Saturday, April 30, 2011

Jim Dale Carries Me Through the Classics

Let me start by saying that I am not one of those readers who believes that reading the classics is a reader's rite of passage, necessary in order to qualify his or her opinions on other works. I've never read the endless tomes of Leo Tolstoy or the collected poetry of Emily Dickinson, and though I'm sure there are those who would disagree, I don't think my thoughts are any less valid for this lack of experience. Despite this, I recently polished off a book that I had been trying to read for quite a few years, and I managed it from start to finish in just a little more than a day's time. It was J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, a classic by most people's standards, but not the easiest story to grasp for a miserably incompetent American reader who gets caught on every dose of English wit and wisdom so liberally splashed onto every page by the renowned Mr. Barrie.

My secret to success wasn't anything brilliant. I'm not about to sell you on some stupid program guaranteed to make you a snooty reading snob in seven easy steps. Nope. I'm still the low-brow buffoon I've always been. I've just discovered a reading format that pushes me through the unattainable books that I never imagined I'd find myself finishing. The audiobook. Well, that, and I've found a reader who makes otherwise unbearable stories truly enjoyable. And that reader is Jim Dale. Now, I know that I'm not this man's only fan. In fact, in the world of audiobooks, Jim Dale has roughly the same status that Oprah has in the daytime television. He read the audiobook editions of all seven Harry Potter books, which one assumes would naturally catapult him to the forefront of the profession. The thing is, he did it really well. Every character received their own voice treatment. The man does voices, lots of them. And he wins awards for them, lots of them.

Peter and the StarcatchersPeter and the Shadow ThievesI didn't listen to the Harry Potter books though. I read them, page by sleep-deprived page. In fact, I came across Mr. Dale's talent thanks to Dave Barry and an awful daily commute. I was in the local public library wondering. That's something I spend an inordinate amount of time doing in libraries, wondering. I look and look, feeling strangely at home. Yet, that day I happened across the audiobook edition of the book Peter and the Shadow Thieves read by none other than Jim Dale. It'd been a couple years since I'd navigated my way through the innumerable pages of Peter and the Starcatchers, and I figured I'd put book two in the series off for long enough. Aside from that, I had to contend with two hours a day, five days a week of driving that I found about as bearable as most of the time I spent in college-level psychology courses. So I borrowed the audiobook, popped in disc one and settled into the most pleasant surprise I'd had in months.

If you looking for a real treat, I strongly recommend the aforementioned series in its delightful audiobook format. You'll find nothing better. I flew through the remainder of the books and found myself wanting more than anything to hear a little more. Jim Dale had brought Peter Pan to life for me in a way that no movie ever had, had renewed my interest in trying to finish the original Barrie book, had brought the wonder of Neverland into better focus. Now, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson did a wonderful job putting together a compelling series full of action and intrigue, mystery and suspense. Dale went that extra mile though and animated it with only the power of his voice.

Anyway, when I returned the materials I borrowed and I thought there was nowhere else to go with it, I found myself back at the audiobook section leafing through the other listening options. And wouldn't you know I saw an audio edition of Peter Pan read by none other than Jim Dale? I picked it up without another thought and hurried out to my car to start my next adventure. By the next day, I'd finished it off though. I listened to it again. I didn't know what I found harder to believe, that I'd gotten all the way through or that I'd understood it well enough to thoroughly enjoy the experience. Well, that was how it all started. I'd become one of the Jim Dale faithful. I went back to library looking again for something else he could pull me through. I found classics. Jim Dale reads classics. As I write this, I have A Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I'm nearing the end of A Christmas Carol right now, and it's been another excellent experience from the death of Jacob Marley up to now. I'm ready to descend into Wonderland as soon as I leave the snowy pre-Christmas streets of 19th century London. I have the strange feeling that it will be a lot of fun. Who knows where I'll go next? Maybe around the world in record time with Phileas Fogg? We'll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, if you have the means and an otherwise horrific car ride ahead of you, stop by your local library and pick up an audiobook courtesy of Jim Dale. You won't regret it unless you have an aversion to quality entertainment. If you do, that probably explains your choosing to read this blog, but I can't account for taste. Thanks for taking a look. I've got to get back to the ghostly intervention of one miserly Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

TODAY, I DISEMBARK FROM UNDERPANTS! Book 8: Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People

The eighth book in Captain Underpants's series of epic adventures seems to be the last, though you wouldn't get that impression from reading the final page of epic novel 8 where Pilkey promises many more books on the way. First of all, there is the promised next adventure of Captain Underpants titled Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers. Since it's been 5 years and there's still no Tinkletrousers, I think now might be a good time to give up hope on that front. Anyway, it sort of leaves me with a certain lack of closure on this reading challenge. I never had any intention of giving the two books of "crunchy fun" a second glance (or a first glance for that matter), so not reading them doesn't bother me, but an unpublished Captain Underpants makes my accomplishment seem unfinished somehow.

Anyway, the final step in my Captain Underpants Challenge was right on par with the previous seven. The story was a bit absurd, the humor a bit stale, the plot twists a bit far-fetched, and yet it was not a bad book on the whole. I didn't care for the disparaging remarks made at the expense of the elderly, but at least Pilkey made them into an impressive pair of superheroes by the end. Boxer Boy and Great-Granny Girdle flying off to find an early bird special together was the most romantic moment of the entire series without a close second.

This wasn't my favorite epic in the series, but it was okay. I found the alternate version of reality that the boys were transported to far more appealing than the one they started and finished the series in, but I suppose that was intentional. Crackers the Pterodactyl never made it home to the Mesozoic Era, massive property destruction caused by Sulu the gigantic bionic hamster is surely going to come back and haunt the boys at some point in the near future, and let's not forget that the boys are off prison for bank robbery, but all that can be handled in the future (if there is a future). I have a bad feeling that the evil versions of the boys aren't finished in this series. I wasn't all that impressed with them to be honest. They were fairly predictable, and how many evil versions of superheroes can be done before you just don't care anymore? I think I've reached my limit on that variety of plot twist. Evil twins, alternate realities, parallel universes? They've all been done to death.

Along the way through this final adventure, many of the jokes fall along the same lines as jokes from previous books. I still enjoyed it when characters made references to other parts of the book by page or chapter number. It was still funny when Pilkey referred to the fact that the plot could only work in a slightly obnoxious children's book. The problem is that by the time I reached this point in the series, I found myself longing for something else. Just being privy to the knowledge that the author knows what he's doing is a bit silly and nonsensical doesn't give a reader fulfillment on its own. I don't hate the books. They're good for an occasional laugh. They just get a bit tired after a week straight of one-a-day pacing.

I'm ready for the end of this challenge. I think I've learned something from the experience and I will never again sneer in derision when a child tells me they'd like to read the Captain Underpants books. I know them for what they are and even though I will never call them the finest example of…well… anything, I can say with some degree of certainty that they are okay. There are regrettable moments among the good, but that's the case with most books. This series wasn't the something special that it's been made out to be by both its friends and its foes. It was pretty commonplace writing, written to pseudo-offensive perfection. If you're after that sort of thing, then by all means dive in. As for me, I'm over it. It was fun while it lasted, but that time has passed. I'll leave it to my family to decide whether I'm any less sane than I was before I started.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Book 7: Captain Underpants and Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2

Before you ask me why I didn't bother to include "The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers" in the above title, see my explanation for the same problem in my book 6 entry and move on with your lives. Now, to more pressing matters, like my omission of a V.I.H. (that's Very Important Hamster) from my review of book 6. That's right, everyone! I did an entire review of Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1 without mentioning the hero of the story, Sulu the Bionic Hamster.

So Sulu, as you might have guessed, is a hamster and he's bionic. He's truly the sort of pet that every child should dream of having. At the start of book 6, Sulu was a non-bionic hamster belonging to Melvin Sneedly, but by the end, Sulu was a heroic, monster-fighting super hamster living in George and Harold's tree house. Quite a transformation to undergo in about 160 pages, and yet he didn't even get an honorable mention in my review. That's just unacceptable. I should be banned from the series for such an omission. So I'm going to make it up to him now, in CAPITALIZED, BOLD, ITALICIZED, PARTIALLY UNDERLINED PRINT!


Well, now that that's over, let's get down to book 7, the unnecessarily long story of Melvin's second attempt to use evil brilliance to take over the world and become popular. So part 2 of the Bionic Booger Boy epic was not really about a bionic booger boy as much as it was about the brain switcheroo at the end of part one. Within the first chapter, Sulu the Bionic Hamster managed to fire the robo-boogers into outer space where they took a backseat role to Melvin for most of the book. In essence, Carl, Trixie, and Frankenbooger took up a supporting role even though they were the focus of the entire ridiculous subtitle of the book. Melvin and Krupp stole the storyline from Freaky Friday, each taking on the body of the other. That got old fast, but Dav Pilkey did have the decency to assure that our suffering would be over by chapter 17.

Anyway, the discovery that they had been switched was quickly followed by several convoluted plans to undo the damage, culminating in the most convoluted of all, to build a time machine ala Back to the Future and go back in time to nab the Combine-O-Tron 2000 before it was destroyed. This sounds foolproof, right? Ha! At least there wasn't a lot of space time continuum jabber to stumble through. Pilkey was more interested in making references to how painfully aware everyone was that they were merely characters in an absurd children's book. Like they always say, if something draws out a laugh the first time, do it over and over again.

So George and Harold recklessly careen through time, doing whatever it takes to get back the Combine-O-Tron 2000 including stealing a pterodactyl from the Mesozoic Era to hijack the librarian's car. Long story short, they succeed and Melvin modifies the machine to steal Captain Underpants's superpowers for himself, succeeds, and still doesn't get the recognition he's after. Captain Underpants, Harold, and George head off to battle against Carl, Trixie, and Frankenbooger, who have miraculously returned via Poopsie the space shuttle, and manage to overcome the robo-boogers even without their superpowers. The hidden moral seems to be "you can't buy friendship." Dav Pilkey would certainly be horrified to discover that he had written a second moralistic adventure in his series of amoral fiascos, but it happened anyway.

One more book to go and I'm still standing. Will I make it through this last volume? Check back tomorrow to find out!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Book 6: Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1

Okay, so I cut the subtitle, but I mean, come on! How many words can one person justifiably put on the front cover of a book without his publisher saying, "That's enough, bub! Save some for the inside!"? I'm pretty sure that sentence is a catastrophe of punctuation, but it had to be done. For the Captain Underpants purists out there, the subtitle was "The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets" which is another masterpiece of alliteration, though I stand by my earlier comment. Too long is too long, regardless of word choice.

So let's get down to the story. Melvin Sneedly, a tiny speck in the background of Captain Underpants's previous adventures, surges to the forefront in this epic. He's the villainous tattletale that was just bound to happen somewhere in a series about two exceptionally mischievous school-age boys. Of course, being a villain in the Dav Pilkey realm of villainy means that something has to be childishly gross about him. Enter the dependable unplanned element entering the transformation machine's energy beam as he attempts to transform himself into a super bionic being ploy. We've all seen it done a thousand times before, but snot covered super being is definitely a new twist on an old trick. The usual angle is a half boy, half animal. It's not one third boy, one third robot, one third mucus. Pilkey gets kudos for creativity.

Melvin Sneedly was truly an awful little guy. Even before he turned into the contents of a nostril, he wasn't particularly likable. Sure, he was underappreciated just like many of the Underpants villains were before they turned evil, but he was also a detestable pain-in-the-neck with a slight Napoleon complex. I'm no psychologist, but the kid needed help. One thing that separated him from the pack was the fact that he didn't turn evil right away as if mutation is an inherently evil activity. No, in fact, he tried to go on with his life while working toward the fix for his malady. I don't know why he didn't try to contain himself while he worked towards righting things. He could have been an unobtrusive gross thing in a vacuum sealed bubble and saved a lot of hassle, but let's not nitpick at an otherwise kind-of-okay story.

The Incredible Hulk-like mutation he underwent at the tissue factory was amusing if for no other reason than that the only thing anyone seemed to notice about it before it got out of hand was Melvin's sudden bad grammar. Also the solution to the problem being as simple as switching the batteries around in the Combine-O-Tron 2000 was a stroke of pure brilliance, especially since it gave Pilkey ample opportunity to take a few humorous shots at the absurdity of the entire story. Both of my favorite lines in this story were written in that same self-deprecating vein of humor.

The first came on page 125 when Captain Underpants needed a red cape with black polka dots and George and Harold were hiding behind, of all things, a red curtain with black polka dots. He wrote,
"Gee," he said, "I sure wish I could find a red curtain with black dots on it."
"Hey," said George as he pointed to the red curtain with black dots on it, "here's a red curtain with black dots on it."
"What a remarkably unexpected coincidence," said Captain Underpants as he grabbed the latest in a series of convoluted plot devices and tied it around his neck.
That is good comedy. There are no two ways about it. The second came on page 160 when George and Harold have just suggested that to undo the effects of the Combine-O-Tron 2000 they switch the batteries around. Melvin's parents knock the idea for its lack of scientific foundation. They say,
"You can't expect to reverse the effects of a highly complex cellular-moleculizing Combine-O-Tron just by switching the batteries around. That type of thing only happens in obnoxious children's stories."
George responds by self-consciously replying, "Ahem. Well… why don't you just give it a try anyway." I really respect him for handling it the way he does. Everything in these books is cleverly crafted with tongue-in-cheek sensibility. He's obviously playing with us. He knows he's pushing some limits, though nothing he's doing hasn't been done a thousand times before.

I say we should all laugh along with him at the joke he's made. Whether we decide to join in or not, he's had his fun. It's up to us to decide if the fun is at our expense or ours to share.

Book 5: Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman

Well, somehow I managed to escape the wrath of Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman completely unscathed. Sure, there was that moment on page 137 when I had to make a decision about whether or not to read Chapter 25, The Incredibly Graphic Violence Chapter (In Flip-O-Rama) after George and Harold warned me not to. I mean, I did say that I'd read all eight books, and if I skipped pages 137 to 156 in book five I'd always have that hanging over my head, but if anyone would know when it was a good idea to skip a few pages in a Captain Underpants book, George and Harold would. What to do, oh, what to do? Well, I read the forbidden chapter. I didn't give myself the eleven spankings and time-out that the police officers on page 138 gave out as punishment, but they were hanging from a street sign by their underwear and they are only police officers from a children's adventure story so I think I might live outside of their jurisdiction.

Anyway, the near marriage of Mrs. Ribble and Mr. Krupp was probably the highlight of this book for me. Mr. Krupp's frozen in fear reaction was pretty funny, especially since it lasted for about a week. Also, Pilkey decided to play with the references to previous books in the series a lot more than usual this time. The hands-down best example of this had to be when he poked fun at the annoying length of the third book's title just after the remaining super power juice from book three spills on Wedgie Woman's head. I think that might be the best angle at humor in the later books of the series. Who can't appreciate an author who's willing to poke fun at his own work? Pilkey has been willing to do this since the start of the series with a casual comment from George or Harold when the story takes a turn for the seemingly improbable. Now, however, he's kicked it up a notch.

I kind of wish that Robo-George and the Harold 2000 didn't have to be destroyed in the battle against Wedgie Woman. They seemed like they might have had a lot of potential laughs left. When the Harold 2000 kicked the ball right through page 102 and onto page 103, I thought for sure that Pilkey would keep them around for at least book six. All in all, they didn't seem so bad, just a bit mislead. With a little guidance from the new and improved Mrs. Ribble, they might have turned out just as well as everyone else at Horwitz Elementary. Now that I think about it though, they were probably better off ending things they way they did. Lucky them.

Anyway, the next book is a two parter as far as I know, something about a bionic booger boy. After that, I should only have one book left. That would imply that the light at the end of the tunnel should be coming into view anytime now. I really think I'm going to make it. Thanks to the one reader or so that has stuck by me since this whole crazy idea came into my head. You shouldn't have. Really. There are better things you could have done with your time. Come to think of it, there are better things that I could have done with my time. Oh well. At least I had some laughs.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book 4: Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants

Hooray! I'm halfway there. I have to say, I expected my face to be set in a permanent cringe by this point, but it's not. This series isn't as terrible as I was convinced it would be. It's funny. Sure, all the stories are nearly identical in structure, and if a joke worked in book one, it's still being used in book four, but sometimes a joke can still be as funny the fourth time as it was the first. I don't mind that. Some of the best gags in the history of comedy were based on solid repetition. Who can forget the longest knock-knock joke ever? You know the one. The guy keeps knocking on the door and saying banana until finally the home owner presumably opens up holding something large and menacing and growling because the guy changes his tune and says orange and the joke mercifully comes to a close.

Then again, no one ever laughs at that joke. They usually end up chasing the person who told it down the street with torches and pitchforks. Dav Pilkey, I won't chase you around with a torch and pitchfork for reusing the same jokes again and again. I don't advise anyone else to do that either. I'm sure he's a nice guy. His sense of humor might begin to wear on you after a while, but that's no reason for joining a pitchfork toting mob.

Anyway, Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants was quite the alliterative mess. His backstory in the geographically interesting land of New Swissland (I say interesting because it's described as being "just southeast of Greenland" i.e. Iceland) where everyone has silly names, left me wondering whether Pilkey has any fans in Reykjavik. If anyone has good reason to brandish torches and pitchforks at Mr. Pilkey, the people of Iceland might. Among all the "epic novels" that I've read, Poopypants was the first villain I actually felt bad for. In fact, changing everyone's name to give them a taste of their own medicine almost seemed just after they laughed him right out of the world of academia and never gave him a chance to share his inventions. He's no hero though. He proved that when he treated his assistant like he was less valuable than dirt. If only he hadn't decided to rename himself Tippy Tinkletrousers from jail, this story could have had a happy ending for everyone involved.

I love the running joke with the little boy who always happens to witness the most unlikely moments of each story, and consistently tells his mother what he saw only to be told that he is making everything up. They usually make only one appearance per book, but in this one they showed up twice, both times running the observant son and oblivious mom bit to perfection. That wasn't the only first in this volume though. This book also marked the first time in the series when George and Harold purposely turned Mr. Krupp into Captain Underpants to try and save the day. That's not a big surprise since during the third book Captain Underpants drank superhero juice meaning he is now a bonafide superhero when the clothes come off. I suspect that will start happening more often in the books to come, but I guess I'll have to wait and see.

Well, that about does it for book four. The Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman is up next, but before I sign off for today I'd like to mention some disturbing news I happened upon last night. Someone beat me to the punch in my little Captain Underpants challenge. Before I even conceived of the idea to blog about my Underpants experience, someone out there had already blogged their way through book four. Since then, that same blogger polished off book five and one can only presume that book six can't be far off. I really enjoyed her thoughts on the books she's read so far, so I only think it fair to offer her thoughts up to anyone who has been following my efforts. That's right, I take care of my readers, all two of you. The blog I'm referring to is Kids Tails and the blogger is Michele Lee. Check it out if you have the chance. It's sure to be worth your time, especially if you assign so little value to your time that you bothered to read this post all the way to the end. Just kidding. Don't stop reading.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Book 3: Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies From Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds)

To begin with, that title could have been an entire chapter by itself! But I suppose this is the era of the long title and that's what you get with a series like Captain Underpants. This book was a bit more of the same running gag with a new twist. Now, instead of Mr. Krupp mistakenly believing that he is a superhero named Captain Underpants, he actually will be a superhero, though that development doesn't come until the end of this volume of Underpants. Also, the villains have stepped up a notch. Aliens coming to take over the world and coincidentally choosing Horwitz Elementary as the headquarters of their evil plan was certainly a convenient twist. This doesn't bode well for the rest of the series. Already Mr. Pilkey is resorting to some pretty far-fetched gimmicks to squeeze another story out of his hat.

I'd call this amping up of the series a typical choice though. Harry Potter amped up at book three. So did Gregor the Overlander and Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Book three is usually the game changer for whatever reason. The danger takes a step in the messy direction, the heroes come to some realization of their true potential, things just start to happen. Things are no different in this series. Sorry if I'm letting a secret go here, but the Mr. Krupp edition of Captain Underpants gets superpowers in this book. He actually manages to fight off a mutant dandelion beast, rather than getting caught by the bad guys and waiting on George and Harold to save the day.

There was also one moment here in which George and Harold did something so out of character and noble that I had to read it twice just to make sure I'd read it right. It came as they were trapped in a cage in the aliens' spaceship. George and Harold worked together to do something in the best interests of planet Earth by putting their own lives in danger. When did the two of them grow a conscience? It must have been somewhere between book two and three. Could they be growing a respectable character? Too soon to tell. We'll just have to wait and see, just like whether or not I make it to the end of this challenge.

The next book is the halfway point. The title is a bit shorter, but here comes Professor Poopypants, a real crowd pleaser if Captain Underpants ever created one. I think I've managed to cling to my sanity so far, so keep on reading, because a nervous breakdown can't be far off. My father has concerns that I'm hanging one foot off the deep end here, and I'd hate to just dangle one foot over the abyss without taking the leap at some point.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book 2: Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets

"I would start drawing a picture of this chubby super-hero looking guy, while I talked about creating my own comic books. Then I would tell my audience the name of the character I was drawing. When I said the words 'Captain Underpants', all the kids would burst out laughing. I'd draw the underwear and the cape, and the kids in the audience LOVED it! Finally, I'd mention the title of one of the comics I had created as a kid. It was called 'Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets'. When the kids heard that title, the room would EXPLODE with laughter!"— Dav Pilkey

I figured that I'd open with a Dav Pilkey quote today, so the above comes direct from Dav Pilkey's website. Anyway, I finished book two and I'm still here. The realization that I'm coming to is that he's writing a series for the audience that probably turns to television more often than the library for their entertainment. The humor in this book would seem relatively mild were it featured in Spongebob Squarepants, so no I'm not offended by it. I think that the teachers are poor representations of real teachers, though I suspect that they are poor enough that any reader, even a child, would understand that.

George and Harold are basically the same delinquents they were in the first book. In a real school system, their parents would have been forced to home-school them and spend their every waking hour trying to keep them out of juvenile hall. Their pranks are your basic extremely expensive property destruction variety that would be a one way ticket out of any school system with a hefty bill for parents. The difference is of course that the staff and principal are all monstrously bent on George and Harold's demise, which is giving a couple of pranksters much more credit than they would get in reality.

So, the name of the game seems to be the running gag. A lot of the jokes and humorous reactions were rehashed in this volume. Basically, this works a lot like a comic book or a children's cartoon series on television. I'm reminded of my favorite show growing up, Pinky and the Brain. If Pinky didn't ask Brain, "So, Brain, what are we going to do tonight?" and Brain didn't respond, "The same thing we do every night, Pinky! Try to take over the world!" the episode just never would have happened. If the Brain didn't ask Pinky, "Pinky, are you pondering what I'm pondering?" and Pinky didn't respond, "I think so Brain, but..." only to finish with some craziness, I think the show might have been cancelled on the spot. The same goes here.

The set-up was not so very different from the first book. The boys commit some heinous act of prankery, get away with it, villainize the staff for trying to prevent its recurrence, and are validated by the staff overreacting with evil and maniacal glee at their plan to prevent it in the future with torturous punishment. There are your first fifty pages. Then the boys manage to create havoc despite the punishment, it gets out of hand, Captain Underpants is awoken only to get in over his head, at which point the boys save him and find a way out of Mr. Krupp's endless punishment. That's the rest of the book. Oh, and whenever the action reaches a comical climax, Pilkey drops some Flip-O-Rama into the mix.

It's still funny. It's different enough to qualify as a new story. There is still that added element of an extra layer of humor for the observant reader. Overall, these aren't bad books. They're not great either, but if children are open to reading them, I say let them. I would advise that an adult just cautions the child that what they read is not an example of how things are supposed to work. Then again, if a kid doesn't figure that out on their own, chances are that things weren't quite right to begin with and this isn't going to make it any worse. Pranking isn't harmless fun, as George and Howard suggest. But looking at the reaction of the other children of Horwitz Elementary who are often the butt of the pranks, you can see that's the case. They don't look at George and Howard as heroes. In most cases, George and Howard are afraid that the other children will find out that they are behind the pranks. They know the other kids don't see the humor in ruining extracurricular school events.

That being said, I don't believe that the books condone George and Howard's actions. They just fail to condemn them, which isn't great either but it could be worse. Anyway, next up in my challenge is book three, Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space. There's a subtitle too, but I'm too tired from the first part to finish. Wish me luck.

Book 1: The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey

Well, I made it through book one. Seven more are on the way though.

To begin with, I think I can lay one mystery to rest right now. I know why the Underpants books have such a short shelf life, and no, it's not because they are so perfect that readers tear pages out just to have a keepsake from the reading experience. No, the truth is far more sinister than that. I say sinister because I suspect that this spine cracking reality was brought on intentionally. I don't know whether to put it on Scholastic or Dav Pilkey, but the crux of the issue is Flip-O-Rama. Since Pilkey branded it as his own creation, he has to shoulder a little of the blame here. Allow me to explain.

In chapter 16, humorously titled The Extremely Graphic Violence Chapter, Pilkey introduces his evil brainchild, Flip-O-Rama, providing instructions for the reader on the finer points of viewing his two-page animation technique. It's like something from the old school of animation, you might think. Not quite. This is cleverly disguised instruction in book abuse. Pilkey directs readers to hold open the book by laying their left hand across the seem of the book and pressing until it lays flat. If the book is a paperback edition, this means cracking the book's spine. Basically, that's a death sentence. So that's why my Underpants books never last. They are built to self-distruct. Touché, Mr. Pilkey!

Well, now that that is out in the open, let's get down to the story. I didn't hate it. George and Harold, the real protagonists of the story, were not the living terrors that I thought they would be. They deserved to be expelled from school for their antics and probably had a criminal future, but I've read worse. They don't hold a candle to some of Roald Dahl's little monsters. The principal, Mr. Krupp, was as one-dimensional and boring as every other forgettable, angry school principal in the history of fiction. If you've read one book with a cruel principal, you've read them all. To continue my Roald Dahl comparisons, the Trunchbull would've eaten Mr. Krupp for lunch.

That being said, the book is intended to appeal to the 'absurdity is funny' crowd. I happen to fit in to that crowd. The boys chasing their underwear-clad principal around town while he parades about playing superhero, and all because of a order-by-mail hypnosis ring is funny. The asides Pilkey throws in are subtle and clever. My personal favorite in this volume came courtesy of George just after the robots emerged from the Rare Crystal Shop carrying the stolen crystal. He said, "You know, up until now this story was almost believable." Clever. There is hidden humor for the observant reader. You just have to watch for it.
I don't know if I believe the story is going to maintain its simple humor. Series in this style tend to get tired before the finish, or they give up on being clever and just take a long swim around the toilet bowl to maintain laughs. I don't know where this one is going to end up. I'm hopeful for my own sake that this will be the exception to the rule.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


We've all done it before, looked down on something that we considered low-brow, silly, vaguely offensive, and probably even crude without trying it first. That's been my encounter with Captain Underpants. I've knocked him down, argued against that eerily simple logic that, hey, at least they are reading, nodded solemnly as a teacher berates his adventures with their lengthy adolescent titles.

But I've never read them.

Sure, I've glanced at one from time to time when it needed some magic tape repair, but even then I've averted my eyes from the print so as to avoid some inadvertant glance at the horrors that almost certainly lay within. And yet, Dav Pilkey saw to it that without any support from any adult anywhere in the professional community, his underwear-clad superhero books became many of the most popular books in a children's library. His books have made it onto the New York Times Bestseller List with some degree of consistency. That's right, librarians! Dav Pilkey has proven he doesn't need us!

And so, today, I embark on a harrowing quest. Like many of the greats who've come before me, I'm taking the plunge into unkempt waters. In the coming week, I'm going to read Captain Underpants. And I'm not going to stop after book one! Oh no! I'm going from book one straight through to book eight. There's no turning back. I have to do this. You see, I just bought the entire series twice over for my library. My previous copies were well beyond retirement condition. I'm fairly certain that my best copy of book four, Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants, had been whittled down from a 25 chapter, 153 page epic novel to 16 chapter, 97.6 page bundle of tape. In most cases, there was more tape than paper left. I really didn't want to spend my meeger funds to replace them, but the public wants what the public wants. And while I can't stop America's youth from poisoning its mind with dribble, I can come to know the poisonous dribble for what it is.

So I find myself standing on the precipice, ready to fall into the bottomless pit of depravity and body-part humor. I think of my peers: the immortal journalist Nellie Bly, acclaimed naturalist William Beebe, experimental cook Julie Powell, and limited-time environmentalist Vanessa Farquharson. All these heroes had their trials, tribulations, and moments of regret, but did any of them quit? No. Well, mostly no anyway. If they did quit it was only for a few days, and then they were right back at the grindstone. So I'm going to do it. And I'll write about it along the way. To my readers, I can't promise that this experience won't change me, leaving me a hollow shell of the person I am today. But the two of you are probably just here for the awesome background I chose anyway, so who cares?

Happy reading, people. Remember me as I was.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The ALA ate my wallet!

Moon Over ManifestI finally did it yesterday. I bought the 2011 batch of ALA award books. Yes, I know that the winners were announced more than a little while ago already, but every year I go through the same trepidation about making that quick purchase when they are announced. This has become an annual battle for me. I know that the publishers are counting on this quick purchase mentality from librarians. We're supposed to look at the list, realize that those books haven't weaseled their way onto our shelves, and panic about how the public will perceive our seeming noncompliance, enticing our collective mass to hightail it to the bookstore to pay that oh, so unappealing retail price for a book that might not even have any waiting readers back home. I suppose I haven't gotten that far into librarian thinking to do that yet. Give me a few more years.

Anyway, I haven't read any of the new winners yet. In fact, for the past few years, prior to seeing their titles printed on the ALCS homepage and in about a dozen pieces of junk mail from various book vendors, every one of the winners dwelled in that bottomless pit of books I'd never heard of. Sure, in 2008 I was aware that Neil Gaiman had published something new that I hadn't seen, but Neil Gaiman is almost always publishing something new that I haven't seen. The man is about as prolific as they come. (Neil, if by some miracle you're reading this, I am trying to keep up and I really loved Stardust. A novella about Tristran and Yvaine's adventures between the fair and throne would be much appreciated.) Getting back to reality though, the ALA awards are a bit like the Sundance Film Festival anymore. They select books that wouldn't make a big dent without a little help from their friends at the ALA. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for helping out the little guy. I'm just saying that that's how the awards seem to work now.

A few years ago, there was a spew of articles about how the award-winning books of the past decade or so have been so obscure and bizarre, that they were causing the ALA awards to lose their relevance. And at first, I thought, "No! This would be a tragedy that the entire world of children's books would suffer for!" Then, a couple of months ago, I learned from a rant (her word, not mine) by Jane Yolen that the Today show snubbed the Newbery and Caldecott Award winners from their traditional spot the day after the award winners were announced. In their place, Today had run an interview with Snooki, the reality television star. Jane was steamed. She had some choice words for Today, for Snooki, for anyone willing to listen. She blogged about it. She sent a letter of disapproval to Today. I shrugged my shoulders and wished I had a life that included the time to watch the Today show in the morning...or at least time to sit down for breakfast before work. Maybe the articles from a few years back were right on the money. Maybe there are just so many awards out there today that I can't get excited about the annual batch from the ALA like I once did.

In reality, I think I have simply come to the conclusion that an award doesn't mean that much. I'm happy for the people that win them. It feels good to be recognized for good work (though I realize there are innumerable awards whose purpose is to recognize things other than good work). Also, I recognize that there is more to an award than simple recognition, like prizes and monetary compensation, which I find equally acceptable. Who could make better use of some extra cash than the starving artists, after all? The thing that I find bothersome is simply the reverence that has come to be associated with winning certain awards.

Conversations that worry me go something like, "Oh, she won the Newbery? She must be great then!" There's almost a degree of validation that comes with the ALA awards, not dissimilar to winning a Super Bowl ring for great NFL quarterbacks. Yet an award from the ALA comes simply from impressing a small panel of readers, experts in the field of children's literature, whatever that means. As the old saying goes, there's no accounting for taste. The judges could've read everything the world of publishing has ever had to offer, but it doesn't make their opinion worth anymore than yours or mine. Does Dan Marino's lack of a Super Bowl win take something from an otherwise amazing career? Maybe. Does Chris Soenpiet's lack of a Caldecott take something from his contribution to children's literature? Not a chance. So maybe I'm a bit of a cynic. I don't dislike the thought behind a book award. It's the methodology behind selecting the winner that leaves me wanting something more.

One Crazy Summer (Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction (Awards))So I'll read Moon Over Manifest and I'll marvel over the illustrations in A Sick Day for Amos McGee. I'll even delight in the joys of Bink and Gollie and wonder at One Crazy Summer and Dave the Potter. I'll do all of that someday soon, I guess. But I'm not going to rush things. The mere fact that a dozen or so people got together in a room somewhere and decided that those were the best children's books America had to offer in 2010 doesn't mean I have to agree. It doesn't mean that I'll hurry out to the bookstore to fork over the hundred or so dollars it would cost to add the hardcover editions of each of those alleged masterpieces to my home collection. Paperbacks suit me fine. Congratulations to the winners. You worked hard and deserve a little respect for what you've done. I hope you get that. I promise I'll get to your books just as soon as my budget and frantic lifestyle allow for it. Just don't be surprised if it's not this year...or the next...or maybe the one after that.