(without getting your head flushed) and Deal with an Ex-Best Friend, ... um, Girls, and a Heartbreaking Hamster
by Donna Gephart
Peachtree Press / Random House 2010
I think the only thing the title doesn't include is the main character's love of Jon Stewart, and perhaps the fact that he isn't legally old enough to have a YouTube account...
David Greenberg is a bit of a nebbish who wants so much to be like Jon Stewart when he grows up that he spends his free time creating a one-man TV show called Talk Time. The show comes off like n amalgamation of different late night elements – a top six-and-a-half list, a quasi monologue, and a regular feature called "The Moment of Hammy" featuring David's pet hamster. But just before the first day of school David and his best friend Elliot have a falling out and – because you can't have a middle grade story without a bad guy – Elliot teams up with the school bully to make Elliot's transition to middle school a nightmare. The girl of the title is Sophie, a whipsmart, previously homeschooled girl who not only loves his videos but manages to get them a wider audience that spreads all the way to the top. And by that I mean they get the attention of the producers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In the end scores are settled, amends are made, and David might just survive middle school after all.
I've been knee deep in a fair amount of middle grade books with boy main characters lately, and I've had a difficult time reconciling these characters with real middle grade boys. It isn't that they're way off base in characterization so much as they all seem so narrowly focused. And I don't necessarily mean self-centered (though there is a bit of that) but that their desires and behaviors are confined to a personal goal, a school-based conflict, a home-based conflict, and a resolution that comes with external aid or understanding and not entirely from within the character themselves. I guess I'm sensing a formula, and by the looks of it I'm going to have to conclude it's a successful one in terms of getting published.
Something else that always comes to mind is that readers of this age tend to be younger than the main character by a few years. In this case the ideal reader is going to be nine or ten years old. So what is an older elementary school reader going to get from this reading experience? The idea that middle school is something to fear? That you should be career minded by the age of eleven? That all it takes is a YouTube account and a girlfriend with a homeschool network to become famous enough to take newspaper interviews and land on national television?
I suppose the other thing that eats at me is this idea of a bully as a stock character to be overcome without addressing the actual problems or solutions of bullying in the first place. The bully as an obstacle, entrenched as a brick wall, with no attempt to understand the reasons beyond the superficial "he has no father" or "she's just insecure." As we've seen in the news lately, though it's hardly new, the reasons for bullying and the way students and adults deal with it is far more nuanced than some kid offering up knuckle sandwiches or adults saying "There oughta be a law."
In How to Survive Middle School... Tommy Murphy is a kid whose name screams stock character from the rafters. If it had been written that he was born in the back of an Irish bar, I wouldn't have been surprised. "That kid's crazy mean" David's cousin Jack warns him, and apparently that's all you need to know. Like Checkov's maxim that a gun in the first act will be fired by the third, an off-screen bully introduced at the beginning of the story is going to be nothing but a menace throughout.
At this level the bully ceases to exist as a character and simply becomes a device. An antagonist without a narrative arc of their own who stands out like a two-dimensional cut-out in a crowded room reduces the other characters to little more than plot devices themselves. Yes, a main character needs obstacles to overcome, but they need to be organic to the story, they need to rise from the characters desires and not simply a road block plonked into the middle of the road.
So I guess in this roundabout way I've decided that for David Greenberg the only thing that stands between him and fame is... nothing. Because despite his mom having run off to be a hippie beet farmer, his best friend taking sides with the cardboard bully, and being liked by a new girl to the school, all of poor David's conflicts have nothing to do with whether or not he can achieve notoriety for his videos.