Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Games: A Tale of Two Bullies by Carol Gorman (3 1/2 stars out of 4)--
Some books are obviously not in my world of experience. Books like Because of Winn Dixie and Number the Stars are good reads, and good plots, but I'm not a girl, I don't own a dog, I don't live in the South, I wasn't involved with the Holocaust (not being born at the time) and I don't hide out from the authorities. However, when a book does invade my space and get up close and personal, I react differently. A certain malaise envelops me, I tell my wife, “I’m not sure I like this novel,” I feel anxiety well up inside of me when I reach the climax of each plot complication. I had this uncomfortable-but-not-unpleasant reaction when I read Games: A Tale of Two Bullies by Carol Gorman, so for that reason alone, I recommend it. But it has other noteworthy attributes besides its striking verisimilitude.
Games: A Tale of Two Bullies is the story of two eighth graders, Mick Sullivan and Boot (real name Bart) Quinn, and their road to either understanding or the hospital. They cannot stop fighting with each other, and their epic struggle captures the attention of the school and Tabitha Slater, the cutest young lady at school. Each of the protagonists has problems at home, and those problems contribute significantly to many of the issues the young men face, although it is generally understood that each individual is ultimately responsible for his actions. Mick is a budding intellectual who is not accustomed to all of the attention with which he is lavished due to the rivalry: “I’ve never been so popular. Of course, on a scale of zero to ten, I guess it’s not all that impressive to go from zero to three and a half. But if all you’ve ever experienced is zero, then let me tell you, the difference of a few points feels like a meteoric climb” (78). Boot is a bit more pragmatic and is surrounded by a rather bleak home life: “Nobody’s home, as usual. Mom took off three years ago . . . I miss her, even though she wasn’t home much. I don’t tell my dad, though. He blows up every time he thinks about her, and when he’s mad, it’s good to stay out of his way” (27). A new principal decides to assign Boot and Mick board games together in the office every day so they can get along and stop fighting. Their friends are fascinated and they become “stars,” capturing the attention of the manipulative but charming Tabitha. Every time they seem ready to call a truce, their friends egg them on to new behavioral highs and lows.
I remember what it was like to be an eighth grader, and I see parts of both Mick and Boot in my childhood and family life. I knew a Tabitha in eighth grade (her name was Leslie), and although she seems to want to live vicariously through others a bit too much, reality television has made all of us voyeurs. More than that, this novel effectively captures the group and peer pressure, bravado, insecurity, overconfidence, fear, and coming-of-age anxiety of eighth grade very well. I felt it myself as I was reading; there is no better recommendation. The alternating narration between the two characters is effective, because the reader must know the minds and backgrounds of both characters to maximize the novel’s tension. Games: A Tale of Two Bullies by Carol Gorman (author of the Dork series) could be read as an account of what happens when young people come from at-risk homes, but it is much more satisfying to watch the characters make their own mistakes and find their own solutions, instead of simply seeing them as products of their respective environments.

Larry The King of Rock and Roll by Iris Rainer Dart and Joyce Brotman (3 out of 4 stars)--
Larry is a white Maltese who belongs to ten-year-old Cathy and her songwriter father, Tom. Cathy’s parents have separated, and like many things yet to come in this novel (and in life), she does not understand it: “But my mom and dad like each other a lot. I can tell. They like to do the same things . . . They just don’t go together anymore” (8). When she discovers that her dog can talk, write and sing, she is even more confused. But Larry knows exactly what he wants: to be a star. He finishes writing a song Tom had been working on, and the tune becomes a hit. Tom is reluctant to perform in big concert halls, but Larry is persistent. They do perform, and while the down-to-earth Tom understands the impermanent nature of the entertainment industry, Larry flies high as a star. Unfortunately, Cathy gets caught in the power play between dog and dad, and when her mom informs her that she plans to marry a man who does not love dogs, Cathy becomes sadder and more confused. Meanwhile, not everyone is happy with Larry’s stardom, and the canine star receives an anonymous threat in a piece of fan mail: “We’re watching you, Larry. And we sure don’t like what we see. Be careful. We’re not going to put up with you much longer” (77). In true arrogant diva fashion, Larry ignores the threats and continues to pout and whine his way to the top.
This light novel works for many reasons. It is written at a reading level that is accessible to all of the middle grades (5-8) and it is a fun story that readers can appreciate and enjoy. Anyone even remotely familiar with Britney, Christina, Ashlee, etc. will immediately recognize the setting. It also sends the very positive and overlooked message that stardom is a two-edged sword that cuts far more than it shines. Any young people who plan to grow up to be multi-million dollar rap stars might want to read about the plight of Larry, an ignorant and overeager pawn of the media and the trappings of success. Young MTVers think they know about the rewards of stardom, but the dark and more realistic side of success, the threat of growing apart from friends and family, is presented appropriately. Alternating narration between Larry and Cathy is simple but effective, because readers can best appreciate Larry’s ego and selfishness in his own voice. The characterization in the fun novel Larry The King of Rock and Roll by Iris Rainer Dart and Joyce Brotman is a bit thin, and the plot is somewhat formulaic, but in this context, those qualities do not detract from the message of the novel, they actually make it clearer and more accessible to a wide range of readers.

Do Not Pass Go by Kirkpatrick Hill (3 out of 4 stars)--
Ms. Hill’s new novel, Do Not Pass Go, features irresponsible parents, a son who overcompensates for his parents’ shortcomings, and a rundown Alaskan prison that acts as the central setting. Fortunately, the local jail in Hill’s morality tale does not house Tony Soprano, Lil’ Kim, or any other urban or gangster pseudo legends, just regular folks who made unglamorous mistakes. It is one of those mistakes that drives the plot.
Deet Aafedt loves his parents, but he is quick to acknowledge their irresponsible habits: “They spend money on things they didn’t need and sometimes didn’t have enough to buy what they did need . . . And it wasn’t just money, it was planning and organization that got messed up” (12). Deet is organized and efficient, and he quietly and competently trudges through life, protected by his friend Nelly, and inspired by his favorite English teacher and the quotations he requires his students to write about in their journals. Deet is quite self-righteous and whiny about his role as the family’s guardian and role model, so his world turns upside down when his dad, Charley, is arrested for drug possession. Now, Deet may actually have to be the man he always claims to be. He must deal with the shame and embarrassment of this situation while he comes to terms with his father making a very public mistake (instead of the private annoyances Deet can live with). As he accepts his situation and becomes more flexible and supportive, new communities and ideas open for Deet, and he suddenly realizes that there is a whole universe of experiences and people outside of his isolated Alaskan home: “Some things were invisible until they happened to you” (60). Once in the open, he surprises himself by how adaptable he can become in the face of adversity.
This novel is a gentle and effective story, but the main reason I enjoyed it is because it avoids all of the overdone, melodramatic representations of jail I see on television and in the movies regularly. In Do Not Pass Go, jail is a penalty box for regular people with common, widespread problems. Sometimes, people make mistakes, and although some of them are terrible crimes that demand severe punishments, some are less violent and less heinous. Children of those folks struggle mightily with the burden of additional responsibilities and the stigma of having a parent incarcerated. To them, and to all middle grade readers, Kirkpatrick Hill has written an effective, satisfying novel that has the capacity to generate understanding and empathy from those who have never had any contact with prison life and from those who have.