Science Fair Season by Judy Dutton purports to be an inside look at the world of high school science fairs, but while well written, frequently heartwarming, and genuinely interested in depicting its protagonist’s personal struggles at home and school, when the focus shifts to the science and science fairs, the observation becomes that of a casual observer at times more excited by gossip and brushes with celebrity then what makes the subject truly unique.
The most complete and important success in Science Fair Season is its ability to pique curiosity. Eleven chapters focus on a different personal struggle toward the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair. Each has the clear focus and narrative strength of a very strong Cosmopolitan or Glamour article. The children featured are all clearly remarkable individuals, most of whose lives and adventures in science could probably support entire books, but here they seem to be presented in soft focus to smooth down any rough edges and fit them into recognizable categories: the brilliant poor kid who invents with junk; the socially awkward robotics genius; the gorgeous, fashionable blonde whose exterior hides a sharp, scientific mind; “The Next Bill Gates.”
The discomfort with unpleasantness is never more apparent then in the chapter entitled “Stars Behind Bars” which explores juvenile correctional facility science fair entrants. The first paragraph contains the sentences, “It was swelteringly hot, but women within Eagle Point weren’t allowed to wear sleeveless shirts. I felt it best not to ask why.” What? Why wouldn’t you want to know? The first statement practically drips with the promise of an interesting story. Why mention it if you were going to shy away?
From there this is the only chapter that is almost entirely focused on a mentor to children rather than the kids themselves. By itself there is nothing wrong with this focus, but in the context of the book it seems like Dutton uses the shift to distance us and her from troubled kids who stand a significantly higher chance of ending unhappily.
While I feel there were many opportunities missed to explore the science that truly interested me in favor of things like brushes with fame (appearances on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Conan O’Brien, Good Morning America) and gossip (“And yet, sitting there, with a beautiful girl he’d just met, Philip couldn’t care less…At this point in the story, Philip, out of respect for the girl’s privacy, wouldn’t tell me what happened next. This was fine as far as I was concerned. Sometimes, it’s better to let the imagination run wild, rather than know all the facts.”) Science Fair Season is often intelligent, clear and succeeds in drawing interest to its subject. I have no doubt there is an audience ready for this book.