Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading: Reverse Psych on Reluctant Readers

Welcome to my first ever Feeding the Flashlight Skyped author interview!  In it, Tommy Greenwald discusses how frustration with his own reluctant reader sons inspired him to create a middle school boy determined to avoid reading– ever.  Can a book about hating reading actually lure reluctant readers to, well, read?  Absolutely– I’ve seen it happen with the Charlie Joe Jackson.  Hear Tommy talk all about his wildly funny, wildly popular series and how it came to be.  I also include some of the books’ pitch-perfect illustrations, by J.P. Coovert.

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Please Mind the Gap

I’m always on the hunt for well done early middle grade books.   Perhaps you know a young lady or gentleman who fits the following criteria:

-S/he is between seven and nine years of age.

-S/he has a great sight word vocabulary and can attack longer words with reasonable success.

-S/he has conquered a few easy reader series, such as the Mudge books.

-And all this allows said child to focus more on comprehension so as to enjoy richer plots.

The beloved Henry and Mudge books usher many children into independently reading.

You know someone like this, right?  Well, if you’re an elementary librarian, you’re talking about a quarter of your clientele.  Do you feel my pain of trying to find books to match this reading level?  Good books?  Books that completely hook them and leave them jonesing for more?  Do you nod your head in agreement when I ask the heavens, why aren’t publishers putting out more of these books?  This is a great market!  These kids can plow through series at heart-stopping speed.  That means lots of sales, publishers!  And step on it, before we lose them all to apps and gaming forever, for crying out loud.

Breathe.

There is a developmental staircase in reading, and to go from Frog and Toad All Year to The Witches would be fun, but also would skip some steps. Go ahead and use the “sneak peek” at Amazon to note the difference in these two books.  Many more words per sentence and per page, more pages per chapter, a huge shift upward in vocabulary, and more complicated plotting.  The switch would be akin to throwing a kid into the English Channel as a reward for finishing the Guppy level at the YMCA.

Dahl’s “The Witches” is deliciously wicked and appeals to many early middle grade readers (7 to 9-year-olds), but the text is too challenging for many.

Of course, it’s not like children will drown if they jump to harder books.  No, the result is more troubling (speaking metaphorically, anyway).  When I mistakenly put a child into a book she isn’t ready for, I get, “Yeah, I didn’t like it.”  I know sometimes it may be just that.  But when a child says he didn’t like a universally beloved novel like Charlotte’s Web, really what you’re probably hearing is that he couldn’t decode the text at a rate that allowed him to fall into the story.  Can’t you see him edging towards his Mario Cart or iPad?

Research indicates that if students skip a step in reading development altogether, weaknesses show up in fluency and comprehension later, like in middle school, when the reading is often assigned and in text books.  So, I find I’ve become that prissy lady in glasses crying out (into the darkness), “No skipping stairs, please!  One step at a time!” When I do, I’m often trampled by a surge of third graders running for copies of Twilight.  And as parents, once our kids are reading, it’s hard not to push them towards harder and harder books.  Hey, a lot of the books for older kids are just more alluring.  Who doesn’t want to read Percy Jackson or Harry Potter over, well, I will let you fill in the blanks here.  Emotionally, kids are ready for rollicking fun adventure stories.

Besides, kids love skipping steps. There is nothing particularly glamorous about the taking of stairs one at a time, especially if the books at that level seem babyish.   I can rattle off the names of three second graders who snickered at me when I suggested they’d enjoy The Hunger Games even more a few years from now.  Second graders.

Kids’ reading develops best with a steady climb, with lots of reading at each level.  The tricky part is that it is equally important for children to feel excited about the book they’ve read.  Cool, even.  I suggest reading aloud the fancier books, while otherwise keeping them in books that will nourish their “nutritional” needs, if you will.

It’s a complex game.  So when I spot a chapter book well done, with the promise of snagging eight-year-olds who insist they just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you can be  very sure I’m sharing them with you.

Spread the word on this great new series, in the name of good nutrition!

The Trouble with Chickens, A J.J. Tully Mystery (Harper Collins/Balzer&Bray, 2011)

by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Kevin Cornell

ImageTully, a hard-bitten search and rescue dog accustomed to death-defying missions and living in an ongoing adrenalin rush, finds himself retired at a country farm house, surrounded by chickens.  The chickens call on Tully to help find and rescue a missing sibling.  The little chick has been kidnapped, it is believed, by Vince the Funnel, a spookily enigmatic indoor dog who wears a post-op cone around his neck.  Tully describes the mother chicken as having eyes “tiny and black, set so close together they practically touched.  I’d be surprised if the right eye could report back seeing anything other than the left eye.  Chickens make me nervous.”

Cronin describes the mood she creates as “film noire,” and Tully as Humphrey Bogart.  If you can recall some of those Looney Tunes episodes with Bugs Bunny in a trench coat, you get the tenor of the book.  Clipped dialog, mystery, and characters we aren’t sure we can trust are woven together with plenty of belly laughs and great illustrations.

Cronin’s book trailer says it all:

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda: Read it you must.

There are directions for folding Origami Yoda at the end of the book. Took me a few tries, but behold!

Yes, I made that Yoda finger puppet myself.  And, yes, you can, too.  Really!

While I understand that you, presumably a grown-up, may have no desire to do so, I can assure you that anyone between the ages of 8-12 is in on making Origami Yoda.  So in.  They are also so in to reading Tom Angleberger’s book, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, a comic romp through the absurd and profound that is middle school.  You know how sometimes the fact that a blockbuster movie is a blockbuster somehow cheapens it?  Well, this book is a bestseller.  Let’s say my expectations for its literary value were moderate. Let’s also say I knew my summer book club boys wouldn’t care a lick (or should I say, an i-yoda?) about literary value.  Just the cover and the title by themselves are a no-brainer for a teacher like me, trying to hook a bunch of pre-adolescents on the brink of middle school themselves.  If the book was a little scant on substance, so be it.

How can anyone resist this?

And then, I read it.  I was anticipating it would be hilarious, and it is.  I knew the format would be engaging, like the Wimpy Kid and Big Nate series, and indeed that is true, also. There are funny, kid-like doodles on all the pages, and each page looks like a crumpled paper that has done time in a backpack. What was less predictable was the  great characterization.  And even less predictable, it has depth.  It has depth!  The fact is that at its heart, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda raises radical questions for kids.  Is that nerdy loner you all think is a total loser really smarter than anyone in school?  No, smarter is the wrong word.  Smart in and of itself doesn’t hold much cache in middle school. Is that kid wiser?  Is it possible that that kid is not oblivious to middle school norms, but rather quite aware and simply doesn’t care?  In other words, is it possible that middle school norms are bull poop?

Whoa.

The narrator, named Tommy, outlines the mystery gripping his circle of friends at vdms:  Is Dwight’s origami finger puppet of Yoda magically spouting words of wisdom, or is it just Dwight?  Dwight, resident goober of the sixth grade, seems incapable of the kind of psychic, Zen-like advice given by Origami Yoda.  This is a guy who generally appears to self-sabotage any chance of winning respect among his peers.  He uses his straw to eat hamburgers.  He wears a vomit green sweater vest with an orange reindeer on it.  He spends a lot of time standing in a hole he dug in his backyard. Yet, when Dwight’s finger puppet of Yoda gives advice, in a rather pathetic imitation of  Yoda’s voice, it’s spot on, causing Tommy and his friends to ponder their presuppositions about Dwight.  Tommy has particular urgency in getting to the bottom of it all, as he needs some advice about his love interest Sara, and nothing less than his dignity is riding on whether or not Origami Yoda is for real.  Hence, Tommy tells us, he has assembled a “case file” of first-hand accounts, gathered from classmates who have benefitted from Origami Yoda’s advice, so as to weigh out the evidence.

What follows is a series of scenarios in which Angleberger expertly captures all that is embarrassing, funny, silly, honest, and guarded about that unique time in life known as sixth grade.  In Origami Yoda and the Embarrassing Stain, Kellen spills water on his pants so it looks like he’s peed his pants seconds before he has to enter his homeroom.  Yoda’s advice:  All of pants you must wet. Tommy splashes water over the rest of his pants, thus avoiding total humiliation (enduring the discomfort is no sweat by comparison).  Quavando, plagued by his school-wide nickname “Cheeto Hog” because of an unfortunate choice he made in a vending machine incident, is told by Origami Yoda, Cheetos for everyone you must buy.  Indeed, it works.  Origami Yoda also correctly predicts who will get kicked off American Idol even though Dwight doesn’t watch TV.

My readers flip-flopped their opinions with each “case,” weighing the evidence and formulating their own theories.  There’s a part in most of us, I suspect, that wants Origami Yoda to be magic.  But then, there’s another part that wants Dwight to be a genius, too.  In the end, Harvey, the cynical tough guy throughout, is hung out to dry.  Dwight wins the girl.  So does Tommy!  And he’s learned to accept Dwight for who he is, in all his eccentric glory.  True, the mystery about Origami Yoda remains unresolved.  My book clubbers are so glad!  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be need for the sequel, which comes out this fall:  Darth Paper Strikes Back.

Uh-oh. He looks a little more complicated.

I wonder if I’ll be able to make the Origami Darth Paper.

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