Title: Chess Rumble
Author: G. Neri
Illustrator: Jesse Joshua Watson
ISBN: 9781584302797
Pages: 64 pages
Publisher/Date: Lee & Low Books Inc., c2007.

My Daddy
used to play chess
to calm his nerves
after workin’ all day
in a room
with no windows.
I wanted to play him,
but he always say
I wasn’t ready.
“This is a man’s game,” he say.
“You a man?” (4)

Marcus is leading a hard life that just got harder. After his sister suddenly died, his father left him, his mother, and his twin siblings to fend for themselves. Taunted by a bully at school, Marcus is frustrated and feels like the world is out to get him. That’s when he gets shoved into the school’s chess program by his principal, a woman who sees him going down the wrong road and wants to help him stay out of trouble. But while his dad used to play, Marcus is not about to become a chess chump just because some guy’s talking about endgame and strategy.

It’s hard to put into words what I like about this book. I’m a fan of chess, so maybe that adds to my appreciation. I like the idea of using chess to teach kids, and by the front jacket text, it sounds like people are actually doing that, since Neri was “inspired by inner-city school chess enrichment programs.” I loved the dialogue too. Marcus comes across as very realistic, dropping letters and not speaking entirely grammatically correct, throwing down challenges to anyone who will listen. It’s not just the speech patterns, but also the behavior shown, and readers are able to relate to Marcus even if they’ve never been there themselves. CM, the Chess Man, is also realistic in his approach, as he waits for Marcus to come to him. While he might lay the lessons on thick, he doesn’t force the issue and he still approaches the problem in a way that Marcus understands.

This short debut book packs a powerful punch, and between this, Yummy and Ghetto Cowboy, Neri is making a name for himself for relatable, readable, urban fiction for boys.