Saturday, November 16, 2013

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (Timmy Failure #1) by Stephan Pastis

In English classes, teachers often have lessons where students examine the reliability of a character's voice. Some tell the truth and some don't. Huckleberry Finn is an "unreliable narrator" who even says outright that sometimes he tells the truth, sometimes he lies, and sometimes he stretches the truth.  Take a look at Holden Caulfield in "Catcher and the Rye," another top-notch unreliable narrator spewing contradictory statements and hyperboles in most of his dialogue. Some unreliable narrators in children's literature are: "The False Prince" by Jennifer Nielsen, "Liar & Spy" by Rebecca Stead, and "Monster" by Walter Dean Myers. Add to that list, "Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made," except stamp some great comic book pictures along with text and a protagonist like Elmer Fudd and you have a comedic unreliable narrator that makes me think of the Looney Tunes cartoon characters I grew up with in the 60's and 70's. In some ways Timmy's character reminds me of Junie B. Jones who acts superior to others, calls people stupid, yells at adults, acts like a twit head, talks back, and is mean to most peers.  As the students say, "she's so dumb she's funny!" Timmy is so patently dumb he's funny too.

Timmy is a cathartic release of emotions for people who are either weary of making mistakes (like me) or afraid of making mistakes. Timmy makes mistakes. He drives a Failuremobile. He has a detective agency with a 1500 pound polar bear as a partner who never speaks in the book.  The first case mentioned in the plot involves a kid in Timmy's class who hires him to find his missing Halloween candy. Timmy sees the classmate's younger brother with wrappers and writes in his notebook that the kid "is not tidy." He's the world's worst detective and as a parade of characters continue so does the humor and evidence of Timmy's problems at home and school. One such character, Timmy's teacher, shows he shouldn't be teaching anymore. He lacks energy, enthusiasm, and calls Timmy, "Captain Thickhead." While the scene is funny, Pastis uses good comedic technique by observing or poking fun at the failures found in human nature. When the new creative teacher is hired, the contrast between the two is duly noted.

Timmy hasn't had an easy life and its his problems interspersed with the humor that make this book better than similar fare. His single mom has lost her job and is dating a loser boyfriend that puts Timmy down. His mom clearly loves Timmy, reading to him before bed, blowing in his ear trying to make him laugh, and disciplining him when necessary. He's a handful and she does the best she can but the two live in a one bedroom apartment and there is little space. His nemesis is a classmate, "Corrina, Corrina" who also has a detective agency, is smart, and has a more stable life. Timmy isn't even on her radar even though he thinks he is all she thinks about. He's failing school and his friend is the playground lady and polar bear that is either real or a figment of his imagination.

Pastis sure defies stereotypes. Take Flo the librarian that is short not for "Florence. It's short for 'Misshelve my books and the blood will FLOw." Timmy thinks that Flo gives him favors because he knows that he's a detective with connections to spring him from jail, need be. "And I, in turn, know he's looking out for the Timmynator." Flo looks like he belongs on a motorcycle wearing a leather vest with no shirt underneath and a World War I spiked German Helmet. Detective Timmy usually comes up with the most ludicrous reasons for solving his crimes and observing others. He notes that Flo reads dangerous books such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Emily Dickinson poetry. Timmy's delusional behavior hides the desperate side of his reality. I just saw a movie trailer for "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Timmy seems like the juvenile version of Walter Mitty.

One of my favorite parts is when Timmy has been grounded and forced to study because his mom got a letter from the principal saying he was failing grade level and would be held back. "I'm sitting there reading something about something when I see the pattern of the wood grain in my desk. And before I know it, I'm watching tiny me running through the maze." A funny illustration of big-Timmy and mini-Timmy tooling on the wood grain with big Timmy cheering "Go, me, go"  accompanies the text. Timmy's muses, "And away goes an hour. So I try to read again. But I hear a dog. Which makes me think of cars. Which rhymes with jars. Which hold mayonnaise. So now I'm eating a bologna sandwich. And two hours are gone. So I try to study again." I had a laugh-out-loud moment on the elliptical machine scaring the woman chugging away next to me.

Timmy is a bit of a kindred spirit. I sat down to write this book review and the sunshine slashed a bright path across the smooth tile floor. It radiated warmth. What goes with warm sunshine? A chocolate sundae. I looked in the freezer. No ice cream. Ah, but a handy-dandy ice cream shop is around the corner. I snuck there and and smothered my chocolate ice cream with M & M's. And there goes an hour. Then I looked at the kitchen table. The Pringles chips looked good. Which rhymes with tingles. Which made me go eat them. Which reminded me to make a dentist appointment. Which reminded me to pack my tennis bag and prepare a lesson for coaching tomorrow. And now two hours are gone. I'm back at my laptop. The sun is gone. Ah well. I'll try again.

When I was in college we used to stick popcorn up our nose and sing into our curling irons like microphones. And no, I did this perfectly sober. Okay... maybe I'm being an unreliable narrator with an unreliable memory, but that's besides the point. One of the things I love working with kids is they remind me to lighten up and be silly like I did as a kid (or young adult). When Timmy sticks three pencils up his nose because Rollo is so serious about studying I guffawed pretty loud while reading that on the elliptical machine. It was the second time I startled a girl exercising next to me. The text reads, "Here's how I teach Rollo" and the photo has Timmy with one eye looking dead on and the other slightly askew. A pencil hangs from each nose and one is sticking out of his ear with the speech bubble, "How'd those get in there?" Juvenile, silliness abounds with some heartfelt issues that Timmy is dealing with that make this quite witty and more memorable than the influx of Diary-of-a-Wimpy-Kid-wanna-be's. Stephen Pastis was a lawyer before becoming a syndicated cartoonist and is most known for the comic strip, "Pearls Before Swine." His adult wit and childish humor should make this popular with the middle grade readers. Toss in some really funny illustrations and you have a winner.  Move over Junie B. Jones. You've met your match.

4 Smileys

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