Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dan Gutman

Series: My Weird School (21 books in original series plus 12 more)
          The Kid Who Ran for President/The Kid Who Became President
          Baseball Card Adventures (11 books)

Rating: 0 stars out of 3 possible, "D"
           Not Recommended...yet

Audience: Elementary ages (My Weird School) (The Kid Who Ran for President)
                Middle School (Baseball Card Adventures)

Well, I know. It seems a little mean to give a guy whose written #117 books a "D," especially when he's already popular with kids. My main objections to Dan's books are that they cross the line a little too far into crass humor and sometimes have not-so-subtle political and environmental axes to grind.

In the My Weird School series, Arlo/AJ is a pretty typical 2nd grade boy: disdainful of school and girls.  I read #14 Miss Holly Is too Jolly to see how Christmas would be treated.  The language was a little rough and crude:  "crybaby," "I hate her" (in response to the girl, Andrea, in his class), "You're a dumbhead," "So is your face."  And, of course, Christmas was grouped in with Kwanzaa and Hanukkah as the class prepares for the holidays.  In Arlo's letter to Santa he asks for the "new video game where you get to kill zombies with machine guns."  In the end, a selfish gift exchange takes place, and AJ is certainly not thankful for the hat Andrea made for him:  "I hate hats."

Nothing new there.  It's simply a reflection of our current culture and that's not the standard I'm looking for with my kids.  You may see it as harmless, but then again, it's not really inspiring our kids to anything better or different.

At least there was a lesson to learn in #1 Miss Daisy Is Crazy.  Here a clever teacher outwits the second graders into learning, and a football player visits the class, encouraging them that school is cool:  "If I didn't go to school I never could have beome a football player.  I have to read and study my playbook very carefully.  I have to write letters to my fans.  Every week I have to study very hard to get ready for the next game.  And when my football career is over, I plan to go back to school so I can become a doctor."

Dan now has a related series:  My Weirder School.  For an alternative to these books, see my review on George Brown, Class Clown.

The Kid Who Ran for President has a more clever premise:  could a kid become President?  The answer for Judson Moon, 6th grade jokester, is "Yes!" (as long as the Supreme Court declares the age clause in the Constitution invalid, and the states re-ratify it!)

Of all the Dan Gutman books I read, this was my favorite.  There is some slang ("Booger Boy," "Thicko," "Spasmo," "Booger Brain," "Waste of Oxygen"), and Gutman is sometimes a little irreverent ("adults caused all the problems").  He seems to have a somewhat jaded view of the political process and leans slightly left, with a definite "us" (kids) vs. "them" (adults) mentality, but the reader does get a good review of the election process.  Classmates have to get a little rebellious and clever in order to get their parents to vote for Judson and it's fun to see how quickly Gutman advances the plot.  Before you know it, Judson is making promises he can't keep, and his campaign manager Lane is encouraging him to change positions to remain popular.  (Just like real politicians!)  In the end, Judson's convictions prevail ("I think the President should form an opinion first and inspire the public to agree with that opinion.") and the unbelievable happens!  I would expect the sequel, The Kid Who Became President, to offer equally unbelievable solutions to some of our most difficult social issues, as Gutman empowers kids to simply use common sense and reminds them of their strength in numbers.

For even better books in the "humorous/kid power" vein (with some supporting adults as well), check out my reviews for author Andrew Clements.

Lastly, I read two books from Gutman's Baseball Card Adventures.  I would save these for 5th grade and up as the sports heros are honestly portrayed with their human flaws and sometimes coarse lifestyles.

Joe Stoshack, "Stosh," has discovered he has an amazing ability to travel back in time, when he's holding an old baseball card.  This magical time-travel presents a few logistical flaws and contradictions that young readers happily overlook.

In Babe and Me, we find Joe's dad (divorced from Mom) hard up on his financial luck and hoping his son is willing to make a little cash from his time-traveling adventures, perhaps returning with a signed baseball from Babe Ruth.

Babe Ruth's rough life is carefully portrayed, not glorified.  His cursing is kept in code:  @#$% --about five times!  Finally, Joe's dad says "Watch your language.  Kids don't have to hear that kind of talk."

Babe's life often seems empty as we see him eating and drinking and goofing off:

"When I'm with my kids, all I think about is how long until I can eat chicken, play ball and fool around.  It's just the way I am."

"Get a load of that sweet patootie!"  "She is one red-hot mama!"  "Hey, Beautiful!"

"Who cut the cheese?"  (accompanied with plenty of bodily noises)

At one point, Babe basically eats and drinks until he's ill and passes out!

Joe's dad's philosophy is bluntly stated:  "You can try as hard as you want.  Be as good as you can be.  But a lot of what happens in the world is plain dumb luck."

Fortunately, Joe's ethics prevail and he makes a big sacrifice when he sees Depression-Era kids in 1932.  They don't even have a decent baseball to play with, so he gives them Babe's home run ball!  (Babe, as we know, was also generous to a fault.)

The history focus is one benefit to this series.  At the end of the book, Gutman offers a "To The Reader" section to clarify what was true in the story and what was embellished.

Roberto and Me took much more artistic license as Gutman basically used it as a platform to play 1969 events (Woodstock, hippies, MLK Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Charles Manson, Nixon, women's rights, homosexual rights) into current alarmist politics, namely global warming:

"You have to stop burning fossil fuels!  You've gotta get solar panels up on every rooftop!  You've gotta get turbines up in every field!"

The true story of Roberto Clemente's life of focus and sacrifice, including his tragic death on New Years Eve 1972, is more inspiring:

"Where's the rest of your team?" Joe asks.  "Out--drinking, chasing girls, looking for trouble.  You know.  Life is too short to waste time on nonsense," replies Roberto.

Dan Gutman clearly has a great premise to attract readers here:  sports, history, time travel, kids.  You may read a few of his books and come to a completely different conclusion than I did!  But for more on his background and philosophy, see his website:

He also has 5 books in the Genius Files series, and 5 in the Million Dollar sports series.  Those are worth a future look.

I understand the desire to "hook" kids on reading, and parents may want to check into Matt Christopher's books if they have a sporty kid.  Also, when you find books with the clever humor you both enjoy, be sure to read aloud to your kids.  It's a rich family memory to laugh together!

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