Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Kids' Book For Adults Who Like Kids' Books?

If you were an overweight, unpopular, academically unsuccessful twelve-year-old, what would be your greatest fantasy? Forget the freaking wizards, vampires, and fairies. I'd want to be brilliant, rich, and powerful so I would know I was superior to all my tormentors. In fact, I'm not twelve years old or particularly overweight, and I'd still like to be brilliant, rich, and powerful so I would know I was superior to somebody. Anybody.

That is the basic premise behind I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I want to be your Class President by Josh Lieb--an eighth grade genius has secretly wheeled and dealed and invented his way to incredible wealth and power--but no one knows it.

I can't recall exactly why it's such a big secret, but the secret is what makes the book funny. As Oliver is pretending to underachieve (almost to the point of appearing handicapped), he is also sending instructions to his body guards and slipping out to his secret lairs. Then he decides to use all his considerable means to win the position of eighth-grade class president in order to get revenge on his father, but we readers can tell that what he really wants is Daddy's love.

I am a Genius is an entertaining, clever, over-the-top ride. But as I was reading it, I couldn't help feeling that the humor was directed at me. The Raymond Carver joke, for instance. I'm not sure how many twelve to fifteen year olds will get that. Same with the references to Nabokov and Nietzsche. I also have to wonder how many kids are familiar with Cream and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I appreciated lines like "I predict a great future for him in the field of getting-a-dead-end-job-and-dying-alone-and-unmourned" and "...a collection of lurkers, butt-scratchers, and rats taking their first steps toward a glorious future as low-level bureaucrats", myself. But landing dead end jobs, dying alone and unmourned, and ending up as low-level bureaucrats all seem like very adult concerns to me. And while I definitely got all the slams regarding PBS, do teenagers even watch that network? If you're too old for Barney but too young for Depends, will you get PBS jokes?

A lot of reviews compare Oliver to Stewie in Family Guy. The thing is, Family Guy is an adult show.

I am a Genius is on the 2012 reading list for Connecticut's readers' choice award in the teen category, so if I can wait a year, I may find out how the book goes over with adolescent readers. In the meantime, I think it's definitely a book adults will enjoy.

Plot Project: No, I don't think this is a simple, give a character something to want and then keep him from getting it storyline. I think the plot grew out of the clever situation.

Hmmm. "Grow a plot." Maybe that's a line I can do something with.


MotherReader said...

Oh, I loved this book! So funny! My teen loved it too, though I never thought about the PBS problem. I think the reason his identity was secret was that no one would take him seriously as a kid, so he had to employ other people to be the face of things.

J. L. Bell said...

Haven't read this book, but I've noticed the same phenomenon in others and in other media.

Gail Gauthier said...

Pam--I passed the book on to a twenty-something family member who wasn't as taken with it as I was. I'm still keeping the title on a gift list for someone else I know.

John--The blurbs on this book were very interesting in terms of the "phenomenon" you're talking about. One was from Jon Stewart. I'm sure lots of kids at least recognize his name, but I wonder how many of your younger YAs actually watch his show. (Josh Lieb used to work on The Daily Show, but I believe he's moved on to something else, which explains the blurb.)Another blurb came from Judd Apatow. Kids may have seen his movies, but how many know who produced or wrote them?

These guys have really high name recognition among adults and certainly know humor. They're not the first people I think of when talking about YA fiction, though. So it seemed that their blurbs would be more meaningful to nonYA readers. Yet this is a YA book.

Though, when you get down to it, who are the blurbs on YA and kids' books for? Maybe for booksellers and librarians.

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