Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Great Brain at the Academy

I thought I'd follow up my review of Gordon Korman with a look at a series he also enjoyed as a child, The Great Brain books by John D. Fitzgerald. My older brother gave me the first book in the series as a Christmas gift when I was in fourth grade. I was initially somewhat skeptical, but The Great Brain ended up being one of my favorite series. I had a lot of reasons to like The Great Brain. The books were narrated by John, the youngest in a family of three children, just like me. I already had a like of period-era stories about con men; I've loved the movie Paper Moon since around the age of eight. But I'll admit the biggest appeal of The Great Brain was that the Fitzgerald family was Catholic, and I was obsessed with the author's portrayal of their religious identity.

The Great Brain books, though narrated by youngest brother John, are mostly about his older brother, Tom. Tom is highly intelligent, hence the nickname "The Great Brain," and he uses his brain to concoct all sorts of money-making schemes. When John isn't one of The Great Brain's victims, he is a reluctant partner in crime. Set in Utah in the late 1800s, these books make use of all sorts of dated terminology that found its way into my childhood vocabulary. Tom is a "swindler," his brain "works like sixty," and the kids love the Sears Roebuck catalog.

In every book, John explains that his family is in the religious minority, noting that his hometown of Adenville is made up of about 2,000 Mormons, 500 or so Protestants, and only about 100 Catholics. They are only able to attend true Catholic services once a year, when a priest visits the town to hear confessions, baptize babies, and perform marriages, all in one week. The family places a high value on education (their father is the only man in town with a college degree), and in The Great Brain at the Academy, Tom and eldest brother Sweyn are sent off to a Catholic boarding school, since the local school does not go beyond the sixth grade. This is by far the most heavily Catholic book in the series, but even if it wasn't for that, it probably still would have been my favorite overall. The Great Brain is really at his best in this book.

The Catholic Academy for Boys is run by Jesuits, and it's a strict place. The boys study Latin, make weekly confessions, peel potatoes for punishment, and do daily calisthenics instead of sports. Tom quickly makes an enemy in Father Rodriguez, who refuses to call him Tom, stating he will be called by the name he was baptized with, Thomas. Tom has such a disdain for Father Rodriguez that he even writes to the pope, telling the pontiff horror stories about how the academy is run like a prison.

Tom wants the boys at the academy to have a little fun, and his first scheme is opening a candy store. Candy is against the rules, and one of Tom's bunkmates even tells him it's a sin. In typical Great Brain fashion, Tom starts a bet:

He removed his catechism and his Bible from his suitcase and placed them on the bunk. Then he took the three silver dollars from his pocket and put them on the bunk.

"Now put your money where your mouth is, Rory," he said. "I'll bet those three silver dollars against just twenty-five cents of your own money that you can't show me any place in the catechism or the Bible where it says that is a sin for a fellow to have all the candy he wants at a Catholic academy" (56).

Rory admits that it isn't a sin, but it is breaking the rules. Undeterred, Tom sells candy, smuggled from home, doubling the cost he paid at the store to make a profit. When his supply runs out, he must devise a way to get more candy. He whittles a key to the attic out of wood, where he then climbs out the window and is able to buy candy at a local merchant.

When the entire academy takes a trip to the Salt Lake City theater, they witness the Mental Marvel. The Mental Marvel is blindfolded by his assistant, and the assistant then asks members of the audience to hand him an article they have on themselves, like a watch, a wallet, or glasses. The Mental Marvel then identifies the item. Tom is determined to find out the trick to the Mental Marvel's act, and bets all of his classmates that he can read minds, too. They doubt him, but The Great Brain gets the best of them yet again, when he determines the whole act is just based on a code language shared between the assistant and the Mental Marvel.

By the book's close, Tom and Father Rodriguez respect each other, with Father Rodriguez finally agreeing to call him Tom. Tom regrets his letter to Pope Leo, realizing that the academy really isn't such a bad place after all. The academy becomes one of the first schools in the area to have a basketball team, and when the Bishop visits, he tells Tom the Church will suffer a great loss if Tom doesn't use his great brain to become a priest. John is certain that there's no danger of that. There's no way Tom's "money-loving heart" would allow him to take a vow of poverty.

The Great Brain at the Academy is a fun read, but within its pages, it also includes a history of the Jesuit order, an introduction to several different saints, the text of common Catholic prayers, etc. Even though I was raised Catholic, I certainly wasn't familiar with the Catholic culture of Utah at the turn of the century. After reading the book, I had to ask my mom to give me a little context for some of its references. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Great Brain books (in which the author John D. Fitzgerald shares his name with the narrator) are loosely autobiographical. He clearly knew his setting well, and that is what makes the series stand out.

Fitzgerald published seven Great Brain books in his lifetime, and an eighth was published after his death. They were at their height of popularity in the '70s, and were even made into a movie adaptation. Mercer Mayer provided the illustrations. The series is still in print, and the author also wrote a highly-regarded memoir of his childhood called Papa Married a Mormon. I haven't read it, but I think I'll seek it out.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

I Want to Go Home

I think my like of Gordon Korman as a kid had as much to do with his own story as it did with his slew of hilarious, borderline farcical books. Korman authored his first book at age twelve, as part of a seventh grade English class. A year and a half later, This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall was published by Scholastic's Canadian imprint. By the time he graduated high school, Korman had published five books. As a student at NYU, he authored several more. He was a huge phenomenon, particularly in Canada. Though he's somewhat less known in the United States, I've met many fans over the years. Everyone remembers just how much Gordon Korman made them laugh. Kids absolutely eat up his humor and characterization.

My obsession with Korman occurred well before the internet existed. In middle school, taken with the idea that I, too, might somehow be able to publish a book, I tried to learn everything I could about him. I still have some of the photocopied interviews I found during my search. Much to my surprise, his books were not particularly well-received by critics:

"This zany, but rather pointless, romp pits Simon Irving against his father, vice-president of Interflux corporation, to save a piece of open land next to his high school. While masquerading as contemporary high-school angst, this novel is pure fantasy bordering on the ridiculous at points. Although there are some funny moments at school and passable character development of Simon and his two best friends, girls and women are reduced to cardboard stupidity or, worse yet, clinging boyfriend fiends. Simon's mother is a culinary fool who follows every whimsical new "health" diet that the newspaper prints. She is the continual target of the longest standing joke in the book. The ending, true to form, depends on the absurd antics of another adult, this time Simon's father's boss, to resolve the dilemma of students fighting the insensitive corporation. Thus, the story ends even more pointlessly than it began. It's easy to pass this one by."--The School Library Journal on Son of Interflux

"Tenth-grader Paul enrolls in lower Manhattan's Don Carey High (a.k.a. Don't Care High) when his family moves from a small town in Canada. Machiavellian classmate Sheldon plots with Paul to stir things up among the apathetic students and staff in a school where "everyone's ambition is Christmas vacation." The boys nominate friendless oddball Mike Otis as Student Council President without his consent and fashion in his name a powerful, charismatic leader who makes Don't Care High care very much. In this would-be satire, there are some clever bits: the feudal "Locker Baron" who extorts junk-food payments for combinations in prime locations, the student who is a slave to a terrible addiction: licorice. Having missed its mark, the book becomes merely outrageous and offensive. In the characterizations, stereotypes and stick figures abound. The hero instigators are flat personalities for all their rushing about. What makes the pathetic Mike Otis tick is never explained. All of the adults, parents, teachers, etc. are well-intentioned incompetents or utter fools. Most seriously, in the interest of motivating, the story applauds stealing of confidential records, vandalism and physical violence."--The School Library Journal on Don't Care High

I remember reading an interview in which Korman addressed this sort of criticism of his work. He explained the inspiration for his books was to go beyond the merely plausible--if, for example, a kid could be a really great drummer, why couldn't he be the best drummer in the world? Why couldn't a kid become a millionaire? Korman explained that only adults objected to implausibilities. Kids not only accepted such premises readily, they found characters like Bugs Potter and Artie Gellar (the aforementioned drummer and young millionaire) empowering, and most of all, hilarious.

As an adult, I'll readily admit that it's hard to overlook some of Gordon Korman's flaws as a writer. The pages are littered with adverbs. Rarely do the characters ever just "say" anything, they always say things "mildly," "angrily," "warningly," "sardonically," etc. I actually found this impressive as a kid because we were always told to avoid using said, which is dubious advice, but young Korman certainly took the lesson to heart. His characterization and plot structure are frequently repetitive. The plots range from borderline believable to completely outrageous and impossible. Pointless? Perhaps. But I kind of think that is the point. These books are just fun. There's no, like, underlying moral current or something. They were the product of a youthful, creative energy, and they're highly readable and enjoyable.

Of the books he wrote from the age of twelve to his early twenties, my favorite was I Want to Go Home, with No Coins, Please coming in a close second. I Want to Go Home features a typical Korman hero and sidekick team. Reluctant Rudy Miller, the sort of kid deemed "difficult" by adults, is sent to summer camp on the advice of his guidance counselors. He befriends his cabin mate, Mike Webster, and the two plot to make an escape from Camp Algonkian Island.

The book is at its best when Rudy beats one of the counselors at a game of chess and becomes camp director for a day. He gives the campers the day off, and forces the counselors to endure a grueling regimen of complicated obstacle courses and relay races, followed by a scavenger hunt for items such as an "iceberg" and "a genuine brontosaurus rib." I loved this chapter as a kid, and I loved it as an adult. I also love Rudy's parodies of the camp director, Mr. Warden. Mr. Warden always makes speeches that begin, "This is Camp Algonkian Island. It was founded by my grandfather, Elias Warden. Never once, before today..." Rudy speaks often of "not wanting to upset old Elias."

He and Mike make several attempts to escape camp--stealing a boat, running off in the middle of a dance held at another camp, and even attempting to build a dam that will cause a flood. When they arrive at the dining hall covered in dirt, Rudy explains that they were in arts and crafts, building a "saleté." The following day, their irate counselor demands to see the saleté. Rudy and Mike craft a hinged wooden box and fill it with soil, as Rudy explains to Mike, "He asked for a saleté and that's what we're giving him. It's French. It means dirt."

Gordon Korman continues to write, still to mixed reviews. He abandoned his career as an author for young adults for awhile and wrote for younger children, then returned to the young adult circuit. Unfortunately, most of the books he wrote as a young Canadian author are now out of print in America, I Want to Go Home included. To my knowledge, at least one of his books (Bugs Potter, Live at Nickaninny) was never published in America--I was elated to find it at a used bookstore several years ago, and it's still the only copy I've ever found. I think anyone that enjoyed his books as a kid would enjoy revisiting them. One in particular, The War With Mr. Wizzle, is now incredibly dated, and this only makes it more amusing. I can't imagine that kids today wouldn't read Korman just as eagerly as I did, and he seems like a good choice for reluctant readers.

By the time I was fourteen or so, I realized that, unlike Gordon Korman, I was not about to become a published author. I attempted fiction and found that I failed at it, miserably. Still, he's quite an inspiration. His early books may have been completely implausible, but hey--isn't it rather gloriously implausible that a seventh grade English project would turn into a published novel in the first place?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

And the surprise is . . .

Here's the book I just couldn't like as an adult: one of the books in The Boxcar Children series, Surprise Island. I was not a huge fan of The Boxcar Children as a child because I wasn't particularly fond of mysteries, but I did love the first two books. I liked to imitate the characters I read about, which sometimes had amusing results. I remember pretending a jump rope was a "lariat," a term I was introduced to in The Great Brain books. In Surprise Island, the four Alden children delight in simple meals, like blueberries and giant bowls of peas with a little pat of butter. I hated peas, but I remember trying to make my way through a bowl of them, resenting jolly little Benny the whole time.

That's the problem with The Boxcar Children. They're filled with an admirable "do-it-yerself" spirit, but they're just so damn wholesome that the books are hokey at best, and completely unrealistic at their worst. Surprise Island finds the four Alden siblings (Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny) spending a summer on their own private island. They swim, go exploring, find Indian artifacts, and make their own museum. Here's a typical bit of dialogue:

The next morning it was still raining. The children dressed and ate breakfast and then watched the rain.

"One of us must go outside for the groceries," said Henry, "and I think I'm the one. My clothes are going to get awfully wet, so what shall I do while they dry?"

"Henry can go to bed while his clothes dry," said Benny.

"Say, listen, Benny!" cried Henry. "How would you like to go to bed? You get busy and think of something I could put on."

"Jessie could make you a suit out of a blanket," said Benny suddenly.

"I really could!" cried Jessie. "It's lucky we brought along Violet's workbag. I'll make you a pair of pants out of a blanket. And you can put on your new sweater while your things dry."

"Good for you, Jessie," said Henry. "Now let's be sure we have thought of everything we want so I won't have to go out again."

"I have an idea," said Benny. Why don't you put on your swimming suit to go outside and then your clothes won't get wet?"

"That is a good idea, Benny. What would we do without you?" said Henry.

"Benny, you are wonderful," agreed Jessie.

Benny laughed and said, "I know you could make pants out of a blanket if you had to." (71-73)

This is the sort of thing the four former boxcar kids are always doing: getting along amiably, even though they're shut up inside on their summer vacation, and even though all siblings argue with one another. Not only do they get along, they come up with stuff like making pants out of a blanket instead of the many other obvious solutions to the situation, like using an umbrella. I love how Henry suggests that Benny should be the one to go to bed. No six-year-old boy would take that suggestion in passing. Notice in this scene that Henry goes out to bring in the heavy groceries and Jessie wants to sew Henry a pair of pants. These books are really a product of their time. Henry and Benny go out and catch crabs and such, while Violet and Jessie stay inside, baking and tending to other domestic duties, like laundry. Kids may overlook the stereotypes, but it was pretty hard for me to do so, especially with lines like this, yet another instance of Jessie always seeking Henry's approval:

"Oh, Henry," cried Jessie, "I don't know what to do first, but I suppose I must fix the clams."

"You surely must," said Henry. "We are so hungry we could eat the chairs." (60)

In the first book, the Aldens had to survive in their boxcar in the woods, becoming independent and yet relying on one another to find creative solutions. In Surprise Island, this sense of necessity to survive is absent, and it's hard to ignore the sheer implausibility of much of what goes on. I found myself laughing at times, mostly due to the sheer hokeyness, particularly in the "making a suit out of a blanket" scene. The Boxcar Children are moralistic and inoffensive and they're good books for early readers, but I think that's really about all they are.

Coming soon: the promised 4B Goes Wild, a quick look at Fran Ellen's House (the sequel to The Bears' House), and Gordon Korman's hilarious portrayal of summer camp, I Want to Go Home.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Merry Christmas: A Double Feature!

I fear I may have lost most of my readers with my absence on this new project. For those of you who are still with me, I have a new job, and I've been a little busy this month (haven't we all? December is a busy time). But fear not! This weekend, I'm planning a double feature. I hope it'll be a fun one, since I recently reread a book I really loved as a child and found that it didn't stand the test of time/adulthood. What's the book? Check back next Monday and find out! Perhaps I'll even sneak in a holiday book if I can find one. I think I have a crappy Baby-Sitter's Christmas Mystery Super Special around here somewhere.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Bears' House

As a kid, most of my favorite authors wrote funny, fast-paced romps. If you'd asked me my favorite author when I was between the ages of eight to thirteen or so, I almost certainly would have told you Gordon Korman. His books were (and are, for the most part) hilarious, and I'm sure I'll be featuring one of his titles in the near future.

When my fourth grade teacher tried to introduce me to some children's literature with more serious themes, I'll have to admit that I wasn't overly receptive. In fact, I think I more or less told her I liked to pick out my own books, thank you very much. I kind of thought I was a hot shot in fourth grade, and it still haunts me a little because my teacher died when I was eleven. I didn't realize what a rare and kind teacher she was at the time. One day I got all upset because she called me "Katherine" instead of Kate when I was goofing off with the kid who sat next to me. I demanded that she make me a new name tag. I think she must have been used to fourth graders because she didn't really respond to my attitude--she just made the new name tag for me; one that said Kate instead of Katherine. I wasn't really expecting her to actually do it, and many teachers would have ignored my request.

She also had excellent taste in books. One of the books she tried to get me to read was Michelle Magorian's Good Night, Mr. Tom. I read it after she died, and it became one of my favorites. She even read our class a chapter of The Bears' House, which was a bold move.

The Bears' House is depressing and extremely realistic, especially considering its young audience. I think my teacher may have only read a chapter of the book to us because she was worried we couldn't handle it, and she may have been right. I remember very distinctly what happened when she read us the first paragraph of the book:

"Everybody in my class knows my name. It's Fran Ellen Smith. I'm nearly ten. I suck my thumb, and everybody says I smell bad" (1).

We laughed at this, proving that kids really can be a bunch of insensitive bastards. Our teacher pointed out that it wasn't at all funny. It was sad. In my memory, there's a bit of silence as we all realized she was right, this was sad.

Fran Ellen doesn't just smell bad and suck her thumb. Her dad is AWOL and her mother is "sick." It's vaguely implied that her mother has a substance abuse problem. They're on welfare. Her brother Fletcher, a junior high schooler, tries his best to hold things together for his four little sisters. Fran Ellen cares for infant Flora, even running home from school at recess and lunch to check in on her.

The baby regularly drinks bottles of Kool-Aid, and the kids get by on canned ravioli and pork and beans. Her classmates team up and bully her, and Fran Ellen responds by sucking her thumb and yelling, "Who are you hitting?" Her teacher isn't much help, and always tells Fran Ellen to stand further away because "she doesn't care to have me and my smell too close" (22).

When she can, Fran Ellen escapes to the world of The Bears' House, a doll house that her teacher had as a little girl. Goldilocks and the three bears live in the house, and though Fran Ellen enjoys admiring all of the little details, she does not handle anything. She just imagines that she lives in the house, too; that she has a safe and happy place where she is loved and cared for:

"Papa Bear says, 'One thing I always wanted was a daughter.' He looks right at me when he says it, and I kind of giggle and look away." (27)

What's particularly amazing and unusual about The Bears' House is how achingly raw it is. Though the ending is beautiful and hopeful, as Fran Ellen's teacher finally comes to her aid, there is no resolution to the story. It's almost more of an intimate, developed character sketch. For a children's book, it's a surprisingly sophisticated portrayal, and it was even nominated for the National Book Award.

The Bears' House opens up all sorts of issues that people would rather brush aside, making it a brave read-aloud choice. We may have all cried two years later over the read-aloud classic Where the Red Fern Grows, but The Bears' House made us all a tiny bit less insensitive, and a little more human.

Up next: my first request, 4B Goes Wild by Jamie Gilson.