, doesn’t want to be there. He keeps trying to get expelled, but they keep making accommodations for him. Eventually he does manage to get sent to the regular school. Donovan asks him why he wants to go there—it won’t offer Noah any academic challenge at all. Noah points out that the gifted school also doesn’t challenge him academically, and he wants the social challenge of surviving a big school full of “normal” kids.


Chloe has a crush on Donovan, and after seeing her in her fancy dress at the dance, Donovan realizes how pretty Chloe is and starts to see her differently. However, they never discuss this and there’s not so much as a peck on the cheek. There’s some flirting between the Daniels and some girls, but nothing explicit. My son will be so grateful for the lack of romance!

Sex and Babies

It turns out that somehow the gifted school neglected to cover human development (i.e., sex ed) for some of their students. If they don’t find a way to get the credits, the kids will have to go to summer school, which is devastating to them and to their summer plans. Donovan’s sister Katie comes reluctantly to the rescue, and the kids get hands-on experience by talking with Katie about her pregnancy, going to her appointments with her, and eventually being there (though not in the delivery room) for the birth. There’s nothing terribly explicit, but some of the realities of pregnancy are mentioned, such as aches and pains a frequent trips to the bathroom.

Ethics of You Tube

Donovan introduces Noah to the wonders of You Tube. Noah loves how unpredictable it is—who knows what you might see? Noah starts making and posting videos, which are mostly harmless. However, one of those videos is of the robot sneaking over to a female teacher and lifting her skirt until you can see her underwear, and another is of Katie’s pregnant stomach. Neither of these is posted with the permission of the subjects. While this isn’t seen as ok, neither is it seen as harassment and there are no real consequences for it. I’d have liked to have seen this dealt with, rather than sort of laughed off.

Violence Is Sometimes a Solution

During the dance, the Daniels bring out the robot and start goofing around with it. Noah, dressed as a professional wrestler (don’t ask), jumps down onto them, giving one of them a major black eye. This saves the robot, though it disrupts the dance. It also causes the Daniels to have a grudging respect for Noah, and eventually they all become friends.

During the robot competition, their big rivals are cheating. Once it’s obvious that the gifted school’s chances of winning are destroyed, they take revenge on the other team’s robot, thus ensuring that they can’t win either. Both teams get disqualified, but that feels totally worth it to the kids from the gifted school.

Breaking the Rules

Hacking for the right reasons is seen in a sympathetic light. Someone hacks into the secure system when Donovan has to retake the gifted test, giving him the right answers. When Beatrice the dog has her puppies, Noah hacks into a satellite to let Katie’s husband see the birth while he’s in a tank in Afghanistan.

Donovan saves the day by stealing an engine from the school’s floor cleaner when the robot needs a new one. Both Chloe and Donovan skip school at different times, and that’s seen as a good choice. Katie even helps Donovan skip school. In neither case do the kids get in trouble.


While the plot requires some suspension of disbelief, I liked this book about self-discovery, growing up, robots, and babies. The characters were easy to identify with, and I think most middle schoolers will recognize themselves, their friends, and the adults in their lives in the various characters. Most of the characters have some issues, but all of them grow at least a bit. The morality is sometimes a bit ambiguous, but the “wrong” things that are done aren’t malicious and are sometimes actually well intentioned. I’d recommend this for 11 and up, mostly because it helps to have some experience with middle school to appreciate the book.

We picked this book up for my son who’s on his school’s robotics team. I think he’ll like it—I’ll update the review when he gets around to reading it.


Ungifted by Gordon Korman
Published in 2012 by Scholastic, Inc.
Read my son’s copy


  1. I love Gordon Korman. Totally one of the people who writing with the McDonald Hall books when I was younger.

    • ayvalentine says:

      As far as I know, this is the first book by him I’ve read. I liked it, though, and would happily read more!

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