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In Edward Kay's first children's book, STAR Academy, he writes a comic adventure set in the world of academia and what J.K. Rowling's characters would call Muggles. Two hundred children with the very best and brightest scientific minds are rounded up to study at the Academy for Superior Thinking and Advanced Research. But who has brought them together? And, in a whirlwind of action that rockets from slapstick to satire and sometimes crosses the line into cruelty, where does it all lead? The answer: Into the inventive, comedic mind of Edward Kay.

The story begins at the local high school, where students are being judged on their entries in a science fair. Eleven-year-old Amanda Forsythe's exhibit consists of diagrams describing laser-powered interstellar travel in a spacecraft equipped with photon sails. The concept, based on quantum physics, is far beyond the comprehension of her dunderheaded principal and teacher, and, as their first line of defence, they turn to ridicule.

"Unfortunately, the presentations ... are supposed to be about science fact, not science fiction," Mrs. Wheedlbum says.

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"Why ... go off into space in ... this protein-sail space thingy?" Principal Murkly asks.

The trophies goes to a vacuum cleaner made to look like a robot and a scary project to cure hunger in Third World countries by re-engineering human genes. A computer-modified photo shows children "down on all fours wearing loincloths, happily grazing on grass, leaves, and soil."

Although Amanda loses the contest, two odd-looking women approach her; "their eyes seemed slightly large," and one has pencilled in eyebrows. Dr. Oppenheimer and Professor Leitspied from STAR Academy explain that they would like Amanda to take the entrance exam for a full scholarship to their boarding school.

Amanda's father, sales manager for the Achilles Bunion Remover Cream Corp., gives his consent, once he establishes that there are no hidden costs. Mrs. Forsythe wavers, however, thinking the academy might be a cult, setting the scene for a humorous encounter with a science tutor: "The hems of [Cyril Hopwood's]trousers hesitated unnaturally some distance above his ankles ... a huge colony of micro-organisms had established itself under his armpits ..." When Amanda tries to open the window, Mr. Hopwood complains of a chill and cranks up the thermometer. In the rising temperature of the enclosed room, the lesson begins.

"He pulled out an old, dog-eared volume ... and flipped it open to a mustard-stained page ... 'I think that's Mars over here,' he added, scratching at a small red sphere ... As he picked at it, the red sphere fell off onto the table. 'Oh, sorry, bit of dried ketchup,' he said."

Entering the over-heated, odoriferous room, Mrs. Forsythe cuts the lesson short and Amanda is allowed to attend STAR Academy.

The academy is outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, bedrooms have private labs, the cafeteria serves the finest food from every culture, and classrooms, meant to inspire, are decorated with holographic posters of endangered species.

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The flip side to these lush facilities is that the school is a hotbed of politics, infighting and conspiracy. The headmistress divides the children into two competing teams. The assignment is to invent a method of erasing bad childhood memories and, consequently, unhappiness in adults. Electrical impulses to the brain figure in both presentations, but Amanda's team wins by taking it one step further, demonstrating their theory on the evil Eugenia Snootman. (It seems more like temporary lobotomy when Eugenia can't even remember her name.) In the second competition, Eugenia offers Amanda $1-million to hand over her research. Naturally, our heroine declines.

The hidden agenda of the school finally surfaces when Sanjay, one of Amanda's team members, discovers that the academy is run by extraterrestrials, and that the aliens are bent on taking over the Earth. When Sanjay appeals to his teammates for help, they first suspect him of defecting to the other team, and think it is a ruse to get them expelled, or worse. But after Sanjay disappears and they see the aliens' spindly bodies for themselves, Amanda's team finds a way into town and contacts the police, and matters are brought under control.

Edward Kay masterfully uses a range of comedic forms, though his depictions of society seem harsh. From the inept school teachers to the simple-minded parents, the bumbling police and stereotypical government agents, there is little hope held out for our failing planet. Where are the lessons of understanding and respect in the greater school of human compassion?

But it is also true that Amanda and her colleagues bond in friendship, that family has value, and that Amanda doesn't sell out to Eugenia Snootman. Also true, research tells us humour can cure what ails us. The skillful Edward Kay is worth watching to see where his imagination might take us in a sequel. Indeed, the book's last line is, "Amanda had no way of knowing that her big adventure had barely begun."

Joan Yolleck works in administration at Ryerson University in Toronto. Her book, Paris in the Spring with Picasso, will be published next March.

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