Sunday, October 30, 2022

New Kids and Underdogs by Margaret Finnegan

Fifth grader Robyn has already been the new kid in school five times because of her mom's job as a biology professor, and now San Luis Obispo will be number six. But this time will be different. This time Robyn is determined not to stick out as the new kid and she's even created a list of 10 Rules for New Kids for blending in and avoiding the judgey kids. All she has to do is stick to the list. Luckily, Robyn has her two faithful and inseparable dogs, anxious Sundae and nearly blind and deaf Fudge, her supportive dad, even if he does live in Toronto, and of course, her mom.  

One thing her mom is firm about is doing extracurricular activities. So when Robyn sees a dog agility class in the park, she is sure that is what she wants to do with three-year-old Sundae and Fudge. But the woman running the class says no, they wouldn't be able to do the agility course. Then, on her first day of school, Robyn meets Lulu and Marshan who seem friendly enough to even warn her not to associate with Alejandra, who's "radioactive" and cruelty nicknamed the Grape because she wears purple every day, but she also skipped fourth grade and is a whiz at math. Later, Robyn runs into the boy who had been helping the woman in the park on the handball court, whose name is Nestor, and his cousin Jonathan. And just like that a deal is struck - Nestor, grandson of the woman in the park, Mrs. Zazueta, will provide agility training on the sly in his grandmother's backyard if Robyn brings snacks and Alejandra provides math tutoring for the three of them. What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out that Fudge and Sundae really can't to agility training, but Nestor comes up with the idea of doing ability training instead, and it really works out well for the two dogs. Before long, they are joined by William, a friend of Alejandra, and his dog. But Robyn is so set on following her Rules that she keeps telling herself that the ability training is just a business arrangement and Nestor, Jonathan, Alejandra, and now William are not really friends, enabling her to keep her distance.

On the other hand, Robyn continues to hang out with Lulu and Marshan, despite feeling uncomfortable with some of the judgey things they say. Both girls seem to get off on other people's difficulties, shortcomings and disabilities, including Sundae and Fudge, constantly remarking on their sad lives (and I kept wondering why Robyn couldn't see them for who they are). 

Nestor's ability class grows bigger, and the dogs doing it seem to be thriving until one day his grandmother catches the class in action. And she was angry. Will that be the end of ability training? 

I've never been the new kid in school, but I have a friend who was almost as often as Robyn. It can't be easy to make friends and have to leave them a year later. This new move may be permanent for Robyn and her mother, which would be nice, but Robyn is still very defensive about making friends. I thought that her difficulties were realistically portrayed, though, and she was lucky to have a babysitter who understood what was going on with her. Still, Finnegan shows all they ways Robyn's Rules didn't work. 

The problem with Robyn's Rules is that it means all her relationships with other kids is always superficial, and she never gets to see what's below their surface, what the other kids are really like or what their story is. And they never get to see the real Robyn. 

As much as I liked New Kids & Underdogs, I wish it had been a little bit shorter. I thought Robyn's dilemma went on too long and she began to get annoying. I realize she was defensive and didn't want to experience the kinds of fails she had in previous schools, but her refusal to not give in to what she wanted was just too drawn out, especially given who Lulu and Marshan are. But I would still recommend this novel. It's a fast read and does come to a satisfying conclusion, with a valuable lesson for anyone, whether they are new kids or not.   

A thoughtful story about learning to look beneath the surface and be a better friend.” —Kirkus

A Junior Library Guild Selection

Meet the Author:

Margaret Finnegan is the author of We Could Be Heroes and Susie B. Won’t Back Down, both Junior Library Guild Selections. Her other works have appeared in FamilyFun Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Salon, and other publications. She lives in South Pasadena, California, where she enjoys spending time with her family, walking her dog, and baking really good chocolate cakes. To learn more, and to download free discussion guides, visit

Twitter: @FinneganBegin

Instagram: @finneganbegin

Just like the kids in New Kids & Underdogs, you can ability train your dog! Check out the fun tips here!

Thank you to Barbara Fisch at Blue Slip Media for providing a review copy of New Kids & Underdogs.

Instagram: @blue_slip_media

Facebook: Blue Slip Media
You can see all of this week's wonderful MMGM books thanks to Greg at Always in the Middle


  1. I really enjoyed reading this as well. Being the new kid many a time, I could relate to Robyn's feelings, although I usually just tried to start up a conversation and didn't try to make up so many rules. Happy MMGM

  2. I've never been the new kid in school. But I know this book will go over well with kids who move around a lot because they have parents in the military, new jobs, family separations etc. Had to chuckle at Robyn's rules -- they may be a guideline only -- but real life is the teacher as she discovers. Sounds like an important read for many kids who will identify.

  3. I love the dog training angle in the book, and I think it must be really hard for kids who are the 'new kid'. I was usually the late kid - the one who started a week after everyone else and when all the friendships were formed and seats picked, and that was hard!!! (nothing compared to being new though). Thanks for sharing!

  4. Never the new kid, but always had to follow a sibling's perfect record. I enjoyed this book for the dog agility angle. Great review as always, Alex, and thanks for posting it on this week's MMGM.

  5. Thoughtful review. Sounds like a super-abundance of characters too! Carol Baldwin

  6. Being the new kid is difficult, so it makes for good fodder for middle-grade books. There are plenty of them, and this one sounds really good. Thanks for telling me about it. I will try to check it out.

  7. dogs and mean girls - what could go wrong indeed! this one sounds too good to miss, though I totally understand what you mean by "it could have been shorter" - it would not be the only book generating such thoughts...

  8. I've never been a new kid but imagine it would be difficult. Books that go on a little too long are not as enjoyable as ones with tighter plots. Glad you liked this one anyway.


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