Monday, September 12

Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff

by Walter Dean Myers  
Viking Penguin  1975

A collection of vignettes of teen life in Harlem, though occasionally dated in language and setting, still as bold and authentic sounding as probably was back in the day.  

Francis, aka Stuff, moves to 115th street he finds the local kids wary of the newcomer until he proves his stuff (or lack thereof) on the basketball court. The good-natured humility test passes as a sort of ritual and Stuff is accepted as one of the gang.  

In the collected stories of Stuff recounts tales of broken homes, parental death, drug abuse, and several trips to the jail that echo the prejudices of the day. They also concoct crazy schemes – like dressing up a boy as a girl to enter a dance contest thinking they won't get caught – that rings with the sort of head-shaking humor that truly is kids being kids. The kids also experience the honesty and brutal truth of parents just trying to get by, and to that end they come together as a club that calls itself the Good People who vow to be there for one another. There aren't unrealistic heroics here, and no heavy moralizing either, simply stories of inner-city life told matter-of-fact and dialog heavy that show kids trying to sort out the world for themselves.   


I had the opportunity to hear Walter Dean Myers speak this past summer and it was fascinating to hear him talk about how he progressed from a short story writer to a novelist and how he didn't really concern himself with plot structure while writing Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff. This may explain part of its appeal and freshness on this current reread, because each of the "chapters" stands as a sort of freestanding story that builds on information from previous stories. Characters come and go and eventually a few threads pull together to reinforce a hard message about community support can only help those who are willing and open to the offer of help. What's refreshing is that the kids already know and articulate the messages the book delivers, long before the book delivers them, so instead of feeling hammered by what happens there's a sadness to the events that weighs on the reader just as it weighs on the kids.

It was also nice to see a novel-length collection of stories that meandered at a comfortable pace through their own time. The self-contained nature of the chapters allows for readers to take a break and reflect if they want or to plunge ahead and see 'what happens next" to Stuff and his crew. The over effect becomes a series of shorter pieces that might, these days, might be extended into larger novels and strung together as a series. So often what I hear people say about series is that they love the characters and want to know more about what they do next, but far too often I find myself impatient with series titles because they seem to have been plotted to draw out the narrative in order to justify their continuing adventures in subsequent volumes.

What Myers does, inadvertently by his account, is give us sketches of characters who grow with each story and expand our knowledge as we go. It is probably possible to take these sketches and better integrate them into a single, more unified narrative which would give the story an overall master effect that would do more to draw attention to the author than the story. This is actually a fairly large problem I have with first-person point-of-view middle grade novels where the author's mannered style or carefully knotted plot gives the story more of a deliberate literary feel and less a sense character verisimilitude. 

So huzzah for Walter Dean Myers and his innocence in crafting a novel with more heart and soul than structure and self-consciousness.


Tiny note about the current cover I see circulating these days, not the one above: It has the silhouette of a boy blowing a trumpet with the city in the background. That's all well and good but Stuff plays a saxophone, people, and after previous covers were clear to include a sax if baffles me as to why they would change it. One of the stories begins with the boys headed into town to get a new reed for Stuff's sax but then they end up in jail. There's no reason I could see why these later editions would change the text (so he could go buy a new trumpet mouthpiece?) so I can't understand why they would do this and I sincerely hope that the next chance they get the publishers return to the sax. Or, as the original paperback cover had, the kids hanging out on the stoop.

Wednesday, September 7


by Jo Knowles   
Henry Holt  2011  

When fifteen year old Pearl (aka Bean) loses her grandfather, the one person she felt knew and loved her best, a whole world of secrets open up that forces her to question everything she's ever believed about her world.

Pearl, who goes by the nickname Bean, and her best friend Henry are self-separated outcasts. Henry's mom Sally spends her days watching soap operas on TV, refuses to leave the house, and has spent the last fifteen years expecting her husband to come home while poor Henry is self-conscious of his profuse sweating. Bean lives with her grandfather Gus who seems to love her more than his own daughter Lexie, Bean's mother, who likewise cannot stand Gus. The rift between Gus and Lexie is strong and loud and it leaves Bean siding with her grandfather simply because her mother shows no interest in her. In their private misery Henry and Bean find comfort in each others company.  

When Gus dies Bean is crushed and then angered at the way Lexie and her mother's friend Claire seem to be celebrating the fact. Bean manages to convince Sally to leave her house for the first time by inviting her to Gus's funeral which allows Lexie and Claire to help Sally address the reality of her situation, that her husband isn't coming home. While Bean and Henry attempt to understand their world as it turns upside down they discover first that Bean was conceived out of spite against Gus, and that the cause of that spite was Gus's intolerance over Lexie's sexual orientation. 

Further complications arise when Henry and Bean's friendship veers toward the rocks of becoming something more serious while Bean begins piecing together clues about her biological father that happen to line up with Henry's father's disappearance. Fortunately for all involved that particular story thread doesn't happen to tie together and the story ends with all five characters out of the shadows of their long-kept secrets, stronger and supportive of one another.  


There's something very Southern about the feel of this story, something rural, or at the least very country about it that I can't quite put my finger on. It could be the closeness of the characters, the focus on food for comfort, or my own stilted perspective that comes from stories that are more rooted in character than in place. Or perhaps it comes from a deeper desire on my part to want to assign the story's central theme of intolerance to a time long past, something sad and bucolic like a country song or an old movie in sepia tones. 

There also something interesting going on with the framing of the story, between Gus's last words and Bean's reflection on them at the end. Having seen Gus yell at Lexie and accuse her of dressing "loose" and essentially bringing on the rape that caused Lexie (the rape being a fabrication the teenage Lexie uses to further justify her actions) we know that Gus has given up on his own daughter and instead begun to use Bean as a substitute for the daughter he wished he had. His last words to Bean as she's leaving for the day are simply "Be good." And while there was never and indication that she had or would behave otherwise, it becomes the defining statement against Lexie, the unspoken suffix to his admonition being "...unlike your mother."

Of course, there's nothing actually bad about Lexie other than the fact that she had an unsupportive parent and thus never really learned how to raise Bean, and the reader begins to wonder if Bean was little more than an emotional pawn between Gus and Lexie's battles. But in the end, after the dust settles and all truths have been explored and exhausted, Bean reflects back on Gus's last words. She thinks Don't worry, Gus, I'll be fine.  I don't want to over-read this, but since we have learned that Bean and Henry have genuine affection for each other, and there's is a "traditional" heterosexual attraction, I can't help but wonder if Bean's silent assurance to Gus is that he needn't worry that she'll turn out "bad" like her mother. After fifteen years of tension it will take years to sort out the damage and here, standing in the fresh echoes of her dead grandfather's voice, it isn't one hundred percent clear that Bean fully accepts her mother's choice of partner or even lifestyle. Gus clearly was wrong, and Bean comes to understand that, but she cannot shake the thought that had he been more accepting she wouldn't have been conceived at all. 

Sadly, there are probably many teens out there who will benefit from Pearl story. It's a safe window into the world where even adult children struggle with their parents and poor decision-making has long and lasting effects, especially when they involve sex and behavior based on anger and spite.

Monday, September 5

Bake Sale

by Sara Varon  
First Second 2011  

The long-awaited (by me at least) new graphic novel by the author of Robot Dreams, proprietor of unusual parallel worlds. Recipes included.   

Cupcake is a cupcake who is the owner of a bakery that makes, among other things, cupcakes. It may take a moment of adjustment, but if you can get past that – and vegetables that eat carrot cake, and eggs that drink coffee, etc. – you'll be fine.  

Cupcake has his routine down. He gets up, bakes some fresh pastries, makes fresh coffee, sells his goods to his regulars, then in the evenings plays drums with his band. It's a god life, but it is a routine, and Cupcake actively tries to learn new things to prevent the routine from becoming mundane. When it comes out that his friend Eggplant has an aunt is friends with Turkish Delight, the greatest pastry chef in the world, Cupcake's dormant crush takes over his thoughts. Determined to meet Turkish Delight where he knows they will instantly become close friends, Cupcake quits the band and spends his extra time selling baked goods outside of his store in order to earn enough extra money for the trip to Turkey with Eggplant.

But just as Cupcake has earned enough money Eggplant loses his job and Cupcake is not willing to take the trip without his friend. In a gesture of friendship Cupcake gives his travel money to Eggplant so that he can visit his aunt, but this puts Cupcake in a funk. Without a band, without his best friend, and with no chance of meeting Turkish Delight, Cupcake loses interest in baking and attempts to sell day-old coffee and stale pastries. Eggplant returns and inspires Cupcake to enter a baking contest using fresh spices he brought back from Turkey with talk about what they will do with the prize: a pair of round-trip tickets to anyplace in the world. While Eggplant suggest they can return to Turkey and meet Turkish Delight, but Cupcake notes that it doesn't have to be Turkey, suggesting he has gotten over the folly of his crush and recognizes the value of the friendships he has at hand.  In the back of the book there are eight recipes from "Cupcake's Repertoire," items featured in the story. 

While I freely admit that it's stupid to have any expectation about any author's work, I was not expecting this story at all. Defying expectations, that's a good thing, but I think what I first had to get over was the imposition of logic my brain kept trying to force onto the story. Why I was so easily willing to accept a robot-building dog without issue but had to struggle with a cupcake-baking cupcake might say something about how easily we accept anthropomorphism with things traditionally given brains as opposed to inanimate objects like produce and bake goods. But then, what to make of the Gingerbread Man?

It wasn't an insurmountable obstacle, and soon enough I was firmly in Varonland and wondering, truly, where the story was headed. Would Cupcake find the love of his dreams in Turkish Delight, or would he find her personality at odds with his imagined version of his idol? Would the band take him back after he sends his friend to Turkey alone, or would they keep that Potato as his permanent replacement? Will Cupcake happily return to his routines and make fresh coffee ever again? There's a lot of visual and sight gags (I want to know who Mr. Peanut was buying a valentine for!) in addition to the occasional dissonance of wondering about an enormous turkey leg walking a dog and wonder where the rest of the turkey was. The New York of Varonland is indeed an unusual place but perfectly fine if you're willing to roll with it.

And while I was happily going along with where Varon was taking me, in the end I was a little surprised that the story didn't have a more pronounced conclusion. It stopped more than it ended, totally underselling the idea that Cupcake is happier to have a friend like Eggplant than to harbor hopes of a new friendship with a stranger. I'm not saying the conclusion needs to be more obvious or spelled out, but with a younger audience (the book is geared for ages 8+) the point could be easily lost. 

Comparing Bake Sale to Robot Dreams is like comparing dogs to eggplants, though there are similarities. Between the books I mean. Both stories deal with the idea of friendship with main characters that deal with the shifting emotions surrounding those friendships. While guilt is less of a factor in Bake Sale than in Robot Dreams there is still a dream sequence where Cupcake finally meets Turkish Delight only to see her literally sit on and crush Eggplant. This becomes the incident that causes Cupcake to give his friend his money, and while not exactly done out of guilt it does seem as if Cupcake recognizes the selfishness of wanting to go on a trip with his friend. So while Robot Dreams looked at moving beyond old friendships Bake Sale finds its strength in maintaining and valuing those friendships at hand.