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.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Gosselink, John. The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter. Amulet Books, 2010. 228 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-8109-8977-1. This book is appropriate for grades 5 and up, or ages 10 and older, depending on reading level and interests. This is also an excellent high-low selection (3 stars out of 4).

Although Jeff Kinney’s illustrations, explanations and angst are simplistic, he has created a sensation with the Wimpy Kid series, so like the spate of fantasies after Harry Potter and the glut of vampire books that followed Twilight, I expected an overabundance of quickly constructed, poorly conceived, and hastily drawn, derivative imitations of Greg Heffley all over the publishing world. Either the publishers did not think anyone else could catch lightning in a bottle like Mr. Kinney, or authors just have not produced, because up until now, I have not had copycat series or stand-alone novels to recommend. However, Austin, Texas, educator John Gosselink must have his finger on the pulse of something, because I am confident that the Wimpy Kid crowd will quickly latch onto his first novel, The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter. Its freestyle approach, quirky illustrations, and intentionally juvenile, faux-official look will entertain its readers as much as the main character frustrates his school community (and occasionally his readers as well).

Thaddeus A. Ledbetter (soon to be Esq. as he is quick to point out) feels he has received a bum rap. If you ask this precocious twelve-year-old, he will tell you that he is a repeat victim of circumstance, punished for trying to help his fellow man. However, after incidents in which he nearly sets fire to his pastor, causes $50,000.00 in damage to Crooked Creek Middle School, and instigates a series of events culminating in Thaddeus’s bus attacking an obese bystander mistaken for a Volkswagen Beetle (among other absurd and outrageous incidents in which Thaddeus is involved), the beleaguered Principal Cooper sends Thaddeus to his own, personal In-School Suspension for his entire seventh grade year. From ISS, Thaddeus mounts his “defense,” a series of documents featuring quirky illustrations that he submits regularly to Mr. Cooper in lieu of any of the actual schoolwork he is assigned (and mostly ignores). For example, when Thaddeus lobbies for an “important student lane” that would allow important students, like Thaddeus, to get around the building, Mr. Cooper, as frustrated as anyone over the maelstrom that seems to thrive in and around Thaddeus, still responds with level-headed wisdom: “Who and what determines who the ‘important’ students are? I have a feeling you would volunteer for such an assignment, but we like to think all of our students here at Crooked Creek are important” (20). Thaddeus is a loose cannon who must be stopped, but there are reasons for his unusual and obsessive behavior that must be considered. After all, he is only twelve and should not be able to disrupt the world all that much, he does occasionally make a lot of sense, and there should be services available for students who have trouble operating efficiently within the normal confines of the school environment. When a campaign is mounted to free Thaddeus from his “imprisonment” (one part of Thaddeus’s portfolio is his “prison journal”) Mr. Cooper and the rest of the adults surrounding Thaddeus must decide if they can forgive and move on, or if Thaddeus must, for his safety and the safety of the community, stay in ISS.

I was entertained by The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter, and I laughed frequently at the protagonist’s antics with the same laughter I normally reserve for The Three Stooges or Lucille Ball. John Gosselink has written a slapstick book, complete with over the top villains, colorful guest stars, and hapless heroes who, despite their best intentions, just cannot catch a break. However, there is an underside to this work: the kid is downright annoying. Thaddeus is every teacher’s and administrator’s nightmare, and he is allowed, in this unrealistic school setting, to run amok. He is asked, not required, to do his work, and he is not provided school services until much later than indicated. Thaddeus’s behavior is obnoxious and obsessive-compulsive, neither normal nor acceptable. I laughed at Thaddeus, but not always with him; although I do not think tweeners will care or notice, I found his behavior occasionally infuriating. Despite my problems with the protagonist’s attitude, I still like The Defense of Thaddeus A. Ledbetter by John Gosselink, and I will still recommend it; it is a bit more edgy than Diary of a Wimpy Kid, more for the older tweener rather than the younger one.

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