Friday, January 7, 2011

Jon Scieszka's "Guys Read" is Not a Good Read

Parents share the instinct that reading is important, even if unable to spell out exactly why. Teachers profess that reading builds vocabulary and fluency. Historians argue that knowing something about the past will strengthen our future. Theologians assert that reading lifts the human spirit. And literati agree that reading brings us all into, what Mortimer Adler calls, the Great Conversation.

They are all, of course, absolutely correct. But most of us don’t spend a lot of time asking why; we merely follow our instinct that we should be readers and that our children should be readers, too. So, what should we read?

Again, instincts can go a long way in helping to choose books that are appropriate for our children. For the unsure, classics are the best place to start. There are very good reasons why some books, such as the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, or C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, have been loved for generations.

Just the other day, I was thinking of my young sons and wondering what sorts of books will capture their attention. Browsing past the snot and underwear titles that populate the young readers shelves at the local bookstore, a paperback caught my eye. The book, Guys Read: Funny Business, edited by Jon Scieszka (Walden Pond Press, 2010), is the first in a planned series of short story collections for boys ages 8 – 12.

I am NOT recommending the book; too many of the stories appeal to the lowest appetites, with conniving, defiant narrators who never redeem themselves. They are a kind of literary junk food, and I’m looking for meat and vegetables. But I find the book useful for two reasons: one, to point out that parents should stay keenly aware of not only TV and computer use, but also the books being marketed to our kids; and two, this book actually offers a jumping off point to better reading.

Out of the ten stories, I liked three. But, in school lingo, that’s an F. 

One of the worthwhile stories is “Artemis Begins,” by Eoin Colfer - a clever piece of writing in a rather sophisticated style. Colfer, the author of the well-known "Artemis Fowl" series, recounts this tale of how the seeds of his future writing career were planted as he and his brothers worked together to keep mom from going “DEFCON four” over a broken trophy.

Donal was torn. One the one hand there is nothing a big brother likes better than seeing his little brother up to his neck in trouble, especially when that little brother is such a cutie that trouble usually slides off him. But on the other hand his professional curiosity was aroused. Could he get Niall off the hook for such an extreme crime? If he managed it, the name Donal would become legendary around the estates.

It’s a funny story and it brought to my mind theGreat Brain” series by John D. Fitzgerald. Published in the late 1960s and early 70s, the stories are narrated by the younger brother of Tom, the title character, whose penchant for mischief is legendary. They’re smart books and are great to read aloud to the whole family.

There’s also a wonderful story by Kate DiCamillo and Jon Scieszka called, “Your Question For Author Here.” In it, a student named Joe Jones - under the duress of a school assignment - writes a friendly letter (rather rudely) to author Maureen O’Toole, asking for “a bunch of author stuff so we can get this over with.” The resulting exchange of letters helps a bored, self-obsessed, lunkhead of a boy reveal the insightful and interesting young man he will become.  Would that we all had such a pen pal to encourage us to find ourselves in a good book.

The last story I liked was "Will" by Adam Rex, which humorously yawns at stereotypical super hero stories and at the same time uses comic book cliches in original ways. It is snarky without being rude and it reads like a running gag. Will, a boy who attends a private school for kids with super-hero potential, has, through an act of will, become "super" without knowing it. The irony in the final line makes the story a great one for discussion:

"Sucks about you not getting powers," said Aidan.
"I know," Will sighed. "I'll never be a hero."

Overall, “Guys Read” is not a good read, but there is great potential in the editor’s desire to help boys find books to enjoy. To that end, Scieszka has developed a website,, offering reading suggestions for preschoolers through teens.

The site rates books and has lists of several authors’ favorite reads. Books are arranged in interesting categories such as: How To Build Stuff, People Being Transformed Into Animals, and Classics That Actually Hold Up.

Browse the lists and you’ll find great authors like Herge, the Brothers Grimm, E. B. White, Gary Paulsen, and Ray Bradbury. You might find a few stinkers, but that’s just more encouragement to stay involved in what your child reads.

It’s a nice site to explore and it may remind you of a favorite book from your growing-up that you can share with your child.

Classic Choice

The Great Brain
John D. Fitzgerald
Ages 8 and up

Entertaining from the get-go, the adventures of the Fitzgerald brothers are a delightful look into what life was like for boys growing up in the Midwest at the turn of the 19th century.

Tom’s “great brain” is adept at swindling pennies from his friends and making trouble for the new teacher, but he never goes too far before Papa and Mama make him set things right. And when he puts his mind to helping out Peg-leg Andy or rescuing two boys lost in a cave, his accomplishments become the stuff of legend.

Tom is so much more than your run-of-the-mill mischief-maker. He has an understanding of human behavior far beyond his ten years. His little brother J.D. narrates the story with a quiet awe of his brother’s cleverness. Together, they manage to learn many important lessons a boy should know: lessons in tolerance, bravery, and the importance of a man’s good name.

Read this book aloud to your children and it will be nearly impossible for them to resist going to the library to read more. There they will find six more Great Brain titles to savor.

1 comment:

  1. Great essay, thanks. I was looking at this book for my son but it doesn't sound like either of us would like it.