Joel here with another book post. The March reading challenge is still in play, so I have been reading this spring break, because of course, optimistic teacher that I am, I am sure that my students are all reading a TON over this break, so I need to stave off their massive influx of points in our competition. The three books I’ve read this break all happen to look at middle school adolescence. Let’s break it down by looking at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The Good: Rascal by Sterling North. The autobiographical account of one year living with a raccoon as a pet. Every middle school boy should read this book. It is up there with Summer of the Monkeys. There is a line towards the end of the book, where Sterling’s aunt suggests he become a writer when he grows up: “And then you could put it all down, the way it is now. You could keep it just like this forever.” North does indeed capture the idyllic beauty of rural life in 1918 Wisconsin. The writing is sublime. There is one chapter that I feel I should read once a year as a compass for raising my sons to embrace adventures in the wild. This is a great book. Sterling works hard at having fun-he fishes, he traps, he camps, he relishes helping his uncle on the farm, he builds things that I wouldn’t know how to begin, including his own canoe. This book made me feel bad for kids today, who have been left with organized sports and video games, a legacy of “fun” that does all the imaginative heavy lifting for them.
The Bad: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel. Confession: I actually enjoy the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. But they have some serious flaws in them. The books have become very popular with 3rd and 4th graders, though Greg, the titular Wimp, journeys through 6th and 7th grade in the books. Greg is incredibly selfish. This often gets him into trouble, but because he is so self-centered, he doesn’t recognize that the fault is his own, instead blaming those around him. The problem with the series is that while older readers can recognize the ironic humor of Greg’s follies, younger readers are often just as oblivious to his selfishness as Greg is. They just think he’s funny, and miss the whole point that he is acting like a loser. They’ve released seven books in the series, and I think the author has improved his writing talents as the series has progressed. Usually, he keeps the stories age-appropriate. The most questionable in the series is the second, which has a secondary focus on Greg’s older, misbehaving brother Rodrick. In the earlier books, Greg’s making fun of other kids is always presented playfully, when in reality, it is bullying. He used to treat his best friend Rowley terribly, but lately their friendship has been portrayed more positively. It seems that Jeff Kinney is slowly finding his footing, and I like to think the author has tried to insert some positive messages into his stories. The family is often portrayed as going to church, and that is certainly a rarity in entertainment today. Also, the first seven pages of The Third Wheel chronicle Greg’s earliest memories…in utero. That is pretty darn pro-life (and sneakily so.) The books are indeed quite funny and crowd-pleasing. As a parent, when my kids ask to read these, I will DEFINITELY be reading them together with them till I am sure they understand that while Greg’s woes are funny, they shouldn’t want to emulate his wimpy moral character. After all, even with all the positive messages that can be gleaned from each book, they are still poop brownies.
Ah, so you’ve been waiting this whole time for me to get to this part, wondering what a poop brownie is. Well, I wish I could take credit for the term, but the idea was shared with me by my friend Jenn Wassinger, now Sr. Mary Agnes. Once while talking about movies, she asked if I would eat a delicious-looking brownie if I knew there was poop inside. Well, of course not. What if you had the assurance that you couldn’t taste the poop, that the flavor of the brownie was still perfect? You won’t eat it? What if it was just a smidgeon of poop in all the wonderful brownie-ness? Still aren’t chowing down? She compared this to the movies and books we put into our mind, that often we knowingly consume these poop brownies that we realize contain things bad for our soul.
The Poop Brownie test is a useful one for the entertainment we digest. Very few movies and TV shows today can pass this morality litmus test. Let’s explore with some of my favorite TV shows from the last decade.
30 Rock? Undeniably a poop brownie.
Community? Arrested Development? Very delicious, ingeniously crafted poop brownies.
The Office? Poop brownie. Poop writing lately too.
Downton Abbey? A scrumptious brownie? Is that a subtle flavor of poop I detect?
Mad Men? Brownies soaked in poop bourbon.
Lost? There is probably some nutritious zucchini in there as well, as it does contain A LOT of good truth, but yup there is poop in that brownie too.
Ah, that was fun.
So, (focus, Joel) if we’re looking for an after-school snack for kids to munch on, why are we feeding them poop brownies? Unfortunately, sometimes the kiddos these days are clamoring for the latest poop. You got to pick your battles. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is, in my opinion, low in poop content. So help your kids develop their literature palate to recognize that poop flavor in hopes that they will seek out art with better ingredients. I can’t encourage parents enough to read these books WITH their kids.
Which brings us to… the Ugly: Dork Diaries.
There is no brownie here. This is just a brownie shaped turd.
The book shamelessly tries to capitalize on Wimpy Kids’ success. I don’t think I’ve read a single blurb for this book that doesn’t call it “Diary of a Wimpy Kid for girls!!!” Perhaps the series gets better, but in my opinion, this is a battle that parents should fight. I don’t even know where to begin with explaining how terrible this book is. This is honest to goodness the very first line of the book:
“Sometimes I wonder if my mom is BRAIN DEAD.
Then there are days when I know she is.”
Parents, this is exactly how you DON’T want your pre-teen daughter to act. The Dork Diaries chronicles 8th grader Nikki’s struggles with cliques, fashion, crushes, and many other topics that would be age-appropriate for an 8th grade girl to read about. But the cartoony books are aimed at girls ages 9-13. That’s right, 3rd and 4th graders are part of the target audienc. I can’t believe the irresponsibility in the writing, editing and marketing of this book. Like Wimpy Kid, the main character is shamefully selfish, but in the Dork Diaries, that is not written as a negative thing, it is just the way girls are! We are really expected to root for Nikki as she tears down her family and new friends, because she is not as much a bully as the villainous queen bee, MacKenzie. Another delightful Nikki diary excerpt: “So many FREAKS and not enough CIRCUSES!!!” (After having encounters with her grandma and little sister.) What I found most offensive was Nikki’s repeated use of the word “retarded.” Absolutely no place for that in children’s lit. I’m going to stop. I get annoyed just thinking about this book. I only made it through by reading 10 pages, and then reading a chapter from Little Women, reading 10 pages, then rinse my brain with a chapter from Rascal. If you are indeed looking for girl-friendly alternative to Wimpy Kid, I will once again recommend the Just Grace series. I’m reading another of those this week, along with finishing the superb Little Women.