"How Lunchbox Jones Saved Me From Robots, Traitors, and Missy the Cruel" by Jennifer Brown boasts a trifecta of topics and excitement in this middle grade novel. Luke is a seventh grader who loves to play video games and is roped into being part of an after school robotics team, complete with the odd assortment of misfits, including the title's infamous Lunchbox Jones. This sounds like a great setup, especially for STEM reading, and Jennifer Brown has a quirky sense of humor that creates vivid scenarios to mixed results...
Since there are a lot of positives and negatives, it seems easier to break it down by the different topics in the book:
Robots. With a robot on the cover and small programming descriptions at the start of each chapter, I thought this would be the most explored topic but it's mostly a plot device to get Luke involved with a band of misfits. After one disastrous robot run, Luke gives up on programming the robot, and there really isn't a lot of description in how robotics work, so it might be disappointing for kids wanting to learn about the science behind it. The band of misfits aren't very compelling either, mostly a group of kids with one weird quirk who don't contribute to the robot except to meddle and never engage with Luke or each other in dynamic ways until the robot competition where they're all best friends.
Traitors. The best part of the novel where it clearly has the most heart is in Luke's strained relationship with his brother, who is going off to the Marines. As eccentric as his family dynamics are, these are the relationships that ring true. Luke's betrayal of his brother's enlistment is the part given the most naturally unfolding plot, and actually ties in with Luke's character arc. The enlistment is dealt with in a multifaceted way, with Luke and his mother being worried, his dad and grandparents enthusiastic. While other people might find these parts dragging the otherwise brisk and easily consumable chapters, I felt like this was the greatest success in the narrative.
Missy the Cruel, Missy is a bully so relentlessly nasty, it's hard to believe she got away with her behavior for that long. Every piece of her dialogue is an insult, and she goes so far as to sabotage the robot when she moves to a new school, complete with a supervillain-esque "I will destroy you losers" speech in front of their teacher. The small aside given to her about her father issues doesn't offset the described years of cruelty, and there's scant interaction for Brown to showcase her behavior beside "the most unpleasant person ever," so when Luke admits near the end that she's probably not so bad on the inside, it doesn't feel like he grew or understood her but it's just something the novel is trying to moralize.
Lunchbox Jones and his relationship with Luke seems structured as the backbone of the novel, but it takes 2/3rds of the way for them to try talking to each other, so by the time they become friends it feels like it just sort of happened off page. But the revelation between Lunchbox Jones's disappearance galvanizing Luke to confront him about it and, in turn, confront his own avoidance of his brother is an excellent culmination of the story's many plot points.
In summation: there's a lot going on in this middle grade novel. While it falls back on quirky asides and fart jokes to keep reader's attention, there's a thread of a real emotional interest woven in the story, even if it's cluttered with the buzzes and whistles of a robotic theme.