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The Beaten Path: Ordinary Joes

By Nell Beram

Last year, I wrote that there was a dearth of middle-grade series novels in which mortal girls took on supernatural villains (there were plenty in which boys battled the same). This year’s endangered species seems to be boy-centered middle-grade series that don’t rely on encounters with the supernatural (or on special effects . . . or on time travel . . . ) to seduce the young male reader. When I e-mailed this blithely unscientific hypothesis to Terri Schmitz, owner of the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Massachusetts, she backed me up: “I really can’t come up with any ‘ordinary boy’ series much above the second- or early-third-grade level.” She cited some series pitched at that age bracket — the Jake Drake series (Aladdin/Simon) by Andrew Clements; the Lenny and Mel series (Aladdin/Simon) by Erik P. Kraft; the Ready, Freddy! series (Blue Sky) by Abby Klein; the Owen Foote series (Clarion) by Stephanie Greene; the Shredderman series (Knopf) by Wendelin Van Draanen — and noted, “I’m not sure what publishers think happens to boys after that, but they’re sure not publishing realistic [boy-centered] series fiction.”

The boy-centered Freaky Joe Club series (Aladdin/Simon), aimed at seven-to-ten-year-olds and written by P. J. McMahon, may not be realistic, but its cast couldn’t be less superhuman. Set in Ship’s Cove, Texas, the books revolve around Conor Moloney, fan of detective novels and lemurs; Timmy, fan of food and little else; and Jack, who is hyper to the point of mania. In the series’s inaugural title, The Mystery of the Swimming Gorilla, Conor forms a mystery-solving club after the neighborhood kids’ bicycles get stolen, reducing even tough guys to riding their little sisters’ Kissy Kitty bikes. In The Case of the Smiling Shark, the secret agents investigate the theft of their swim team’s inanimate mascot of sorts, a cardboard likeness of Sam Houston, Texas’s first president. In The Mystery of the Morphing Hockey Stick, the boys must clear Timmy’s name after Conor finds the hockey gloves of an opposing teammate in Timmy’s equipment bag. And in The Case of the Psychic Hamster, Conor, defender of the status quo, tries to get to the root cause of the new principal’s push to change the school nickname from “Hammerrocker Hamsters” — and is the obvious suspect when the school gym is overtaken by rodents.

Kids won’t turn to the Freaky Joe Club for its mysteries, most of whose plot points could fit on a bottle cap: it’s the detours and diversions from those very mysteries (bickering, misunderstandings, slapstickery) that are the series’s calling card and an amusing source of apoplexy for narrator Conor. The books’ texts, he makes plain, are actually his written accounts of each case, and his understated narration (“Jeremiah yells. It’s not a nice word”) is endlessly undercut by the general bedlam going on around him. Likewise, John Manders’s illustrations, caricaturish black-and-white drawings faithful to a child’s sense of proportion (physical and psychic) are ostensibly from Conor’s pen.

Readers will appreciate Conor’s voice and the who’s-on-first?-style conversations among the agents, but that’s not why I’d recommend the Freaky Joe books. Utterly unexpected in a series of quickly sketched characters is Conor’s mother, an abstract painter (she usually looks as though she has just had a run-in with a wet canvas) and a single parent who, as Conor has it, just up and flew to China one day to adopt his annoying younger sister, Bella. (There’s no mention of Conor’s father in any of these books, which — to McMahon’s credit — leaves open every possibility.) Conor’s mom is something of a rarity in contemporary children’s novels, I think: a mother who is not just embarrassing but also funny, happy, and capable (she tackles the bad guy in Swimming Gorilla and studies The Chinese Martial Arts Guide to Roller Hockey to enhance her hockey-coaching skills). Conor knows he has it good — ”I have the idea that I should tell my mother she is a pretty good mother” — and their mutual respect is improbably touching given the daffy scenarios that expose it.

It’s a truism that a boy who gets along with his mother will have good relationships with the other females in his life, and the preadolescent Conor’s attitude toward girls reflects this. McMahon gamely skewers the cutesy products of girl culture with references to Kissy Kitty and Magical Baby Katie bicycles and Bitty Bunny sticker books, but there is no categorical dismissal of “the pink crowd,” as Conor puts it. He sees girls as he sees boys: either as good hockey players or as idiots.

Conversely, the rivalry between the boys and the girls is the very lifeblood of the Stinky Boys Club (Grosset), a graphic-novel series that, like the Freaky Joe Club, is aimed at seven-to-ten-year-olds. In the series starter, Enough Is Enough!, MJ threatens to reveal to the whole school that her twin, Sam, spent his summer taking tap-dancing lessons. Worse: their principal announces at assembly that Sam’s dance class will be performing at the school talent show. Sam calls an emergency meeting of the Only Boys Club, after which MJ and her cohorts petition the school and neighborhood to delegitimize the club on the grounds that it’s discriminatory. The club holds a grudgingly nonexclusive meeting in the boys’ bathroom at school. The day’s activity? Making fake vomit (recipe provided). MJ and company flee, and the boys, feeling rejuvenated, set out to sabotage the talent show by a means that ultimately earns them the girls’ vengeance — and their club a new name. The Stinky Boys Club also has a new mission statement: to “stop at nothing to get even with the girls. Let no chair go without a whoopee cushion . . . no shoelaces go untied together . . .” Et cetera.

In Winner Takes All!, the series’s second offering, Sam tells the club that he dreamed he received an award for joke-telling, which forced MJ to admit that boys are better than girls. MJ overhears the recap, which she considers fightin’ words, and the twins agree that it’s time to hold a formal boys-versus-girls competition. Each team comes up with three tests: the boys decide on an eating contest, a burping contest, and a joke contest; the girls on a quiz, a knitting contest, and a dare. The gender wars culminate in both teams getting trapped in a creature-filled cave and having to help one another to safety. This leads to a predictable reconciliation followed by an even more predictable denouement: a squabbling session (“Are not.” “Are too.” “Are NOT.” Are TOO.” “ARE NOT!”).

I had my heart set on hating the Stinky Boys Club series because I thought it would amount to a peddling of stereotypes. As it turns out, the stereotypes take a beating: MJ may be neater than Sam, but she is also superior at sports; one member of the Stinky Boys Club’s greatest ambition is to get the lead in the school play; and priss Pru wins the belching contest. (A curious aside: The Stinky Boys Club’s sole black male character, Zip, and the Freaky Joe Club’s sole black male character, Jack, are distinguished by how quickly they do things. What’s that about?) And although the series is named for its male characters, who outnumber its female characters, co-authors Jodi Carse and Maria Gallagher don’t play favorites, and neither does illustrator Brie Spangler, whose concussively loud gross-out-fueled pictures ably mock both genders equally: Pru has a bedroom right out of a Barbie Dream House, but the boys’ clubhouse is a nerdboy paradise. The series may employ the who’s-better? debate, which, if you’re like me, you don’t want kids to even be having, but it mercifully doesn’t try to advance it.

Finally, one can scarcely discuss series about boys without mentioning the brothers Hardy. Either there has been enough young (and presumably) male appetite for the books since the first was published in 1927 to justify what is now the 190th Hardy Boys title, Motocross Madness, or else nostalgic adults keep buying the books for the kids in their lives — or for themselves. Banking on someone’s ongoing interest, Aladdin has just launched a middle-grade Hardy Boys series, Undercover Brothers, to pick up where Motocross Madness leaves off. Jennifer Zatorski, publicity manager at Simon & Schuster, explains, “We decided to update the series to respond to the needs and interests of today’s boys who want a quick fix of adventure, suspense, mystery, and general coolness.”

Undercover Brothers retains the iconic blue spines of the original series, but the stock cover illustrations have been replaced by dramatic color photos. And no longer are high-schoolers Frank and Joe mere amateur detectives: their dad, Fenton, a retired New York City cop, has started American Teens Against Crime (ATAC), a top-secret organization that makes use of teenagers’ ability, as Frank puts it, to “get into certain places adults can’t, no questions asked.” The books, whose chapters Frank and Joe take turns narrating, feature “cases . . . ripped from the headlines” and, even more radical, show off the results of the boys’ recent medical procedure: nerd-ectomies.

In Extreme Danger, the first of four just-published titles, the boys, fresh from skydiving to their near-deaths in order to nab a DVD pirate, receive a new assignment: extreme-sports websites have been rife with threats to participants in Philadelphia’s Big Air Games, and Frank and Joe must hop on their motorcycles and check out the scene. (The new Hardys have some technological advantages over the original Hardys, including cell phones, the Internet, and bitchin’ state-of-the-art bikes.) A crotchety former skateboard champ gets poisoned; a likely gold medalist is whacked in the knees with his own board; another contender takes a pellet-gun bullet. The boys participate in a chase that finds them upside down on the Monster Loop. Later, perhaps as a concession to old-guard Hardy fans, they use their fists.

In Running on Fumes, the series’s second offering, the boys have again just averted death — this time by improvising a rope with which to lower themselves from the twenty-second floor of a burning building — when they receive their next assignment: they must ride their bikes to the California desert to investigate the Heaven compound and its leader, Arthur Stench, who is suspected of eco-terrorism. Feigning interest in joining Stench’s “family,” Frank and Joe witness Stench and his teen and adult acolytes blowing up an SUV and throwing red paint on townspeople to the cries of “Let the animals live! . . . Industrialization is evil!” The boys endure extreme hippiedom — natural food, a compost-heap hiding place, tiresome eco-dialogues — throughout which their thinking remains clear: “Trying to protect the earth was definitely good. But not if you used violence to do it.”

It’s hard to tell from that particular insight, but the new Frank is, like the old one, the smart brother: an Einstein-quoting, technologically expert, self-described Internet “Search Master.” (The nerd-ectomy wasn’t a complete success.) A good ongoing gag in Running on Fumes is that Joe is the libidinous one but Frank is the heartbreaker (Joe: “I don’t get it . . . Everyone knows I’m the better-looking one”). I liked this wink-at-the-reader stuff, as well as the fun poked at the three-quarter-century-old Hardy image: at one point in Extreme Danger a Mohawked teen spits, “What are you preppies doing in here?” Eager to blend in better, the boys get what they consider hip ’dos, after which someone tells them, “Give it up, dudes. The blue hair and Mohawk aren’t fooling anyone.” Exactly.

I’ll cop to an unqualified affection for these strictly serviceable books, which have the taut pacing, reliable twists, intellectual vacuity, and central-casting villains of action-based television programs like Starsky & Hutch and Charlie’s Angels. The Undercover Brothers series is credited to Franklin W. Dixon, “author of the ever-popular Hardy Boys books” and a work of fiction himself, but according to a pre-publication copy of Extreme Danger, it’s prolific children’s book writer Dan Gutman who “has brought these guys up to date by giving them new personality, new friends, new enemies — and new sets of wheels.” Unfortunately, the way to modernize characters is not by handing them expressions that will soon be as dated as the originals. You never would have caught an original Hardy saying, “I mean, dude . . .”; “This kicks butt!”; “Dad! . . . You totally rock!”; “That dude is so guilty”; “I looked crazy cool”; “Oh, sweet”; or “Gag me with a tofu patty.” But in a few years you won’t catch any self-respecting kid saying those things either.

One self-respecting kid I communicated with, twelve-year-old Hardy Boys fan Andrew C., isn’t happy with the idea of the Undercover Brothers series: “I think you don’t need to update it. The Hardy Boys is a classic series, and updating it would be not healthy for its reputation.” But Ben W., age eleven, thinks Simon & Schuster’s Jennifer Zatorski has the right idea: “A ‘quick fix of adventure, suspense, mystery, and general coolness’ is what a lot of boys in my class like, and me too.” Meanwhile, Ben’s dad, Peter, isn’t as enthusiastic about this approach to boy books: “I found it interesting and ironic that what is basically drug language, ‘a quick fix,’ is used. As Ben’s dad, I don’t really perceive him to be in need of a quick fix of action.” In fact, Peter was somewhat surprised by Ben’s expressed reading preference: “I guess you have to keep your ears open to what your kid is saying.” Unless, of course, it’s dude.

From the July/August 2005 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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