Leon Zeisel lives at the Trimore Towers, where his mother is the night manager. The hotel, across from the convention center, has recently hosted cowboys, contortionists, potato chip tasters and a noisy group of mimes. Leon, the likeable protagonist of Leon and the Spitting Image, is about to enter fourth grade, and he's worried about those confidential reports hidden in his mom's desk drawer. He's read them, of course, and they comment on his deficient motor skills, his clumsiness, his poor handwriting. Not such a big deal perhaps, until he meets Miss Cronheim, his new teacher, who emphasizes, of all things, sewing creating animal figures that are stitched and stuffed. Leon knows it's going to be a long year.
Witchy Miss Cronheim has a tight helmet of black hair the kids guess is a wig, perhaps held on by Velcro, huge ears that look like giant, gnarled mushrooms and appropriately acute hearing. Coach Kasperitis adds to the assemblage of oddball characters. An ex-baseball player with a chewing tobacco habit, he carries a pickle jar around that serves as his spittoon.
Once the noisy ice machine outside his bedroom is fixed, and Leon starts getting more sleep, his manual dexterity miraculously improves, and when the final sewing project is assigned, he's able to create something remarkable: a doll that's the spitting image of Miss Cronheim. When a bully named Henry Lumpkin grabs the doll from Leon and pours the contents of the coach's pickle jar on it, Leon realizes it has acquired supernatural powers. The fun of the remainder of the tale lies in watching how the doll does Leon's bidding as he tries to survive fourth grade.
Kurzweil, a critically acclaimed adult author, has written a high-spirited novel that will most likely be found on bookstore display tables labeled "If you enjoy Harry Potter, try . . ." With an appealing hero, an otherworldly teacher and supernatural forces that are barely in control, the book is sure to be a hit with young readers.
Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.