Last Wednesday was the second session for my three groups of boys at the Eden Prairie branch library and it was another fun one. I’ve begun to get a bit of a rhythm down, starting the kids out with an “icebreaker” to get them interacting and talking, before getting into the book discussion and ending with an activity or game thematic to the book (or not, sometimes the readers just want to play a board game!). I’ve found it is good to have a variety of questions on the standby to spur discussion, though I always make sure to let them take the conversation wherever they want to go with it. I hand out questions randomly to the younger kids to get them started, or just throw out a comments for the older ones to gauge where they want to go. So far, it seems that the middle school age students have had the most interesting discussions, though they have all enjoyed the reading so far. Most even finished their books!
For the younger kids, we had a bit of a spooky theme going this month- for the teens, a “controversial” choice. In general, this weeks books were all well liked by the readers.
For Guys Read Jr, we had Eerie Elementary #2: The Locker Ate Lucy by Jack Chabert, the most recently published part of the series involving reluctant Hall Monitor Sam Grave’s continued fight against his living school, as he confronts its very bowels to save his friend Lucy and digs up the truth about Eerie Elementary's dark history. There are hair's breadth escapes from living cafeteria carts and lockers in the slimy basement of the school and Sam’s determination to help his friends, who all had their own moments to shine. To adult eyes, the story is a bit simplistic and nearly everything is resolved through deus ex machina, but it seemed like a good place to begin for a grade schooler’s first “pretty scary” book.
I was hesitant about choosing the second book in a series, but the readers, many of whom had read the first book already, seemed to think that it stood alone well. They were impressed at how “spooky” the book was, mentioning how the “everyday” setting of school made it even creepier. One remarked “it was pretty epic,” though another said it was “ridiculous, violent, and not very smart” (he liked it). This group really enjoyed making pizzas for the last book, but asking them to draw their own normal thing in a scary way with art supplies did not keep their attentions nearly as much.
The Guys Read choice was Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi, an action packed cautionary tale of agribusiness greed, corruption, and the zombie plague as a small group of baseball loving misfits, Rabi, Miguel, and Joe uncover the local meatpacker's evil secret experiments- once again, the discussion here became quite heated, though not for the reasons I’d expected. Like much of Bacigulpi’s writing, there is a distinct social message in this tale, one that is not always subtle. While he couches these heavy themes in a gross, action packed zombie apocalypse tale using all the tropes, (zombies who moan “brains!,” sinister authority figures, and zombie cows), zombies are just the filler- the real meat is a discussion of food safety, corporate "ethics," and immigration. In a group of kids whose backgrounds are quite similar to those in the book, the immigration and agricultural elements were not discussed, though- they stuck to how they liked the characters, the writing style, and how gross and creepy the zombies were. Does this mean the messages did not soak through? Or was it just natural ideas to them?
The book I chose for the teens was Godless, by the Twin Cities author Pete Hautman, which I found to be quite a thought-provoking read, though the readers found it less so.
Hautman uses a group of compelling and funny teenagers to explore, with no right answers, disputes between faith and skepticism. When Jason Bock, a bored, creative agnostic teen is inspired to make up his own religion, focused on his small Minnesota town's water tower as a project to pass the time during the long summer and wrestle with his own conflicted relationship with his family's Catholic beliefs. He brings in some of his acquaintances, including his best friend, his crush, and a scary but cool local rebel and the group is soon fleshing out the belief structure of the new church of Chutengodianism. Quickly, though, the joke gets a bit more seriously as his friends begin using it as an excuse for exciting risk taking or even begin to believe in "the Ten-Legged One" for real. While the ending is a bit abrupt, leaving some questions unanswered, Hauptman leaves a lot of room for the reader to reflect on the same questions that Jason has, perhaps coming to different conclusions. Bock and his friends make some dumb decisions but Bock's questioning nature make it both a funny and philosophical teen novel.
I found it interesting that the most scientific character, Shin, becomes the most fanatical believer in the new church, while the fearsome bad boy Henry Stagg becomes a more level headed influence. Maybe it was just the the typical Minnesotan reticence to discuss religion or politics in public, but the group here had little to say about the controversial aspects of the novel. They found it quite funny, though. They mentioned that they felt that "really religious" people may not like it, but nothing in the book seemed to bother them, though they felt it ended too abruptly. Still, like in the case of Zombie Baseball Beatdown, could just exposing them to these ideas have sparked them to think? Perhaps, in peer groups, they prefer just to focus on the "fun" aspects of the books? In any case, the fun seemed to have satisfied them this time.
*Theme music for entry: "Fashion Zombies!," The Aquabats!, Charge! 2005