Thursday, September 21, 2006

Goin' Clubbin'... Bookworm Style

I read childrens books for numerous reasons:

1. It's best for my schedule to read books I can finish in a day or two.

2. I sometimes like that delusional, benevolent filter that children's writers put on their stories. Aside from making me laugh, it makes me feel like I don't have to worry about the next mortgage payment and stuff like that. Everything works out in the end.

3. I get this strange guilty conscience that all the books I was supposed to read in school but never did will one day come back to haunt me. Like I will be in a job interview and the manager will ask me, "Yes, it's great that you can handle a soldering iron but how would you compare the themes surrounding Frankenstein's monster to the current presidential administration?"

So for this installment I wanted to talk about the book "Bridge to Terabithia." It was the first book I was ever assigned to read in school (3rd or 4th grade). But I was in the hospital at the time and returned to school just in time to hear the teacher discuss the book with the class and ruin the ending for me.

I have always meant to go back and read that book and, a couple of weeks ago, I finally did.

First, I will say that it was probably the best KID'S book I've ever read. It was amazing in several ways. Part of what made the book so amazing was the honest and bizarre life situations stuffed into these 128 pages (hardback).

The book's most-used adjectives are "dumb" and "stupid." The word "Christmas" is taken in vain and the boy describes his kitchen as a "Hellhole." The most distinguishing characteristic of the star of the book is his stinky body odor. The main girl in the book is easily mistaken as a boy and implications are that she may be a Dick-Cheney's-daughter.

When the boy tells his father he is thinking about being an artist when he grows up, the dad responds, "What are they teaching in that damn school? Bunch of old ladies turning my only son into some kind of a---"

The book deals with bullies, exacting revenge, sympathy and humanity, elementary students that smoke, child abuse (the code of protecting your parents from getting in trouble for smacking you around) and superficial and homophobic behavior. I'm also guessing that the author was a hippie of sorts as there are many references in the book regarding the persecution against them. To me the magic of the book kicked in when the boy describes his hippie music teacher and their budding statutory relationship.

This book takes place in the South and is exactly the sort of book to freak out the religious hardshells in those red states. Aside from the points I just outlined, the kids create their own magical kingdom, Terabithia, modeled after C.S. Lewis's Narnia. But they didn't call it Narnia and the book isn't a clear endorsement of Mere Christianity so you know they hate it. I read a review of that book "Eragon" on where a reader warned potential buyers that the book talked about a mythical race who didn't believe in ONE god. The race believed in several gods and therefore this fantasy book was a threat to christian values.

In fact, in the Terabithia book, the butch girl asks to attend church with smelly-boy's family and they engage in a lengthy conversation about under which circumstances God will "damn you to Hell."

The girl tells her she doesn't have to believe in the Bible but she thinks it's beautiful just the same. They tell her, "...If you don't believe in the Bible, God'll damn you to Hell when you die." When she says she still doesn't believe that, they tell her, "What if you die? What's going to happen if you die?"

Can you guess what happens next?

I don't know why schools have taken it upon themselves to prepare children for the imminent death of their friends and close family:

Bridge to Terabithia
A Separate Peace
On My Honor (That may have only been in MY school-bout a boy that drowns in a river and his friend)
Where the Red Fern Grows (dogs is family, right?)
Wasn't there one about a boy who died from a bee-sting allergy while picking berries?

But Terabithia is a good book. Ramona Quimby seems like a cardboard cutout in comparison to the fully developed farm kids. Despite colorful lines like "What he wouldn't give for a set of those marking pens...not like those stubby crayons you had to press down on till somebody bitched about your breaking them," Terabithia WON the Newberry Award. That is what I respect: Not only did this content get into a kid's book and passed by teachers to 3-4th grade students... it also won the highest kid's award available.

"Ramona and Her Father" received a "Newberry Honor" (like an honorable mention). But there is nothing touching nor magical in the story. Basically, her father loses his job, quits smoking, and finds another job by the end of the book. There are uncomfortable, and rather pointless, references to the older sister Beezus starting her period. And worse, flat-out endorsments to eat fast food---

Ramona: "Maybe Daddy will take us to the Whopperburger for supper for payday," she said. A soft, juicy hamburger spiced with relish, French fries crisp on the outside and mealy on the inside, a little paper cup of cole slaw at the Whopperburger Restaurant were Ramona's favorite payday treat. Eating close together in a booth made Ramona feel snug and cozy. She and Beezus never quarreled at the Whopperburger.

Mrs. Quimby: "Good idea... I'll see what I can do."

In the book, Halloween is kind of glossed over. Instead we get a detailed account of how Ramona comes up with the idea for all the kids to dress up as sheep for the Christmas nativity play. Add that to the books opening of Ramona trying to "make a joyful noise until the lord" and it seems clear the audience the author is trying to please.

I think that it is funny that Beverly Cleary writes a Jesus-pandering book from the liberal stronghold of Oregon while Terabithia presents all the things that drive conservatives crazy from some southern location (the book takes place in Virginia). Maybe it's just easier to write against the grain. But it seems like the Quimby family just sort of "gets by" while, in Terabithia, they learn what it is to love someone because they make you a better person.

Stay tuned for the next book I was supposed to read as a kid.

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