Friday, August 1, 2008

King of the Mild Frontier- Chris Crutcher

Crutcher, C. (2003).
King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography.
New York: Greenwillow Books (Harper Collins), 260 pp.


James Joyce comments on readers' interest in reading into the life of the author as the infatuation or idle gossip of schoolchildren. But, he adds, some of these schoolchildren grow up to be the scholars of the next day.

"Once you have read about Chris Crutcher's life as a dateless, broken-toothed, scabbed over, God-fearing dweeb, and once you have contemplated his ascension to the buckskin-upholstered throne of the King of the Mild Frontier, you will close this book, close your eyes and hold it to your chest, and say, 'I, too, can be an author.' Hell, anyone can." from the jacket

Crutcher takes us on a hilarious journey from the early childhood roots of his incredible anger through his unpredicted success as a young adult author much later in life. We hear of his boyhood shenanigans, adolescent humiliations and grown accomplishments as a therapist and writer. There are plenty of poignant moments, especially with regards to his totally unsuccesful courtships and failures in athletics, but the tone remains tragicomic throughout. Late in the story, he reveals the germ of his career as a writer as originating in a long string of English class plagarisms from the closet files of his older brother. Having failed to prepare a book report, he is forced to fabricate one at the very last minute just before school. Panicked, he decides to make up a book and storyline and then critique it as "the stupidest story I have ever read." He is racked with paranoia about getting caught, only to be rewarded with his first A- in his academic career. Another key passage concerns "To Kill a Mockingbird", the first book that he reads "without putting it down". "Mrs. Phelps didn't know it, but she had me. All she had to do was give me another book like that, but instead she gave me "Silas Mariner". . . my worst fears were realized. Only one good book had been written. And now I'd already read it" (219). These two stories key into his initial interest in writing and reading, despite the fact that he has usually been, confessedly, an unusually lazy and uninterested student.

Also of particular note is Crutcher's testimonial about censorship and language. "If I am to make characters real. . . I have to be willing to tell stories about the ruggedness of their lives. . . I never back off the truth as I see it, or the language required to tell it" (228).

In addition to coming to understand much more about Chris Crutcher and the autobiographical connections to many of his
books, we get to know a bit about his family and schoolmates in the little logging town of Cascade, Idaho. We learn why he swears he'll never marry in observing the fortress of intimidation and table manners that is his father, Crutch in rarely connected conjunction with his mother Jewell, the retreating Alcoholic whom he counsels and tries to save (a la Ben Wolf) when he should be outside playing. John, his tricky brother, is constantly tempting him into trouble with "you wanna try something neat", and his younger sister Candy is spared much responsibility for and reciprocal receipt of the author's humiliation. Teachers are prime subjects for ridicule, but his patients in therapy, young and old, are treated carefully and respectfully.

The plot and themes intertwine to demonstrate the growth of the author from anger to compassion, causing trouble to helping resolve it, and isolation to connection to a community and his audience. In this way, the book is of great value to adolescents and would-be authors alike. It is a true success story told from the point of view of a truly wild-hearted loser that evolves into the King of the Mild Frontier. Crutcher modifies his boyhood models of Heroism, coming to later glorify not personal success, but how individuals make the most of their failures. This is particularly effective after watching him fail so continuously and miserably. Adolescents can relate not only to his physical and cognitive difficulties as a young person, but also see his emotional and social maturation as it finally culminates in the celebrated person who has written the books that so many of them have come to enjoy.

Most of this story is told in chronological order of his life, with some translocations of anecdotes and some thematic chapters such as "Conversations with Gawd". Crutcher's comments on his religious development are particularly interesting given his status as one of the most-banned authors of all time. He goes from being tricked into perfect compliance with his Sunday school by being offered a prize (which turns out to be a cheap plastic trinket) to being put out in the hall for asking difficult questions about the Old Testament. Eventually he comes to express, "that nothing is fairer than life and that mysterious ways are mostly mysterious because of our ignorance" (126). The most disturbing answer he receives from his church involves the mark of Cain. The mark, he is told, corresponds to the color of and indicates the especially sinful heritage of Blacks. This answer causes him to seek (sane) assylum in another church, the Episcopalian, where he is counseled to interpret the Bible more as a literary than literal text. Another incident that involves racism comes much later, when he overhears his teammates in the lockerroom discussing the strategy of intentionally disabiling a black opponent in order to win a game. He expresses deep regret at not confronting these bigotted bruisers at this point, but takes up the cause through his written characters in "Running Loose", and again in "Deadline". Thus he illustrates the writer's role as the reviser of history and voice of conscience for future civilizations beyond his own.

Language is a "big fat shitburger" to Crutcher, and though he decides to "unf*ck" his first novel (losing 100 pages in the process), he defends his responsibility to present real characters in their true-to-life rugged manner of expression. He is even a little proud to be one of the most-banned authors of all time, since it alone places him historically on a list with both Twain and Vonnegut.

Gender and age struggle against one another in this coming of manhood (or not) tale. His scoutmaster even tells his mother he is a girl after a particularly pitiful outing. Social class is addressed in the form of his father's country club embarrassment and consequent fascistic concern with tablemanners. Exceptionality may be seen in physically pathetic Chris's failure at athletics, courtship, and wilderness training, not to mention being the world's biggest bawlbaby throughout his development.

I would use parts of this book for a read aloud, and recommend it for individual choice or small group reading. Even then I might require parental permission for readers, not because it is as disturbing as some YA titles, but because the liberal use of language, parody of his church and frequent reference to masturbation may bring out the torch and pitchfork segment of the local PTA in these parts.

Because of these issues, I would probably recommend this title for 11th or 12th graders, younger if parental consent was easy to secure. The language is not so much difficult to understand as possibly controversial.

Personally, I loved this book. You don't have to be Katy to develop a fondness for Crutcher through reading his story, and you don't have to be an author to realize how much valuable life and writing wisdom can be gleaned from "King of the Mild Frontier". I liked "Deadline", but I like this book even better. I loved Roald Dahl's autobiography "Boy" (which is also a great choice for young readers and writers), but I loved this one even more. I wholly recommend that future teachers check this one out.

The Midwife's Apprentice- Karen Cushman

Cushman, K. (1995). The Midwife's Apprentice. New York: Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin), 122 pp.

Fiction, Newberry, 1996

A homeless, nameless girl of twelve, or is it thirteen, she's not sure, burrows deep into a warm composting dung heap to sleep on a cold Medieval night. Known up to now only as "Brat", she earns a new name, "Dung Beetle" from the typical tormenting boys of the village she has drifted into. A snippy older woman chases the boys away, but sees some promise in the resourceful (using the dung heap for heat) and hungry (usable to the woman) vagabond. They strike a deal to trade work for the girl's keep, and "Beetle" becomes the midwife's apprentice. Though she is grateful to have food (in small amounts) and shelter (though colder than the dung heap), she is bossed and berated by Jane,the midwife. The girl names her Jane Sharp for her nose, glance and tongue of that description. Luckily, Beetle makes one friend, a cat that she saves from drowning at the hands of the rotten village boys. Jane assumes Beetle to be useful enough, but "too stupid and scared to be any competition" (11). Eventually, however, Beetle does learn some of the nuances of birthing babies, both from secretly observing Jane, and helping Will, a boy who befriends her after she saves him from drowning, deliver twin calves. Eventually, she takes over at a birth that Jane has abandoned as hopeless, and delivers the Bailiff's wife with more tenderness and compassion than Jane ever supplied. She comes to realize midwifery is more about care and hard work than spells and potions. She also realizes things about herself; she can clean up to be almost pretty, she deserves a proper name and is given "Alyce" by a lad who mistakes her for someone who can read. She begins to want learning and identity. Unfortunately, she is specially requested at another birth and is not able to help the woman deliver. Frustrated and ashamed, she runs away to work at an inn. She learns a few words and letters from a resident scholar, but her deep transformation comes when a very pregnant Lady and her knowing-naught Lord and attendants stumble upon the Inn desperate for assistance. Neither scholar, nor innkeeper, nor anyone else can do anything for the poor laboring woman, and Jane the midwife is away from her house for the night. Alyce has to step in and deliver the baby. She comes to see midwifery as her true calling and returns to work with Jane Sharp, who has taught her that her only failing was giving up on her dream.

Alyce and Jane are both strong and admirable women, though likable to different degrees for various reasons. They are both caregivers for birthing mothers, but Alyce is caring and concerned, where Jane is only competent and professional. No one is perfect in this village, and we get to see the interplay of public, strict Puritanhood and private, either immoral or else vulnerable humanity. The boys are bullies and the grown-ups are often callous and corupt. The plot, whereby our heroine comes of age, identity, skill, and social acceptance drives the themes of growth through ethical and compassionate works and finding one's place, name, and meaning through bravery and perserverence. The narration is straightforward but rich enough in description to convey this 14th century fiction colorfully to the modern reader.

Adolescent issues are central to Alyce's story; we follow her physical, social, cognitive and emotional growth from dung beetle to practicing midwife, from vagabond to attractive young lady, from loner to deliverer of the community. She should stand as an inspiration to anyone, especially young people, who want to develop their role, place, or meaning in the world.

Language (oppressing by insulting and empowering through renaming) is a powerful issue in this book. Gender prejudice, especially among the boys, interacts with disparaging attitudes toward the young and powerless and those of low social class to charge the politics of this story. The heroine of true heart can overcome the cruel and unnurturing world and transform it.

I would recommend this book as a read aloud for its great descriptions, individual choice, especially for girls and people interested in history or midwifery, small group and even whole class. It is a fairly easy read and would be a great bridge to a history class, or a classic of similar period, such as The Scarlet Letter.

I think this book would serve 6th to 12th graders in various ways and motivated younger readers might be inspired as well. Alyce is 12 or 13, so that age group would be especially appropriate.

I really enjoyed this story and the way it was told. I think it is of great service both to midwives and those that may someday need them. Anyone having children should at least check out this book and a local midwife before deciding how to deliver. Anyone else should at least check out this book.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

the first part last- Angela Johnson

Johnson, A. (2003). the first part last. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 131pp.

Fiction, Coretta Scott King, 2004. Prinz, 2004

Bobby, a sixteen year old student at a New York High School, learns to take care of and care for his newborn daughter Feather. The narrative alternates between Bobby's exhausting "now" of near endless holding, feeding and diaper changes, minimally relieved by his tough, standbackish mom, and snippets of the "then" that explain how his new family came to be. Nia, Feather's mother seems entirely absent in the "now"s until very late in the narrative. We wonder why this young man is raising his daughter by himself. In the "then"s, the young lovers stand together in a disapproving world, and eventually agree to put the child up for adoption once it is born. Meanwhile, "now" Bobby is discovering how incredibly difficult it is to be a man, parent, student, son and child all at once. Eventually, we come to know the "then" of Feather's birth (complicated by eclampsia, and maternal brain death and "irreversible vegetative coma") and and the "now" of her mother Nia, in long term care in a country nursing home. Against other's advice, Bobby decides to "be a man" and cancel the planned adoption in favor of raising Feather himself. Finally, he leaves New York altogether to live in Heaven, Ohio, a place his older brother there has assured him is good for raising children.

The characters in this book often reverse our expectations. Young foolabout Bobby becomes sweet, vulnerable, and highly responsible (for the most part) as a result of his fatherhood. His mother, Mary is tougher and warns him that she will not pick up the slack for him. Fred, Bobby's dad, is more sentimental and nurturing, "always cooking and crying" as Mary parodies him. Nia seems more prepared to give up the baby and get on with her college plan. Her parents are upright, but rigid as statues in reaction. His towering high school teacher wakes him in class and questions him only about whether or not his or her family are helping out. The disjointed method of storytelling brings times and characters in and out of focus until we gradually understand how and with whom things went down. This brings gradual focus to the themes as well. Family is complex, imperfect, and concerned, most importantly, with someone caring for the young and needy. Also, men can and need to be nurterers in today's families. Young people should think seriously about reproductive responsibility, and yet, even a 16 year old boy can make the leap to fatherly manhood if his heart is in the right place.

This book deals with adolescent, in utero and infant development at length. We witness the physical, emotional, cognitive,and social growth of Nia, Bobby and their relationship throughout. Their parents undergo emotional and social change as well, though mostly they are stressed out.

Multicultural and ethnic issues interplay with social class in the differences between Nia's more affluent and minimalist modernist backlit parents, and Bobby's more funky folks. Though his mother now lives closer to Nia's neighborhood, his dad still stays in Brooklyn where Bobby grew up, with a house cluttered in color, music and the constant smell of something cooking. Age is perhaps the central issue of contention, since everyone thinks these adolescents are too young to have a child. Gender is also critical, for Bobby, his dad and brother take on the main nurturing roles.

I would use this book for a read-aloud, individual choice, small group, or whole group reading.

The book is dedicated to "the 1999-2000 sixth-grade class at the Manhattan School for Children". At first I may have thought this age group a little young for the story until I considered the dedication and the probable frequency of tween childbirth today. The language is not offensive (though he does mention feeling "stoned"), the explicit erotic content is minimal and the only questionable activities are grafitti-tagging an unattached wall (and we witness how this gets you busted) and unprotected teenage sex (and this gets you busted another way). Younger readers might require a note to and from parents about the content of the book. Parents would probably be thrilled with Johnson's messages if they read along.

I really enjoyed this book, despite the depressing tragic fate of the heroine. As a father I could relate to many of Bobby's realizations of love for his new daughter. I think young people from all settings and walks of life could benefit from this story. I'll recommend it to my own kids when they are a little older and hope it helps them to realize both the importance of holding off on offspring, and loving and respecting the people who are already around us.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux- Kate DiCamillo

DiCamillo, K. (2003). The Tale of Despereaux. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 271 pp.
Fairy Tales, Newberry, 2004

"The story of an unlikely hero"--"Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread"
Despereaux Tilling, born half size, extra large eared and with open eyes, is determined to be doomed by parents and siblings alike. Nonetheless he survives to demonstrate unusual perceptions and great valor. He follows the "sound of honey" to discover human music and falls in love with the luminous adolescent princess Pea, breaking the greatest mouse law by talking with her. He is caught in the act and betrayed to the mouse council by his brother and father and is sentenced to death by banishment to the dark, rat infested dungeon of the castle. There he is rescued by the noble jailer and, in exchange for a story of light (the key image in this book) he is hidden in a napkin and returned to the surface by the piggish, ever-clouted serving girl who would be princess, Miggery Sow. Chiaroscuro the rat has also witnessed the radiance of the regal aboveworld, but found royal rejection, rather than love, upon falling into the Queen's beloved soup and causing her to expire of heartattack. Roscuro longs for revenge. He hatches a plot with Miggery Sow to kidnap Pea and consign her to the dungeon, but Despereaux learns of it and braves the dark again to rescue his beloved. In true courtly love fashion, he must brave the underworld of Rats and appeal to the underdeveloped humanity of Miggery Sow to save Pea. Furthermore, he realizes the need to forgive Roscuro, who is ultimately allowed to dwell in the light of the aboveground level, where mice, or rather mouse, can speak to humans freely and there is a repeal of the king's previous ban on soup.

This book contains some interesting deviations on traditional archetypes, the questing night is an undersized mouse, the villain is a rat touched by the desire to seek light and the half-formed knave is an abused, clouted-eared pigfaced girl. It is a fairy-tale take on the courtly love novel and wends interestingly between these traditions. Notably, the author frequently addresses the reader directly and refers to classic motifs such as "the quest", "the knight in shining armor" and concepts of love and honor. There is also a deliberate cosmology of light and darkness, surface and subworld, good and evil, and life and death that tie this book to classic stories. The reader is also questioned and schooled in the meaning of words such as "perfidy", "chiaroscuro", and the concept of the "vicious circle". The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is also invoked by two occasions of using rope and thread to track one's path in the dark labyrinth.

Adolescents may or may not appreciate this story, depending on their affinity for classical, especially courtly stylistic elements. Truthfully, I liked the story but felt occasionally irritated by some of the conventions. Race is addressed by the separations between the human, mouse and rat worlds and social class is emphasized in the differences between Miggery and Pea and the absurd desire of the former to take over the role of the latter. Age has some bearing, for the older mice and humans are cruel, ignorant and even foolish when compared to the hero and heroine. Despereaux illustrates the triumph of the exceptionalized other, and later loses his tail to remind us of his differences. Miggery Sow suffers continuous blows to the ears to the point of near total deafness. She and the king are each described as being "not the sharpest knife in the drawer". Also, the following quote especially concerns adolescents. . .

"Reader, you must know that an interesting fate. . . awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform." (25)

I would recommend this book as an individual choice, particularly for readers who fancy this genre and I might read a short excerpt aloud to demonstrate different stylistic elements and unusual voices. It could act as a possible bridge to a classic for courtly love novels or questing literature. Theseus and the Minotaur are lurking in here as well.
I think middle school students and a few older students would be best served by this book.

I enjoyed the basic story and occasionally appreciated some of the language artistry of this book, but didn't find it particularly rivetting or revelatory on the whole. Maybe I'm being jaded, there were excellent virtues introduced, but I wanted a little quicker pace. Nice illustrations by the "Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone" guy. (Now that's an odd and excellent picturebook.)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bronx Masquerade- Nikki Grimes

1. Grimes, Nikki. (2002). Bronx Masquerade. New York: Dial Books (Penguin Group), 167 pp.
Poetry- Fiction, Coretta Scott King Award, 2003

2. Inspired by their study of the Harlem Renaissance, students in a Bronx High School convince their English teacher to start a special Friday Open Mike poetry session in their class. Through a series of alternating internal prose monologues followed by (Read-aloud) poems and then internal student reactions, we come to see the development of the book's eighteen youth-poets. Students learn to share their personal struggles in front of their classmates, and the listeners become increasingly understanding and supportive of one another. At first, everyone feels lonely and imperfect, not to mention misperceived by their peers and the adults in their life. Raising their voices in poetry allows the students to break through the masquerade they have been living and show a bit of their true selves.

3. The characters of this book are adeptly revealed, first through their inner monologues, but more dramatically in the presentation of their poetry. Tyrone, who is initially dragged to school against his will by a friend, initiates and becomes one of the main players in the poetry open mike. Also, he is most often the student who reacts after a poem and illustrates his transformation from prejudiced to compassionate peer. I enjoyed reading each student's thoughts and then hearing them transformed into public poetry. Stereotypes are shattered by Devon, who loves to read and refuses to be seen as the "jock in the box" that others would make him, and Tanisha, who affirms her rich black identity despite her fair coloring. Other students reveal their struggles with Dyslexia, teen motherhood, being heavy, less than beautiful, or hated for their beauty. One student, Steve, stands up for his right to "flow" as a white person. Overall, the class and the school learn about acceptance and the community that can grow from sharing poetry.

The plot and setting (home and school life) provide a familiar frame for the development of character and theme. Two special occurances, the first, when a newspaper reporter comes to document an Open MIke and the final scene, an end-of-the-year Open Mike presentation in front of the whole school, provide a vehicle by which the outside world witnesses and admires the positive works of the class. The community is proud of these poets. All the students hope to get involved with the project next year.

Nikki Grimes manages to convey eighteen different styles and consciousnesses throughout this book. The alternations between prose and poetry, inner and outer speech, and solitary and interactive moments keep the book changing and exciting. Altogether we flush out our understanding of these kids, of different approaches to poetry, and of the dangers of misperceptions and isolation. This innovative format is highly effective and, I think, would appeal to adolescents as well as adults.

The various characters illustrate different expressions of adolescent development (physical and social issues, cognitive and emotional development) with special regards to multicultural issues. Physical appearance and acceptance are one of the main issues, especially among the females in the class. Tyrone is suprised to learn that even the most attractive girls are not happy about how they look. Race, darkness, and complexion are even more at issue among them, and, in this Afro-centric setting, it is the whites and lighter-skinned blacks who feel oppressed. At first, the darker blacks can't understand why the traditionally-favored lighter and whiter people would wish to be otherwise. It is their poetry that elicits understanding. In addition to race and gender, issues of religion and exceptionality are addressed as well. Preacher, who plays guitar every Sunday in his church, and Raynard, who is Dyslexic, illustrate how difficult it is to promote piety and goodness among godless gangster-hazing and to read and speak before others despite his condition. Everyone in this books is exceptional in both their limitations and in overcoming them.

4. I would recommend this book as a read-aloud, individual choice, small group. whole group, or as a bridge to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

5. I would recommend this book most strongly for high schoolers, who might best relate to its setting, but also for younger students interested in poetry and performance. I think the reading level is moderate and the controversiality is mild in comparison to many of the YA books I have read.

6. Personally, this was one of the most innovative and interesting adolescent books I have come across in a while. I loved hearing all the different voices of the poets, especially after witnessing their inner struggles of a page before. Flaws and toubles that concerned them in isolation came out as strong beliefs in their vocalization. This book made me want to start an Open Mike session in my future classes, as well as teach a unit on the Harlem Renaissance. I plan to have this book in my classroom library, and may even make it a whole group read as well. Even if the racial profile is quite the opposite in the Fayetteville schools, the transformation of one's isolating personal problems and greater example of forming a community are relevant to everyone. A Great Book for students, teachers, poets and seeming nonpoets alike.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Nightjohn- Gary Paulsen

Paulsen, Gary (1993) Nightjohn. New York: Delacorte Press (Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.), 92 pp.
Historical Fiction
Sarny, a twelve year old slave girl on a plantation in the American South, learns how to read and write the first ten letters of the alphabet. Her teacher is the newly arrived slave Nightjohn, who has escaped slavery in the past only to return to it for the sake of educating his people. The whites, and particularly their cruel master Waller forbid their blacks any kind of learning, particularly literacy. When he catches Sarny practicing her writing in the dirt, the evil Waller amplifies his standard practices of whipping the disobedient and cuts off Nightjohn's two middle toes with a chisel. Slaves attempting escape are tracked down by dogs and torn to shreds as an example. Nonetheless, Nightjohn manages to walk away to freedom, even upon his freshly wounded feet. Finally, he returns one night to continue Sarny's education with a group of new pupils in a makeshift "pit school" in the underbrush. "Late he come walking and it be Nightjohn and he bringing us the way to know" (92).
This book is short and simple in its language, but I wouldn't call it easy to read. The descriptions of whippings, or rather flayings are highly graphic and the constant threat of some new cruelty should keep the reader on edge throughout. Sarny draws us close in her innocent yearning to know things, and we suffer with her as the repercussions of her learning are inflicted upon her Mammy and Nightjohn. In a small space we develop deep sympathies for the central characters and drink a deep and bitter draught of their historic plight. The theme, that history in general and oppression in particular need to be recorded, is particularly relevant to students of reading and writing. The implication that learning is the first step toward freedom should also inspire students and teachers alike. Though the time and circumstances are quite different, the southern setting may interest local readers, especially those with ancestors who suffered slavery. The language reflects traditional dialects of black slaves and white owners, effective in making the reader feel more at home and at ease with Sarny, Mammy and Nightjohn and more threatened by Waller.
Physically and socially, adolescents can identify with Sarny, anxious about menarche (the coming of the troubles) and her promotion to the breeding shack and adult responsibilities on the plantation. Her cognitive development turns out to be particularly threatening, and this may create an interesting resonance with students. This would be an excellent book for struggling readers and writers as well, who may still remember the triumphs of mastering only a few letters and writing their first word. Race, ethnicity, language, gender, age and social class are central to this story and religion (also forbidden) and exceptionality (the maimed and freedom impaired) are also key topics. I would use this book as a read aloud, recommend it for individual choice, encourage small groups to dramatize some of its scenes and consider it a bridge to any classic dealing with slavery, racism or a difficult coming of age.
The jacket recommends this book for 12 and up, which corresponds with the age of the main character. I imagine a stoic 10 or 11 year old could handle the reading level if the violent moments were not beyond their literary experience.
Personally, I found this an excellent book. It was a quick read but lingered in my mind long afterward. I wonder if a book like this would give spark or catharsis to racial tension in the classroom. How will students react to the fact that it was written by a white man? Does knowing that this story is based on real historic characters and events make it the more pertinent and authentic in the eyes of students? This certainly attracted me to reading it. Check it out.

Foreign Exchange- Graphic Novel

Dardess, George (1994) Foreign exchange. Rochester, NY: Austin Press, 139 pp.
Graphic Novel
Alvin, a frustrated American teenager from a dysfunctional family, becomes increasingly angry after his sickly mother agrees to take in a German exchange student. Most especially, he is bothered by the fact that the student, Rudi, appears, to everyone besides his parents and the school administrators, to be a dog. The adults, with the exception of the school janitor, see him as a well-behaved human visitor who needs to be treated with courtesy and respect. After being reprimanded for their initial derisive reaction, the students agree to play along with the seemingly delusional adults. Whenever he is shown kindness, Rudi grows in size and, eventually, begins to take on a more human form. As others begin to accept Rudi's growing humanity, Alvin's reaction grows from annoyance to pure rage. During a baseball practice, he pitches the ball hard into Rudi's face, sending him into a coma. Once Alvin comes to visit and express concern for him, Rudi, now fully human, recovers, but Alvin sinks into a deep depression. Eventually, Rudi is told that he was seen as a dog upon his arrival and begins a rapid devolution to his former caninity. He is killed, ironically, by Alvin's mother's car and the other characters graduate high school and try to make sense of what happened.
The central characters in this story are pretty messed-up. Alvin goes from hornery to near homocidal to homebound in the course of the narrative. His mother is ill, out-of-touch, and caught in her delusional beliefs. His father is altogether mute, though more responsive than the rest of the family. Other characters, Alvin's friends Jill and Byron are more compassionate and likeable. The plot, although bizarre, draws the reader in to an intense examination of prejudice and cruelty in the American High school. Other racial and social dynamics are addressed through the character of Ramon, the angry half Cherokee, and the relatively more accepting Black and female students of the school. Jill speaks for the compassionate but uncowed feminist. All of the students undergo a profound transformation of social and emotional consciousness, but Rudi's metamorphosis is central and the most dramatic. I believe this book would help adolescents struggling to fit into a new school or understand any kind of diversity.
The supertitle to this book is "The Catcher in the Rye of the 1990s", and thus it would make an excellent bridge to a classic. I would probably recommend this as an individual or small-group read, unless my school was experiencing a similar student tragedy or difficulty in understanding a guest from another culture. I think most secondary students could handle this book, but would particularly recommend it to high-schoolers.
I found the first half of this book a bit slow, but, once the story picked up momentum, I couldn't put it down. I didn't like the artwork as much as some graphic novels I've read, but I appreciated the visual aspect in depicting Rudi's transformations and sharing the split perceptions of the adults and young people. Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in its themes.