Friday, May 28

Belly Up

by Stuart Gibbs
Simon and Schuster  2010

When the recently-deceased hippo mascot of a zoo turns out to have been murdered it falls to a 12 year old boy to solve the mystery none of the adults seem to be able to, but not without the help of a girl. 

Did that sound cynical?  Huh, I wonder why.

Could it be another mystery (albeit with an unusual victim) solved by a kid where no adult seems able to get to the bottom of things?  Could it be that the boy, who is all action and no thought, absolutely could not have solved anything without the help of the girl whose father own the zoo?  Could it be because it's impossible to imagine such an immense zoo run by so many incompetent adults?

And don't get me started about ANOTHER book where the boy needs a smart girl to solve the mystery.  

I was trying to understand why this bothered me so much, why there's such a line in sand between smart kids and dumb adults in fiction, and I think it's a misreading of what kids want.  To a kid's perspective everything adults do, they way they think and behave, comes with a set of knowledge that was developed over time.  The world of a kid runs by its own rules and the conflict comes when what they think bumps against the harsh reality.  It's the struggle of trying to puzzle out the world. 

But the way this gets represented in books is that there is an external problem to be solved and only the kids care enough to take it, only the kids are smart enough to get to the bottom of things.  The adults are obstacles meant to complicate plot but not to represent a real conflict between kid-think and adult-think.

So in Belly Up, when Teddy Fitzroy decides he needs to report the FunJungle mascot, Henry the Hippo, has been murdered the police right him off with all the gruff derision of a b-movie cop.  Large Marge, the beat security guard, is physically just a mountain to outrun.  The zoo director Martin del Gato is a Snidley villain to glower (and one can imagine twirling a mustache) and make people's lives miserable because his life is miserable.  The only reason Teddy is smarter than the adults is because he is surrounded by stereotypes and not adults. 

This is no less true in Hiassen's Hoot or Sacher's Holes, though both of those books are better at this sort of game because they bother to develop characters in the process.  For Hiassen there is a dynamic between recent transplant Roy, runaway Mullet Fingers, and his bruiser of a sister Beatrice that underscores their very different personalities and upbringings.  For Sacher there is a layer of magical realism in both Stanley's family history and in locale.  Gibbs tries, I think, to give Teddy a concerned wildlife researcher for a mother that feeds the boy's desire to see justice done over a murdered hippo, but if his mother was really that concerned she would have actually done more to stop the building of this farcical zoo before it ever opened.  I don't buy the "she was promised to supervise that it was done right" argument because principled individuals are wary of too-good-to-be-true offers like this, especially from wealthy industrialists who build mammoth zoos on a whim for the sake of their young daughters. 

Gibbs does write with insider's knowledge of zoos, showing the ugly underbelly of what it means to "educate" and entertain people with exotic animals, but its not enough to pull the book out of the realm of perfect-for-TV-movie-adaptation.

Wednesday, May 26


The Life and Art of Charles Schulz 
by Beverly Gherman 
Chronicle Books  2010 

A well-told and nicely-presented biography of the man who created the most loved comic strip of the 20th century

Reading this biography of Charles Schulz I found myself feeling as if I knew most of this story from previous sources.  I knew about his first published drawing being in a Ripley's Believe It Or Not panel, about his early drawing exercises, about the real names behind the characters names.  Here and there I found a tidbit I wasn't as clear about – that he won a Reuben award for his Peanuts strip, yes, but not that he actually accepted the award from its namesake Rube Goldberg – and the occasional detail that might have been shielded from my younger eyes in the past (divorce and remarriage weren't the kinds of things that used to be in biographies for children). 

This time, amid the narrative that gambols casually through time and not always 100% linearly, what I was most struck with was how incredibly lucky Schulz life had been.  I'm not saying he didn't have talent or skills, but for as socially awkward as he was and for as insecure he never really had to suffer.  He had his early years in the wilderness immediately following his career in the Army after WWII, but when he landed his first syndicated cartoon strip, it was Peanuts and he spent the next fifty years doing it.  After those first ten years he produced a Christmas special that became an iconic tradition.  Second probably to Mickey Mouse, Snoopy may be the the most identifiable character the world over, and the man never had a full studio or a theme park to make it happen. 

It seems impossible that Schulz could have walked any other path in his life, that he was called to do this one thing and he nailed it.  He didn't dream any of it, so he can't be said to have followed the usual "do what you love" sort of thinking we often impress upon children that leads them to long for stardom.  He had a talent, he knew the job, he sat down and executed it the best he could.

This message isn't overtly stated, and I'm not sure how much that is by design.  I think that biographies ought to strive to present information in a way that allows the reader to draw conclusions while providing a clear picture of the individual being portrayed.  Gherman does that here, and while there are probably few young readers who know the comic strip but might know the TV specials, this book could provide a perfect introduction to the man and invite further investigation.

Monday, May 24

Martin Gardner 1914 - 2010

I don't know that I would have cared that much for the books of Lewis Carrol if it hadn't been for Martin Gardner.  I certainly never would have discovered The Hunting of the Snark back in fifth grade, and I don't know that I would have enjoyed lateral thinking if I hadn't discovered Perplexing Puzzles and Tantalizing Teasers around the same time.  As an adult, an educator, seeking sources for presenting logic problems and puzzles to students Gardner's Aha! books reminded me not only of those earlier books but that he had been a much larger influence on my reading then I realized.  

The summer of 1972 my family moved to another part of town, to a new neighborhood.  In those odd, alienated days of late June I remember exploring my new neighborhood and discovering the local branch of our town library.  It was carved into the stage left wing of my new school's cafetorium, a room perhaps ten feet wide and forty feet long.  Seeing that our family of six had just moved from a two-bedroom apartment to a spacious three-bedroom house the smallness didn't seem unusual or limiting to me; cramped living arrangements happened in the world, libraries included.  The library was an open-armed sanctuary with a choice selection of books for a lonely 11 year old boy.  That library and its books shaped a lot of who I am as a person and a reader.  

I was probably looking for books I already knew – Pick a Peck of Puzzles by Arnold Roth seems likeliest – when I stumbled onto Martin Gardner.  I remember Perplexing Puzzles looking very approachable, with clear language and Laszlo Kubinyi's pen and ink illustrations, even though I often couldn't solve the riddles or puzzles.  Unlike many of the other similar books intended for children the puzzles didn't talk down to me as a reader or go for short term entertainment; the problems invited contemplation even after I had given up and gone in search of the answers in the back of the book.

When I went in search of more books by Gardner I was surprised to be led to Alice in Wonderland, exhaustively annotated by Gardner and full of crazy details outlining all of Carrol's logic and whimsy.  I confess, I might not have actually read Alice before then, having probably assumed I knew all I needed to know from the Disney movie adaptation.  I do know that I read and grew a deeper appreciation for for the possibilities of nonsense even when it wasn't thick with hidden meaning.  The invention of words, Carrol's definition of portmanteau words, the rhythm of the language... I can't say I would have picked that up without Gardner and might not have continued my friendship with books and libraries if I wasn't constantly in search of the type of surprise that came with discovering books like Gardner's. 

Edward Lear wasn't far behind, and books of codes and ciphers, Ray Bradbury and Vonnegut closely after that.  Although it sometimes seems like very distinct, wildly disparate times in my reading timeline the through-line from Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House is a scant two years.  And in between I don't know how many times I went back to Gardner to help pull at the taffy of my brain and expand it further into shape for lateral thinking.

I don't know that the current generation of emerging adolescent readers have anyone doing for them what Gardner did for me back then, but at least his books are still in print and widely available just in case.

Monday, May 10

The Last Great Getaway of the Water Balloon Boys

by Scott William Carter
Simon & Schuster  2010 

Two boys hit the road in a stolen car on a journey to both run away from and confront their parental relationships.  It's practically a teenage Roger Corman film from the 1960s, except it isn't.

Sensitive artist Charlie can't believe his mom is about to marry her stiff accountant boyfriend, while at school he's being menaced by bully Leo because he dared to ask Leo's girlfriend to the prom.  He's about to take a pounding after school when Charlie's ex-best friend turned bad boy Jake pulls up in a stolen car (the principal's) and takes them on an unplanned road trip that leads to a dead kid four states away.

The book opens with Charlie explaining that he has to backtrack a few days to tell you how he ended up killing this kid, which becomes the hook that drags the reader the rest of the way.  Who is this kid that gets killed?  Why and how does he do it?  What happened during those three days that made this inevitable?  Read on, read on... 

Charlie really is a straight laced bit of worrywart, and Jake has clearly become a loose cannon since the days when the boys would pall around beaning people with water balloons.  Jake smokes, steals cars, makes out with girls casually, and generally is the sort of kid Charlie would have to be warned to stay away from.  But when Jake comes to his rescue Charlie can't shake that somewhere beneath this tough boy act is the same kid he used to call a friend.  Being weak-willed, Charlie goes for the ride as they outrun cops, hitch a ride with a suicidal girl they meet on the road, and try to make things right even in the midst of screwing things up with every turn. 

That Charlie, the "good" one of the two, manages to be the one who pulls the trigger (it's self defense, but the boys aren't in the right) underscores the point that if he were truly good he had dozens of opportunities to get out of the car and away from Jake.  Of course, Jake the "bad" one has good reasons for his actions, even if he masks them behind his arrogant braggadocio.  In the end it's a frantic, unplanned, twisted road trip of two teen boys working out their father issues and the unfinished business that broke their friendship.

The story breezes like a screenplay for a two-teens-on-the-run type of story.  It doesn't seem promising when it opens with the typical trouble-at-home, trouble-at-school scenario, but it quickly burns rubber from these scenes and turned out to be better than I had expected.  I don't know what I expected.

Maybe it has to with the title.  The Last Great Getaway would be fine of there were other getaways prior to this, but it's all one, long, single getaway so that seems misleading.  It's also pretty generic sounding, so I understand adding of the Water Balloon Boys, except for the fact that it suddenly makes the story sound a lot more juvenile than it really is.  The first half of the title could be Raymond Chandler and the second half Neil Simon.

Thursday, May 6

How to Survive Middle School...

(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.

Tuesday, May 4

City of Spies

by Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan 
artwork by Pascal Dizin 
First Second Press 2010 

This World War II espionage graphic novel set in New York is nothing short of an American cousin to Tintin, right down to the ligne claire style of artwork and youngsters in peril and adventure. 

It's 1942 and young Evelyn is getting dumped onto her NYC Aunt Lia so her dad can get married again.  Used to being left to her own, she creates the continuing comic adventures of Zirconium Man and his sidekick Scooter, who resembles Evelyn.  After a rocky start, she teams up with Tony, the super's boy, and they spend the summer searching the streets of New York for Nazi spies.  When Evelyn discovers a code template and works out its meaning, she and Tony attempt to route out the spies themselves, but they get in way over their head and find themselves hoping they've left enough of a trail that they can be saved in the nick of time. 

This doesn't even scratch the surface of what is going on in City of Spies, which is part of what makes it a rollicking adventure story.  The fact that Evelyn's family is Jewish, that they live in an ethnic neighborhood where everyone is desperately trying to cover their ethnic roots behind red, white, and blue patriotism, not only gives some great background to what wartime America was like but serves as a subtle echo to modern times where post-9/11 businesses were forced to place American flags in their windows for the same reasons.  As Evelyn and Tony discover, it's easy to see foreign agents wherever you look, and far too often it's the people who have assimilated themselves all too well who avoid suspicion.

At times I found Evelyn's comic book interludes to be a bit contrived.  They exist to give insight into how Evelyn is feeling – about being abandoned by her father, about losing her mother, about the nightmare of creeping Nazi fascism – and they rarely added enough to be worthwhile.  I was grateful at the end when her comics shifted toward an Evelyn-and-Tony team of Indiana Jones-type of adventurers, her fantasy realm now based on a cooperative friendship instead of paternalistic heroism.

The writing in brisk and well paced, with enough story for the secondary characters to move around in as well.  Dizin's art and color palate does Herge one better in presenting New York as a city with more that six colors; I don't fault Herge's limitations, he was one of the best at the time, but color processing was different 70 years ago. Would it be too much to hope for more Evelyn stories, adventures of a spunky girl in peril set in the mid-century that entertain against a historical background?  It might take a bit of jiggering (dad moves to New York so Tony could continue to be involved?) but I suspect this would hit the Tintin audience – boys and girls alike – and do very well.