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Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart

Olivia Bean Trivia Queen is a wonderfully poignant novel for elementary school and middle school readers. The main character, Olivia, is a twelve year old girl who is learning more about herself and her parents as she gears up to participate in Jeopardy’s Kids Week. What drew me in immediately was the narrator’s voice. You can feel how she is apprehensive and anxious about many aspects of her life: her mother’s live-in boyfriend, her father’s new family (which includes her former best friend Nikki), her changing relationship with the boy who lives next door, her inability to master geography which is at odds with her mastery of so many trivia concepts and the girls she eats lunch with at school who don’t seem to understand her at all. Olivia is like so many girls her age, uncomfortable and unsure about how to respond to any kind of change.

Gephart brings us into Olivia’s world through the game show Jeopardy which has been a part of Olivia’s life since long before her parents divorced. Each night Olivia likes to watch the show and beat the contestants to the answers. She decides to try out for Kids Week, when the contestants for Jeopardy are between the ages of 10 and 12. Helping her on her journey are, to Olivia’s surprise, her 5-year-old brother Charlie, her mother’s boyfriend Neil and her next door neighbor Tucker. Gephart is gifted in creating lovable characters who captivate the reader with both their charm and their loyalty to Olivia.

Besides Jeopardy, Olivia’s attention is focused on her dad who now lives far away in California. Olivia’s dad is a major disappointment to Olivia and by painting him as such an unlikeable person, Gephart is showing the reader just how messy life can be. This is a really hard lesson for both Olivia and the reader. He isn’t there for her on any level and the reader wants to shake him so that he can see how selfish he is being. Gepharts talents lie in her ability to elicit these strong feelings in the reader. She brings us to into Olivia’s heart which is breaking as she realizes just how imperfect her dad is. The reader will cheer Olivia on when she must confront her loss to be able to move forward.

The Jeopardy scenes are full of anticipation and excitement. Olivia’s growing confidence with the trivia questions is in parallel with her growing trust in the people who are closest to her. Gephart brilliantly captures the adolescent experience of having one foot in the adult one world while still teetering in the innocence of childhood.