Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini by Peter Johnson

Yellow post-it notes litter my desk like a checkered flag. Once in a while one gets stuck to my elbow or purse bottom. I'm optimistic at first that this organization technique will galvanize me into getting my act together. But by the end of the year, I've gravitated toward my natural chaos, casting a jaded eye at the fake wood desktop thinking, this strategy ain't a workin' for me. I feel the same way about some common literary techniques in children's literature. At first, I think, ahhhh... how clever of the author to have the main character use a dictionary to look up words, helping the young reader learn new vocabulary. After coming across this technique umpteen times, it's looking like a checkered flag to me right now. Eventually, I git dawgone tired of it. Maybe my problem is they remind me too much of doing outlines for research papers where my scattered notes looked like confetti. Or maybe it is too much like cooking where I always miss a key ingredient creating a mound of inedible slop. Or maybe I'm too random for a sequential list. I don't know. I do know I get irritated at lists as well. Lists for top ten rules to make friends. Lists for things to do. Lists of favorite words (that's a biggie). Lists on how to pick your nose (just kidding).  Alas, this book has lists. But we don't see them once in a while, we see them ten times over the course of 160 pages. These lists clarify the plot. They are funny. And they irritate me.

I wonder if my snarky attitude towards lists makes me too biased to write a review, and maybe it does, but I didn't think this book lived up to its potential. While the craft elements are all there, the end result was like a rock skipping across the surface of a lake with chapters too short and the first person point of view too limiting for me to connect with the characters. The strong start introduces the protagonist, Houdini, who sounds like a smart aleck teenager. He's funny, has an attitude, and spends time with his good friends, Lucky and Jorge. Lucky is actually unlucky when it comes to injuring himself and Jorge likes to swear all the time. The trio deals with Angel, the class bully, and learn to not be afraid of their neighbor, Old Man Jackson, an ex-Vietnam war veteran with one arm and pit bull guard dog. Their neighborhood is rough and life is not easy for the boys. When Houdini's brother goes off to fight in Iraq, the family is fearful for his life, causing Houdini to find an unlikely friend in Old Man Jackson.

A subplot involves Houdini writing a novel. Normally I like this metafictional touch, but here it made me notice the writing craft too much and I felt like I was being manipulated through the story. Dad is political and opinionated. He's about to lose his job and through writing, Houdini notices these changes. The problem is that the first person point of view made the father flat as a character. Perhaps if I could go inside his head, he'd be more rounded. As is, when I first read his views they sounded like a platform for the author's political views. The same goes for Angel. I needed to get inside his head. Why did he change? The first person point of view made it unbelievable. The older brother is flat too. I would have liked to go inside his head to learn about his relationship with old man Jackson. He makes all the right decisions and is more an adult than the father. I think using third person narrative would have pulled me into the story more versus feeling like a detached observer.

In some ways this story reminded me of "Okay for Now" by Gary Schmidt but without the deep character development. The chapters are very short and while I like the authors use of words and arrangement of sentences that create a nice rhythmn, I just couldn't connect with the characters. On the other hand, I can see students liking the nice humor and short chapters.

I did feel uncomfortable with some of the stereotypes: hot-tempered abusive father who is a red head, screaming mother who dresses in tight clothes, wired rapper-looking boy who swears all the time, Vietnam veteran who burns incense and has an insane laugh, mohawk fat bully, and so on. The author tries to show them as human toward the end, but I wished he had not used these stock characters. This is definitely a grade 5 book and older. I know that I am in the minority with this book. My friend Angela really liked it and we tend to agree on most books. It has also won two awards. Maybe the lists spun me in the wrong direction. Maybe coming off reading four great adult novels, I was turned off by the simplicity of this story. I don't know. You'll have to decide for yourself. The good news is it took me only two hours. It's taken me longer to write this review ; )

Reading Level 5.6
3 Smileys

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