One of my interns was involved in teaching this novel in an 8th grade class. I would not have selected this myself, but the response of the teens to the book has changed my mind. It is a "safe" book for use in middle school or junior high and offers a strong story about friendship and acceptance of differences. I watched our 8th graders respond enthusiastically and with thoughtfulness to this book.
Although it has a Lexile score of 1000 I think this is a relatively easy read. It is quite short at 160 pages. Max, son of "Killer Kane" struggles to create his own identity if a community to remembers his father, now in prison, too clearly. His grandparents, in their own way, love him and try to care for him the best they can. On July 1st Max's life changes when Kevin, a teen with a genetic disorder that severely stunts his growth, moves in next door. Max and Kevin become fast friends, to the extent that they merge into one persona, "Freak the Mighty." By the end of summer "Freak the Mighty" is more than ready to take on the detractors they meet upon entering 8th grade.
As the mother of a "giant" (my son is 6'5" and a "large" man), I can appreciate the self-consciousness that plagues Max. My son, now an adult, moved through school taller than all of his teachers from 2nd grade on. (I'll admit his 2nd and 3rd grade teachers were "shortish", but my son was also quite "tallish.") I value this book for helping young adolescents develop greater appreciation for their peers that are not completely "average."
The story is told in 1st person limited and as a result readers have to content with a somewhat unreliable narrator. This is good practice since many of them will be taking on To Kill a Mockingbird in their 9th grade year. This book also resonates well with The Scarlet Ibis.
Philbrick is not an author I have been familiar with, but in researching him a bit it turns out that he and I are of the same generation and that he has been a pretty prolific writer. He has a 2010 Newbery Honor book that I think will be on my short list of books to read. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg has also been turned into a stage production and will be presented at the Kennedy Center in 2012.