Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond, Oliver Jeffers (Illustrations)

"Would you like my lads to see who is tooting' their hooter and put it to a halt?" asks Clarence P. Clapp regarding a car that is honking its horn at an "ossifer." Clarence is the king of malapropisms, mispronunciations, and misspellings in this goofy story by David Almond. While it nods it head at the great Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky using some literary techniques found in his works and even naming one of the characters after him, it is Almond's own creation with childlike and satirical human behavior. My brain kept trying to pull out fragments of Dostoyevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamzov, that I read decades ago. I repeat, decades. I have a fuzzy recall of Dostoyevsky using malapropisms and having an intrusive narrator that enhances the theme of truth just like Almond has an omniscient narrator that enhances the theme of choosing your own destiny to the point that the reader chooses the villain's ending, but I might be wrong. The unfinished ending that tells the reader to choose the villain's resolution might frustrate some readers and I've read a few reviews on Goodreads that express this exact disappointment, but personally, I thought it was funny and figured, of course, the daft Clapp who is full of crap would jump in with the piranhas. I'd eat him if I was a piranha. But what will students think of all the metaphorical silliness? That's the question I'm not sure how to answer. It might be just a bit too weird for them. Or they'll laugh their heads off.

Stanley Potts has quit school to help his uncle Ernie with his new business venture of canning fish. When his aunt gives Stanley money for his birthday and the day off he goes to the carnival and buys some goldfish that sets off a series of events leading to him running away from home. He works for the carnival goldfish stall run by the man, Dostoyevsky, and his daughter, Nitasha, where Stanley changes them into regarding the goldfish as something special and seeing the world as having possibilities. He gives them hope, which in turn, gives them joy. When Pancho Pirelli, the famous man who swims with the piranhas decides to take Stanley on as an apprentice, Stanley decides to forge his own identity and do what brings him happiness.

The many points of view give different messages and themes such as growing up, taking risks, dealing with nasty people, becoming independent, getting a first job, finding your identity, reinventing yourself, finding your special talent, finding something that makes you happy, creating your own history, and discovering the possibilities in life - to name a few. The silly, nonsensical Clarence P. Clapp is great satire on the theme that extreme behavior even when representing good or the law, as in Clapp's occupation, can be bad. Extremist views can justify actions that cross the line of justice to persecution and Clapp seems to show this at the end. He's destroyed Ernie's business but continues to zealously attack Stanley Potts and his family.  He's so convinced of his righteousness that he will swim with the piranhas because he thinks he understands them versus representing their ruthless feeding side more than anything else. Perhaps Stanley will save Clapp as he has saved so many people in the story.

At first I thought Gypsy Rose was going to follow the cliched, stereotypical path of the greedy gypsy, but she not only foreshadows Stanley's future, she philosophically tells him to pursue his heart's desires, forgive those who make mistakes, and to not be afraid. She uses a beam of moonlight as a means of payment and what started out as a minor character I wasn't sure about was one that became interesting as the story progressed. Come to think of it, I didn't like Dostoyevsky at first either. Many characters come across as cartoonish at first and get more interesting as the plot unfolds.

This book is very artistic and as a librarian with decades of reading literature, I appreciate what David Almond does in this tale. I don't know if young readers will delight in it. Is it too weird? Is the character too unapproachable? I admire Almond's piece of work and the risk he takes creating something quite different from the norm. There are many factors that prevent authors in general from pushing boundaries whether in children's literature or elsewhere. I had a conversation with my dad, an architect, who talked about how difficult it was for him to take risks with building designs because of potential client loss. To teach the value of making mistakes is not a part of the cultural norm. And what if the mistake costs oodles of money? Is this book a mistake, you ask? I don't think so. The nice thing about Almond is he has a strong following and can take risks. Okay. Enough musings. Oliver Jeffers illustrations and their understated simplicity complement the text quite well and add to the humor. Children's literature needs these type of books, but this one might need explaining by teachers to young readers.  Decide for yourself. Obviously, I can't.

5 Smileys

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