They say not to judge a book by its cover. But then, they say a lot of things, you know. And nine times out of ten I ten to ignore "them". Particularly in the case of Max Quigley, Technically Not a Bully because one glance at the cover and I knew what I would find. Yet another Diary of a Wimpy Kid knock-off, ho hum de hum. Sorry, dudes. Not interested. Go ply your wares elsewhere. But then this fellow children’s librarian I know says to me, "Actually, it’s really good. You should try it." Uh-huh. Pull the other one. Then again… the title is kind of entrancing. Okay, fine, I’ll bite. What’s it about? "It’s about this kid who’s a huge bully, but doesn’t think of himself that way." An unreliable narrator middle grade novel? With funny pictures inside? Look I’m a thirty-one year old woman, but I have this finely honed radar for boy-tastic fare, and this sounded amazing. That is, once I got past the cover. Good thing I did too. The story is fast-paced, the writing stellar, and the plot hilarious. A book for the bullies, the bullied, and everyone in-between.
Look, Max Quigley is not a bully, okay? I mean, granted he kind of rules the school with his best mate Jared in tow. And he makes the life of Triffin Nordstrom (a.k.a. Nerdstrom) a living misery. But when his parents decide to put an end to his bullying behavior their solution is ridiculous. Max now has to be tutored in math by Nerdstrom (embarrassing for both of them, really) AND they have to hang out at one another’s homes every other weekend. Worst. Punishment. Ever. Even Nerdstrom can understand how stupid this all is, but they have no choice. Max Quigley may not think of himself as a bully, but when this crazy plan is all said and done, he may not know how to think of himself at all.
When a kid starts reading this book . . . how shall I put this? Basically imagine a pair of hands reaching out of the pages, fastening themselves around the reader’s throat, and refusing to let go. Mr. James Roy sort of has the art of the first chapter down to a science. Because essentially he has a couple difficult jobs on his hands. He needs to (A) make his main character noticeably unreliable, not to say a downright jerk. BUT (B) he can’t be such a jerk that you don’t want to hear what he has to say. And then (C) he sets up the central conceit (which is to say, his belief that Nerdstrom is a human skin tag) within three pages, without strain or seeming effort. On top of that it’s a really fun chapter to read. If you ever know a kid who needs to recite a monologue for some reason, many of the passages in this book would be brilliant choices. Just sayin’.
I need to stop for a moment here. You know, when a main character makes fun of another character’s name for an entire book, it really kind of puts a reviewer like myself in a weird space. I mean, I don’t want to call Triffin by that name. I want to call him Nerdstrom. But if I call him Nerdstrom then I’m just as bad as Max is, right? But if I DON’T call him Nerdstrom then are you even going to know whom it is that I am talking about? I mean, it really is the name he goes by the most in this story. Though that’s only because the bully is the narrator and … curse you, James Roy, for these infernal paradoxes! Okay. Got it out of my system. Just figured it had to be said.
Unreliable narrators in children’s literature exist but they’re difficult. Harriet from Harriet the Spy is kind of one. Greg from Diary of a Wimpy Kid could fit. Basically, any book where a kid is talking in the first person but isn’t being completely honest with the reader (which is noticeable) would count. And while I’m not exactly gonna call this the Pale Fire of children’s books, Max’s seeming ignorance about himself is mesmerizing. You can read one passage where he flicks bits of cheesecake on some girls and makes them cry and then another where he assures us that he’s not a bully because bullies makes people cry and he doesn’t do that. And the crazy thing is, you really believe that HE believes what he’s saying. He’s completely ignorant of his own problems. He says that bullies steal kids’ lunches. Max, on the other hand, is more inclined to merely take their lunch money when his own is stolen (which I’m sure he’d say was just fair).
For such a fun book, there are some pretty serious themes being addressed here. The nice thing is that Mr. Roy doesn’t spell it all out for you. Why is Max such a jerk? One look at his older brother should explain it (and his parents are little help). And then there’s Nerdstrom to consider. Roy is giving this all from Max’s perspective, but you can still see Triffin’s point of view on a lot of matters. What’s more, you can even see the moment when he has hoped that maybe he and Max can become friends, and then reality hits. It’s crushing. Along the way there are questions silently raised. Why do bullies do what they do? How does it go on? Do they ever feel remorse? Roy’s answer is that bullies are like all of us in one special way: They want what they want. Their self-interest is far and away above everything else. So to see something from another person’s point of view is huge for them. And it turns out to be huge for Max.
Should you face a skeptic that, like me, rejects the book based on the jacket, please point out to that person that the book was actually originally published in Australia. So Mr. James Roy is definitely not trying to tap into any of that sweet sweet Wimpy Kid gold. And in an interesting move, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has eschewed the idea of Americanizing the language, which I tend to appreciate. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reviewing another Aussie import Hannah’s Winter that took very much the same route. So I figured I was pretty up on my Aussie slang (since yet ANOTHER 2009 import How to Scratch a Wombat came with a glossary of terms). I know what “pong” means now. But even with that secret weapon I was still left high and dry when Max started saying, “peed off” instead of “pissed off” and I saw how they prefer to do their long division. It was pretty cool getting to read a kid being all high and mighty about “the bush” though. Gave it a nice regional feel.
Oh, I should probably mention the art while I’m at it. Because while this isn’t up to Wimpy Kid’s internal illustrative standards, there are a couple pictures here and there. The thing is, they appear to be systematically doled out. Each one is something Max supposedly created in a small notebook. Such a notebook is never mentioned in the text, and the only time we hear about Max drawing is when he compares his illustration to Nerdstrom’s of a trebuchet (Nerdstrom’s, suffice it to say, is better). So for a second there I wondered if the American publisher had not only given the book a Wimpy Kid cover but similar art as well. Not the case, I finally decided, since Roy has done all these pictures himself. And a lot of them really are funny. For example, there’s a moment when the book mention Mrs. Lalor, “who’s the grouchy old library assistant who always makes the photocopier stop working.” Turn the page and there’s a picture of Mrs. Lalor, sledgehammer in hand, standing over the copier, the plug clearly pulled out of the wall. Even if what Max does is bad, his pictures are pretty funny.
It got me to thinking. Sometimes Max’s quips and insults and pranks are amusing. And while we’re intended to see that, we’re also supposed to approve when he gets his comeuppance. So I suppose that you could argue that there’s a danger that Max is too sympathetic in this book and that he doesn’t change sufficiently by the story’s end. I would disagree. Had the book ended with a slap bang everybody-loves-everybody finish I wouldn’t have believed it. The way Max is going, some of the changes he makes may seem small, but for him they’re huge. I don’t think he’s going to stop being a bully tomorrow, but at least he’s on the right track. And yes, there will be some bullies who read this book and root for the bullying all the way. But I’d like to give kids enough credit to see Max for what he really is. In a word: delusional. Mostly.
You’ll probably laugh, even if you’re a grown-up, at least once while reading this book. If you’re a kid, you’ll laugh over and over again, even while you cringe. This is a perfect reluctant reader pick or transitional title for any kid more comfortable with graphic novels than prose. Don’t let it pass you by. It’s a smart little import and well worth a gander. Booktalk it immediately.
First Line: “That Monday I went to school, I had a meat pie for lunch, and it was nice.”
Notes on the Title: This book was originally published in Australia as “Problem Child”. Never has a publisher made a better decision to change a title than this. Aside from the fact that certain members of my generation associate the name “Problem Child” with that gawdawful Home Alone knock-off of the early 90s, it just doesn’t allure. In fact, even while I rejected the cover of Max Quigley for looking too much like Wimpy Kid, the title sucked me in.
Notes on the Cover: Ignore the format. It’s a good book.
- The Picnic Basket (who gives some great background on the book)
- Literate Lives
- Booking Mama
- The Book Bench
Other Online Reviews:
- Mr. Roy has a blog of his own called (I love this) head vs desk. And in this particular post he sort of clarifies whether or not parts of this book were changed for the American publication. Says he:
"To me, the most exciting thing about all this, quite apart from the 20,000 hardback copies HMH is printing, is that I got to keep most of the Australian-ness of the original: I didn’t have to change ‘Mum’ to ‘Mom’; after a brief discussion Triffin Nordstrom was allowed to keep living in ‘the bush’ rather than ‘the woods'; I dropped a couple of unnecessary details like Vegemite and cricket; and Nerdstrom now enjoys playing with ‘Legos’, rather than ‘Lego’. And they study ‘math’ rather than ‘maths’."
I also had to lessen the number of times I used ‘a bit’. As in, ‘When I ran over her foot in the car, Mum was a bit cross.‘ It’s an Australian trick of understatement that the US publishers didn’t feel would work very well for their market. And since I do use that mini-phrase quite often, I had to trim its use back a bit (!)."
- Read a fair chunk of it (without the pictures) here.
- Or you could read a fair chunk of it in its original Australian state (called, as I mentioned before, Problem Child) here.
- Publishers Weekly had an article that essentially labeled Max Quigley as a great big Wimpy Kid knock-off, without seeming to realize that the book was published in Australia in tandem with Kinney’s title. Read the comments and you’ll find Mr. Roy taking issue with the assumption. My thought? Another case of someone seeing the cover and dismissing it out of hand.
- Mr. Roy also was interviewed at The Boomerang Blog (a site I’ve been linking too more and more as Aussie authors continue to appear on American shelves).
- A report on this book’s original release party in Australia. "A shroud was lifted to reveal a small trebuchet with a copy of Problem Child dangling at the business end."
- And finally, a book trailer. Gotta love the Fats Waller selection. A nice touch.