Saturday, May 19

Operation: Dump the Chump

by Barbara Park
Random House / Yearling 1982
(Knopf 1979)

This is probably the middle grade reader best used as an example for how to outline a middle grade reader. It's right there in the third chapter, written as a list of things Oliver has planned out in order to get rid of his annoying younger brother, Robert, involving an elderly couple who live down the street:

1. Tell Hensons that Robert needs a home.
2. Tell parents that Hensons need a boy.
3. Put fake ad in the paper from Hensons.
4. Show ad to parents.
5. Put fake ad in paper from parents.
6. Show ad to Hensons.
7. Write fake letter to Hensons.
8. Write fake letter to parents.

A couple chapters up front to set the scene and show what Oscar hates about his brother, a chapter where the plan goes awry and another to wrap things up and that's it. The idea is to convince his parents to send his brother away to live with the Hensons down the street, and to convince the Hensons that they want to take Robert in. There's all kinds of cover stories involved about Oliver's father losing his job (he doesn't) or old man Henson being unable to get around his garden (untrue) and every other little fib along the way to make the plan work.

The twist should be obvious, as any boy's plan is bound to bite back in a middle grade reader, and you know what? That's why kids read through to the end, because they want to know how it's going to go bad, how bad it's going to go, and what the fallout looks like.

My co-worker Anna (who really should do a blog of her own, because she'd rock) reread this recently and said her teacher read it to her back in elementary school. It still held up and it's easy to see the appeal. The story is solid, everything moves along at a clip, and the anticipation that builds from knowing that everything Oscar attempts somehow goes askew (despite his "perfect planning") is exactly what keeps kids coming back to books like this.

Having the chapter outline practically spelled out in Oscar's to-do list is interesting because it really does open itself up for classroom lessons on plotting and on how to avoid the predictable. How many ways can this outline go wrong, and how long can things go right before they have to start falling apart at the seams? I've read some truly dreadful galleys lately that could have used this lesson, from adults who ought to know better. Or at least their editors should. I'm not saying new ground is being broken here, only that there's a reason this book has lasted more than two decades.

Take a look at that cover. You look at that and you think "Huh, the older brother's going to have his kid brother taken away by movers. How's that going to work?" It doesn't. There are no movers involved. This cover is part of a recent redesign of all the Barbara Park books, one of those things publishers do to keep older titles that still have some life in them "fresh." I can't fault them for the practice although it would be nice if the cover image actually made sense.

This was Barbara Park's first book for kids and she's had quite a run. I'm just going to pretend that I've never heard of Junie B. Jones and check out a few more of her earlier books.