by Robert Muchamore
James Choke is an ordinary 11-year-old with a few problems. His mum is an obese swindler who sells stolen electronics to the local soccer moms, and the other kids won’t stop hassling James about how fat his mum is. When James violently snaps at one of his schoolmates, causing her to get stitches, he lands himself in court. But his court visit isn’t until after he comes home one day and finds his mum dead in her favourite chair.
James gets put into a children’s home, and his sister Lauren has to live with her no-good dad. He falls into a rough crowd, and ends up attempting a liquor store robbery hours after his court visit. Shortly thereafter, he is recruited by CHERUB, an organization of child spies that finds crafty orphans like James and offers them an alternative to a life of crime. The training is hard, but James knows that if he quits, his life will continue to spiral out of control until he lands himself in jail.
This series is so much better than Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series. James is a more realistic character than Alex, and the other characters and all the plot twists are a little more grounded in reality. I’ve read nearly all the books in the series, and it seems to be far less problematic than other spy books I’ve tried. Where Alex Rider books come across as xenophobic and at times outright racist (Horowitz uses the term “Chinaman” in Snakehead), the CHERUB series actually includes gay people, women, and people of colour who contribute to the plot and are on the good guys’ side. I like that James isn’t perfect, and he isn’t just born with secret spy skills like Alex Rider is. I think the teens in this series are more realistic, and while the series includes progressive values the teens do not necessarily reflect them like characters in an after school special would. James gets pretty sleazy with the ladies and exhibits problematic behavior, but as in real life there are consequences. The worst cliché I see in CHERUB is the “environmental terrorists” trope that crops up a lot, but at least the main characters are sympathetic to environmental concerns, with one character even making a commitment to vegetarianism after a run-in with a PETA-like terrorist group.
These books are action-packed, gritty, and easy to read. Even though the main character is 11 when it starts, it is definitely more of a teen read because of the subject matter. They are perfect for older readers who just want something fast and fun and not too challenging, but at a teen level of maturity. Girls read these too and I don’t like gender stereotyping, but this is the ideal series for teen boys who aren’t usually into reading.