On the spot thinking and problem solving is as old as Hansel and Gretel and still engaging because children want to believe in the power of their minds and wills to control their world. To do that, they have to imagine themselves being resourceful and quick thinking. Harry Potter is always figuring out escapes and turn-abouts. The draw behind the Home Alone movies is that a kid can outwit adults. At critical points in a middle reader story, I picture a good teacher stopping and asking, “How would you solve this?”

       Here’s a scene from my novel, Zan, City Cowboy, where a kid thinks outside the box and outwits an adult in the process:

 Background: Carlos, faced with a flat tire on a loaded hay wagon, is trying to decide how he might jack up the wagon to put on a spare tire.

“You don’t need to raise the truck. You just need to lower the ground,” Zan said.

“What ?” Carlos demanded.

“Just put some logs under the axle.”

“And then…?” Carlos coaxed.

Zan looked at the wrangler as if the rest was obvious. Carlos shrugged – I don’t know. “What?”

Zan answered like a teacher explaining something for the third time. “You dig a hole under the tire. Put on the spare. Fill up the hole. Then you drive the truck away.”

       I think it’s important to look for stories that reinforce cleverness in action. And I think it’s important to challenge students to puzzle out solutions and write about them. Here’s another example of quick thinking to thwart a bully from Can Do, Zan:

 Background: Zan is in the principal’s office and later is confronted by the bully, Lazelle, in the boy’s locker room.

Inside the office, Zan had just sat down when the phone rang. Mr. Akers answered, “Oh, hello Mrs. Thompson. How can I help you?” Mr. Akers nodded in agreement. “I understand. Your son is frightened by the bullying he’s being subjected to.”

Bored, Zan studied Mr. Aker’s phone and memorized the number written on the front: 585-9905.

The head of the academy nodded several times, “I couldn’t agree more. We will not tolerate this kind of behavior. And I can assure you if I ever run across an older student harassing an underclassman I will come down hard.” Hanging up the phone, Mr. Akers paused. Stared out the window. Then, as if he suddenly remembered that Zan was there, he said, “What are we going to do with you, Alexander? You just don’t like patterned activity. But so much of life is based on just that kind of routine…”

 After gym class that afternoon, Zan heard Lazelle talking to his buddy on the other side of the lockers.

“That punk Zan thinks he’s bad with his cool gym shoes.”

Zan reached for Kyle’s Blackberry, punched in 585-9905 then set it on the bench while he hurried to finish dressing.

“Got some bad gym shoes,” Lazelle said grabbing one off the bench.

“Hey, leave my shoes alone, Lazelle!” Zan said, turning his head toward the phone. “Give me back my shoe, man!”

“You don’t know how to lace up your shoes,” Lazelle said. “Your laces are too loose,” he continued, pulling the laces tight, then tying them in knots.

“Hey, man, leave my shoes alone,” Zan pleaded.

“Your shoes,” Lazelle replied. “How do we know they’re yours? I don’t see no name on them. Seems like you should have your name on them. Right across the toe. Anybody got a magic marker?” the oversized eighth grader yelled.

Suddenly the principal appeared. “Is there a problem here, gentlemen?”

“No problem, sir,” they all answered in unison.

“Well, I have a problem with the behavior I just witnessed. Come to my office, Lazelle.”

As soon as Lazelle left, Zan gave Kyle a low five. His buddy grinned and turned off the phone.