February 16, 2024

Leon Levels Up (Orca Currents)

Written by Paul Coccia
Orca Book Publishers
112 pp.
Ages 9-12
RL 2.3
February 2024
Twelve-year-old Leon Garcia considers himself a low-level kid gamer. He's not low-level because of his game playing but because of who he is. All he sees is that he's chubby, his mom cuts his hair, he wears his cousin's hand-me-downs, and he uses outdated tech. So, when his classmate Nico Saito, son of the founder of video-game developer Pix Grid, approaches him and invites him to game together on the weekend, Leon is surprised, pleased, and nervous. Leon figures this could be his chance to level up his life, or at least his coolness.
But a day of gaming is not just hanging out at Nico's house. Instead, Nico takes Leon to Pix Grid where they meet up with Gabs Lucas in the lab to play a next-level virtual-reality game which is so immersive the two boys suit up in full-body tracking outfits before being dropped into tanks filled with nanobots. Though Leon's thrilled with how strong and tall and skilled he is as an elf archer, Gabs tells him she's lost the connection with Nico who may have damaged his helmet when he plunged headfirst into the tank. And with the nanobots programmed to fill every available space, there's the danger of hurting Nico.  The only way to get them out safely is for Leon to complete the mission of saving the kidnapped Prince SpearMint from the dragon Lord Tachi. Oh, and before the timer runs out.

Leon Levels Up has all the excitement of a video game adventure in which Leon evades and fights a dragon, an old hag, and some ogres, while figuring out clues and strategy to rescue Prince SpearMint. As with many quests, the learning is in the doing, and Leon is plunged into this VR game with its life-or-death outcome with only his wits and character. He might have hoped that gaming with Nico would level up his game, but his cleverness and perseverance demonstrate he's already top drawer. 

Author Paul Coccia, whose other books include I Got You Babe, The Player, and On the Line with Eric Walters, often gives voice to young people who question who they are and whether they are good enough, and that's many tweens and teens. (It's also most adults.) Except for the narcissistic and the very confident, we compare ourselves to others and whether we pass muster. When faced with the good-looking and rich Nico Saito, Leon turns to look within and take stock. He ruminates about how he will be seen and judged, while judging himself. Only when he's in the "Dragon Hunt" game does he eventually set that aside, first appreciating his new persona and skills but ultimately recognizing that it was him, low-level Leon, who won the game. Paul Coccia takes us for a wild ride in Leon Levels Up, all at a lower reading level than typical for the middle grade reader, but never forgets to remind us that Leon never needed to advance to a higher level of self. For a twelve-year-old, he was already there.

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