The unreliable narrator. It’s a staple of adult literature, and a relative newcomer to the world of children’s lit. Even books for teens are more likely to sport these first person ne’er-do-wells than titles for the 9-12 set. It can be done mind you, but it’s tricky territory, made all the trickier if the narrator is always being on the up and up with the reader. I think the closest you can usually get to an honest-to-goodness unreliable character is something like Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading. With a title that baffles child readers even as it intrigues them, author Tommy Greenwald conjures up a charming, befuddled hero who’s steadfast refusal to pick up and enjoy a book leads him to illogical extremes and the ultimate punishment.
Let’s be clear. Charlie Joe Jackson is a charming guy. If you met him you’d probably like him. Lots of people do, and why not? This is a kid who has figured out what it is he wants out of life and goes for it. Take reading. Charlie hates it. Couldn’t dislike it more. So over the years he and his friend Timmy have set up a nice little arrangement. Timmy will read books for Charlie if in exchange he can get free ice cream sandwiches. Everything’s going beautifully until the day Timmy destroys Charlie’s sweet scheme. Caught, Charlie finds himself facing a huge school project with a ton of reading on the horizon. He has a plan to get out of it, but it hinges on setting up the girl of his dreams with the class nerd. Can Charlie keep himself from reading from here on in? And do we even want him to?
It hadn’t occurred to me until I presented this book to a reading group I run for kids, but Charlie Joe Jackson may qualify as a notebook novel. Notebook novels are those books for kids that spring either directly or inadvertently out of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid craze. They look like notebooks/diaries/journals/etc. and contain eclectic combinations of art and text. Of course, there can be miscommunications. One kid I handed this to informed me that she didn’t like “guides”. She was under the impression, I guess, that this 224-page book was a step-by-step instructional tome on how not to pick up a book. Logic doesn’t quite enter into that one, so I’ll let it go. In any case, she was happy enough when she learned that rather than rote lists, there’s an engaging story as well. The initial image of Charlie Joe as drawn by J.P. Coovert did a lot to help, I think. On the title page is Charlie Joe changing the title from a guide TO reading to a guide to NOT reading. They thought that was a stitch.
Ultimately, in terms of the storytelling what we’re dealing with here is a tale about a long con gone wrong. This book has more in common with Chris Rylander’s The Fourth Stall than your average kid-in-school fare. And because it’s a con game tale there’s an interesting balance throughout this book of Charlie Joe: Nice Guy VS. Charlie Joe: Cheater. What’s interesting about his character is that even as he does wrong he’s a nice guy. Likes his sister. Has a best friend who’s a girl. Isn’t into the super hot popular girl in his class because he likes someone else. He just sort of has this tendency to want to cheat on reading. No biggie, right? Kids might even come to see his side after reading his origin story. Inevitably the adult readers of this book might wonder if Charlie Joe has some form of dyslexia or other problem with words, but I don’t think so. It seems clear that if the will is there, Charlie will read. He’s just short of will.
Funny too, though funny books rarely get much credit. I at least was amused by advice like “Charlie Joe’s Tip #2: Never read a book by someone whose name you can’t pronounce” since it follows up that tip with the line “Let’s face it: chances are you wouldn’t be reading this book if it were called Venedkyt Styokierwski’s Guide to Not Reading”. Point. Though, thinking about it, Jon Scieszka would be out to sea too and I suspect that he’s the kind of guy Charlie Joe could really dig. And the advice on how to look like a reader without being one is classic. I’m particularly fond of “Make your local library’s website the homepage on your computer.” That’s classic.
It plays fair too. Kids can sniff out a false morality lesson a mile away, and if it rings untrue forget about it. They’ll never forgive you. Without giving anything away, let me just say that the last page of this book is “Charlie Joe’s Tip #25: When Finishing a Book Never Look at It Again”. Heck, there’s even a part earlier in the book where Charlie Joe acknowledges this classic book trope and rejects it outright. When forced to actually read he points out that at this point in the book he should technically have a change of heart. “I had discovered the joys of reading and storytelling and the characters spoke to me, and not only did I want to read more books, I wanted to move into the library.” Instead, he tells the reader that while he’s sure the book’s author is a swell fella and his mom is proud of him, “no matter how nice a guy and how successful an author Ted Hauser is, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t give him the right to ruin my life.” Granted later in the book there is a moment when Charlie inadvertently finds himself applying something he read to a real life situation but it’s really the reader, not Charlie himself, who becomes aware that reading may have a purpose beyond the occasional school assignment.
Reluctant readers, bane of the nation, are the target audience here. Will they like the book? Well, there’s lots to be said for short chapters and a hero who’s on their side. Pictures don’t hurt matters much either. Greenwald could have turned this into a preachy tract, saying something about how assigned reading in schools sucks the fun out of books and turns legions of children into non-readers every year. That’s true and a good lesson but I appreciate that instead his non-reader comes by his non-reading honestly. Like a lot of kids, he just never took to it. All in all it’s a great little book (and I say that in spite of Charlie Joe’s rousing/baffling endorsement of The Giving Tree). This is definitely the book to hand those The Strange Case of Origami Yoda fans out there who are looking for more, and it’ll probably satisfy non-non-readers as well. Book haters of the world, your spokesman is here.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from author for review.
Other Blogger Reviews:
- Prose and Kahn
- Mackin Books in Bloom
- Project Mayhem
- Bookshelf Detective
- Eve’s Fan Garden
- Leesa’s Book Critiques
- Modern Mom
- You can download a brief excerpt of the book here.
- Read the first draft for fun.
- Listen to an audio excerpt.
- How can you beat these back-to-school tips?
An amusing trailer for the book.
Plus there’s this great PSA for libraries voiced by MacLeod Andrews, who also does the audiobook.
And then there’s this great testimonial by Kirsten Cappy.