Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Great Brain Series

Titles: The Great Brain; More Adventures of the Great Brain; Me and My Little Brain; The Great Brain at the Academy; The Great Brain Reforms; The Return of the Great Brain; The Great Brain Does It Again; The Great Brain Is Back

Author: John D. Fitzgerald

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: 3rd-6th grades

I had a fun summer reliving my reading list from 6th grade which consisted mostly of Great Brain books! It was one of the first series on which I spent my own babysitting money. I then passed the books on to some nephews, so I'm now re-acquiring them for my girls. A lot of the stories were just as I remembered them, but some were surprisingly rough and a little graphic. I guess my 12 year old brain conveniently censored the shocking parts.

The books consist of the (heavily enhanced) childhood memories and stories of John D. Fitzgerald from his growing up years in turn-of-the-century Utah. The youngest of three brothers (a fourth is added in the third book), John serves as the storyteller and writer for his conniving middle brother, Tom, the "Great Brain" of the title. Most of the escapades center around Tom as he maneuvers his way through town and through the pocket change of the other kids, including John. You'll have to be the judge if these schemes qualify as cheats and scams (John's version), or merely creative plots from a superior mind (Tom's version). Many times the Great Brain matches wits with adults and provides solutions to various town problems and mysteries.

In a nostalgic portrayal of loving family life, you can be sure Tom and John's upstanding parents provide the necessary discipline and boundaries in raising their energetic boys. Always fair, usually wise, but sometimes exasperated, the parents do manage to get in the last word.

I had forgotten some of the unsettling scenes from life in the 1890s. For instance, there is a fair amount of fighting between school boys. This is not solved with modern psychology, but with fisticuffs. Bullies are quickly put to rights and then manage to become friends.

Swimming takes place at the local (naked) swimming hole (no details provided) and lessons consist of being thrown in until you swim! Again, not the comfortable, suburban method you may be used to.

In a lesson about pride, dignity and compassion, the singular Jewish store-keeper in the town actually dies in poverty rather than advertise his needs. Rather shocking for young readers, but not historically inaccurate.

More graphic is the tale of a school boy who steps on a nail and loses his leg to gangrene. The boy is actually attempting suicide (in a sort of innocent, naive 10-year old way) when Tom intervenes to show him life is worth living. Helping the boy with primitive versions of occupational and physical therapy is a humbling experience for the Great Brain.

John has a similar experience when Tom heads off to boarding school. After having little success attempting to become his own Great Brain, he does rescue his youngest brother from criminals. In John's words: "It just goes to prove what a fellow can get out of life by being himself. Me and my little brain, with God's help, had saved Frankie's life."

That's a lesson boys and girls need.

For more series on bright, adventuresome school kids I recommend:

Henry Reed by Keith Robertson (Henry Reed, Inc.; Henry Reed's Journey; Henry Reed's Babysitting Service; Henry Reed's Big Show; Henry Reed's Think Tank)

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey (Homer Price; Centerburg Tales/More Adventures of Homer Price/More Homer Price)

Mad Scientists' Club by Bertrand Brinley (The Mad Scientists' Club; The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists' Club; The Big Kerplop; The Big Chunk of Ice)