Tuesday, December 27, 2011

You Should Know About This Book

I heard about Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide To Not Reading because its author, Tommy Greenwald, and I belong to the same listserv. Otherwise, I don't know if I would have heard of it, which would have been really too bad.

Charlie Joe Jackson is a master of avoiding reading, and he is prepared to share that skill with others in his first-person narrative, which includes 25 very fine "non-reading tips." (Tip #2: "Never read a book by someone whose name you can't pronounce." Tip #17: "Reading makes you blind.") Charlie is a middle school kid, but he's got that sort of slacker hip thing going that you often see in teen boy or even twenty-something guy books. But it works. In a lot of those slacker hip teen boy stories, the books read as if the author is, in fact, a hip slacker imposing his adult world view on a teen character. Charlie Joe Jackson is slackerish while remaining realistically young. (I'm not sure if we're ever told exactly what grade he's in. He talks about things that happened back in fourth grade, but the period since that point is vaguely described, in one case as "ever since." This is not a bad thing. It means anyone in the middle school age range--whatever that is--can feel part of the story.)

Charlie Joe doesn't perceive not reading as a problem that needs to be solved, so this is by no means a problem book. His long-standing arrangement with a reading friend to sort of be his reading dealer led him into trouble, but never does Charlie Joe regret not liking to read. He does have a moment of identification with a character he's forced to read about, but it passes. This is probably the best aspect of the book--Charlie Joe doesn't buckle and turn out the way adults want him to. This is not, thank goodness, a book with one of those "messages that grown-ups want kids to hear over and over."

In our literary culture, particularly children's literary culture, readers are perceived as superior, both intellectually and in some squishy spiritual sort of way. Even in books in which reading is a sign of dorkishness, the dorks are portrayed as having a great future or being put upon by characters far worse than they are. The far worse characters are rarely big readers. With Charlie Joe, though, Charlie our nonreader gets along just fine. He's what he might describe as a "clique buster." He seems to move among students. He has no enemies.

Except, of course, for books.

Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading can be enjoyed by serious child readers who should get the sly humor and nonreaders who should appreciate that their view of reading is treated with some respect instead of as a disability.

Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading is a Cybils nominee.

Plot Project: Perhaps the plot for CJJ's Guide to Not Reading began with the author giving his character something he wanted--to avoid reading--and then throwing a couple impediments in his way. On the other hand, it could easily have grown out of a situation involving a smart, capable boy who uses his wit to avoid doing something he just doesn't like to do.

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