Let us now sit back and consider what the ultimate boy/girl middle grade novel would contain. By which I mean, the novel that perfectly balances out the stereotypical vision of what boys like in a book versus what stereotypical girls like in a book. You see these stereotypes referred to all the time. “Oh, boys won’t read anything with a pink cover.” “Oh, girls won’t pick up a book unless there’s some romance in it.” Phooey. Boys read Babymouse all the time and girls dig Diary of a Wimpy Kid. If the book is strong, the premise believable, and the characters well developed then you’re gonna have fans of all sorts, regardless of gender. That’s sort of how I approach The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. It’s been a while since I found a book that can truly be called genderless (in that it has wide appeal across the board). Sure, you might have a few folks avoid it because there appears to be a Star Wars reference on the cover, but c’mon. It’s a finger puppet of Yoda. That’s funny stuff. You can’t help but appreciate it, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of guys holding light sabers in outer space. Basically, funny books are the most requested books in the children’s rooms of libraries and the most difficult kinds of books to recommend. With Origami Yoda I don’t think I’ll have a lot of trouble getting this into the hands of kids. The premise sells itself.
Tommy comes right out with his dilemma on page one. “The big question: Is Origami Yoda real? . . . It’s REALLY important for me to figure out if he’s real. Because I’ve got to decide whether to take his advice or not, and if I make the wrong choice, I’m doomed!” It’s strange to think that Tommy would be this torn up over an origami finger puppet belonging to the school’s biggest dork. But then he starts recounting for us the wonders of Origami Yoda’s advice. It may not always be spot on, but it’s certainly heads and tales more intelligent than Dwight, the boy who created the puppet and who voices him (poorly). Example: How do you get out of a potentially embarrassing situation when you’re in the bathroom and you spill water on your pants so that it looks like you peed yourself? Origami Yoda says: “All of pants, you must wet.” See? Strangely good advice. Of course, then Tommy starts asking Origami about Sara, the girl he likes, and the answer he receives leaves him conflicted. Believe the talking folded paper or consider it a hoax and play it safe? The book is filled with little drawings and sidenotes as different classmates weigh in on the Origami Yoda conundrum.
It’s not as if author Tom Angleberger hasn’t written children’s books before. You just have to know how to find them. The first book of his that came to my attention was the great if too little lauded The Qwikpick Adventure Society (one of the rare books where you’ll find happy kids living in a trailer park, and where one us a Jehovah’s Witness). Alongside his other book Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run, Tom was writing under his pseudonym “Sam Riddleburger”. A cute name, sure, but it’s lovely to see him finally embrace his true name with this, his best book to date.
Why is it his best? Well, there’s how he tackles the character arc of Dwight, for one thing. Lots of books feature uncool kids, but very few are adept at pinpointing exactly why those kids are considered uncool. If you’re reading the book from that kid’s point of view then you will undoubtedly see how they’re just an average person dealing with the cruel dealings of their fellow classmates. Then, once in a great while, you’ll read a middle grade novel that separates the freaks from the geeks. A geek is someone who is usually punished for their extraordinary intelligence and lack of social skills. A freak is freaky. Fregley in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books is freaky. And Dwight in The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is also freaky. Think about what it would be like to go to middle school with Andy Kaufman and you’ve a vague approximation of Dwight’s frame of mind. Even Dwight’s name is a clue. In this day and age, characters with the name Dwight (think of the American version of the show The Office) are set apart from the pack. The difference is that in Origami Yoda, Angleberger invites you to ridicule and dislike Dwight as much as the other kids do, right at the start. Then he begins the slow, meticulous process of not only humanizing him, but also making it clear that just because you write someone off for being strange, that doesn’t mean that other folks are going to do the same thing. It’s a book that discusses tolerance of others in terms that kids are actually going to understand and be interested in. And that, to my mind, is what gives the book that little added lift it needs to set it apart from the pack.
Speaking of details, for such a seemingly obvious novel, there were lots of little details I enjoyed in it. For example, the fact that owning and enjoying the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack is considered uncool makes for a fantastic character detail. And nobody, but nobody, zeroes in on the cheesy stuff adults make and do like Angleberger. At certain points in the story you get a glimpse of the school’s posters for the PTA Fun Nights. They’re a horrific combination of bad puns, even worse clip art, and cheesy wordplay. And I won’t even go into Mr. Good Clean Fun and Soapy the Monkey. I’ll let you discover that little joy on your own.
Star Wars is forever, so I was a little sad to see American Idol references made in the book. Interestingly, while I feel that the first three Star Wars films are now and forever, American Idol is just a flash in the pan phenomenon that will date this text far faster than anything. Maybe if this book garners the right amount of attention they can change the text in the future to whatever pop hit television show is on the telly then. And honestly, I really do think that the book is going to stick around for a while. Kids who want funny books will grab it. It makes a rather striking companion to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, particularly when you take into account the interstitial drawings. Boys will like it, girls will like it, adults will like it, even educated fleas will like it. For a fun middle grade that dares to rise a little higher than the usual crop, place your bets on The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Or, in the words of the great warrior himself, “Enjoy book, you soon will.”
On shelves now.
Source: Reviewed from galley copy from publisher.
Notes on the Cover: Here’s the thing about this book. While it may contain instructions in the back on how to make your own origami Yoda finger puppet, the book says right there, “So I begged and begged Dwight to teach me how to make an Origami Yoda. When he finally showed me, I couldn’t figure it out. All I could get was a blog. So Dwight taught me how to make a simpler one.” That’s the puppet we are instructed on how to make. However, it is well worth noting that that is NOT the puppet gracing the cover of this book. That Origami Yoda is perfect. There’s something distinctly creepy about the way the folds of the paper create his forehead and ears. You can almost make out the stern set of his mouth. Add in the awesome lightsaber and the images of fighter jets and the Death Star behind him and well . . . this is perfect. An absolutely perfect cover. Cheers, Melissa Arnst and Chad Beckerman. You done good.
Other Blog Reviews:
- 100 Scope Notes
- Book Nook Club
- The Boy Reader
- Shelf Elf
- Ms. Yingling Reads
- Jean Little Library
- The BookKids Blog
- Primary Ignition
- Children’s Atheneum
- The O.W.L. Review
- Welcome to My Tweendom
- Wondrous Reads
- The Busy Pepper Mill
- Beth’s Book Review Blog
- Coffee for the Brain
Interviews: Madelyn Rosenberg interviews Tom on all sorts of things.
- Be sure you head on over to Mishaps and Adventures where skilled Art Director Chad Beckerman shows the evolution of the current cover. For that matter, read the comment section where Tom explains what his original idea was instead.
- For cool things like how to make both the simple and the complex Origami Yoda (and host of other pieces of awesomeness) go here.
- Read a chapter sample.
- Tom told the story behind the story when he contributed a guest post to Cynsations. If you’re wondering how he managed to get a character like Yoda on the cover a children’s book in the first place, here’s where you can find out.
- BoingBoing points out where Tom got the original idea for this book.
Here’s a step-by-step explanation behind how one goes about making an Origami Yoda (and this blog post talks about a kid putting it to good use):