Duncan Dorfman, age twelve, has a superpower: He can read with the fingertips of his left hand. But not much else in his life is going right. His mom has lost her job, so they've moved back to her home town of Drilling Falls, PA. Fortunately, Great-aunt Djuna took them in and got Mom a job at Thriftee Mike's Warehouse. Unfortunately for Duncan, Aunt Djuna is a vegan cook and her house smells permanently of yams. Mom begs him to keep his power secret, because "If you don't, I'm afraid something bad will happen." He's always felt protective of his mom, who lost Duncan's father before his birth and is plagued by migraines. So he really means to keep the secret, except he sort of tells/shows the one boy in school who doesn't pick on him. Since he does so in the lunchroom, he is overheard by Carl, the class mean boy, who is also the class rich boy, who is also a national Scrabble tournament competitor. Instantly realizing what a help Duncan can be in drawing Scrabble tiles, Carl dumps his prior Scrabble partner and tells Duncan he wants him to be his partner at the tournament in FL in December. Duncan, lured by the idea of prize money for his mom and decent social status for himself, agrees.
But on the opposite coast, in Portland, Oregon, April Blunt and her friend Lucy are planning to win the Youth Scrabble Tournament. April is the only non-athlete in a family of jocks, and she wants more than anything to prove to them that Scrabble is a sport. Besides that, several years ago she met a boy she can't forget. She taught him enough Scrabble to play one game, and was fascinated by the way they seemed to connect, yet she had never learned his name or where he lived. Knowing it's probably silly, April still loves to fantasize that the boy kept up with Scrabble and that she might meet him at the tournament.
Nate Saviano lives with his father in a sumptuous New York apartment. It not only has a recording booth; it has an indoor skate park! Nate's mom, her new doctor husband, and their new baby live nearby, and everybody gets along quite well. Unfortunately for Nate, his father cannot get over the fact that, as a twelve-year-old himself, he and his partner came in second at the YST. He's been forever grooming Nate to avenge his loss, even homeschooling him as an excuse to drill him on nothing but Scrabble. All Nate wants is to return to school with his friends and ride his skateboard. He figures the only way to get his dad off his back is to win the tournament. But what he really wants is for his dad to get over his own childhood loss, get his life unstuck, and move on.
When these three meet at the tournament, they become friends. Wolitzer does an outstanding job of using the game of Scrabble to show the characters' lives intersecting and their views of themselves changing. There are plenty of layers, surprises, suspense (we know one, and only one of the three and his or her partner will win), humor, and moral choices here; likable characters; and a well-paced, intriguing plot. The POV is split among the three kids, but we also get snatches of adult POVs plus omniscient narration. This book contains delights much too numerous to mention--evangelical characters who aren't teased, for one--and a good overview of Scrabble in a way that's fully integrated with the story and not at all boring. Definitely recommended!