Saturday, March 8, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Lois Lowry

Title: Gooney the Fabulous
Author: Lois Lowry
via Amazon
Our daughter's school is hosting a "Family Adventures in Reading" event in a few weeks time.  It's really a great idea: the librarian provides a list of books for families to choose from, we read them, then come to the school on the appointed night to discuss them.  Sure, fine.  Now I have to figure out how to be diplomatic about the fact that I don't like the book.

Gooney the Fabulous is the third of four books in the Gooney Bird series.  Gooney Bird is an ultra-precocious second grader.  One day, as her teacher Mrs. Pidgeon is reading Aesop's Fables to the class, GB comes up with a plan: all of the students should write their own fable and share them with the class.  Mrs. Pidgeon loves the idea, and naturally all of the students do, too.  Faburiffic!

Ms. Lowry is a very accomplished author, with two Newberry Medals to her name.  There is certainly nothing technically wrong with her writing.  I just don't find the elementary school world she created to ring true.  Full disclosure, I teach elementary school as well as middle school and have done so for many years.  While I realize not every grade school is like the one I know best, I find it difficult to believe there are any like the one idealized in this book.  All of the students are pigeon-holed within the first two chapters - the shy girl with the lisp, the boy who's memorizing the dictionary and the African-American boy who raps everything he says... Really?  He did a back spin during his fable, too.  Oh, boy...  Between them, Mrs. Pidgeon and her mini-me, Gooney Bird, always seem to have the right answer to any problem that crops up.  There's hardly anything an arm around the shoulder won't fix!

The book is cute and fun and I'm sure it teaches valuable lessons about how schools should be but it's not a world I believe.  Our Girl liked the book.  I need to find ways to explain why I didn't while still respecting the fact that she did.


  1. I like that your daughter liked it. Perhaps she was responding to a kindred positivity that hasn't been chased out of her heart by cynicism. It speaks well of her spirit.

    1. She is definitely not cynical... yet. Puberty looms.

    2. Cynicism didn't set in for me until I was almost 30. And then I married a man who did his best to chase it out of my spirit just by being himself. It's not a foregone conclusion. :)

    3. Despite the implication of your initial comment (ahem!), I don't consider myself to be a cynical person. When observing politics or high finance, I think cynicism is warranted. Otherwise, I've known enough good people in my life who were motivated by things other than greed.

      I tried to sound out my daughter this morning about what she liked about the story but she didn't have specifics. She enjoyed the book and that's worth a lot in itself.

      I simply didn't feel the world of the book rang true. Advocating an approach to education is fine but children are complicated people and schools are complex places. Fiction should honor that complexity.

      Take Peanuts - Charles Schultz could build a believable children's world in three comic strip frames. Peanuts kids aren't exactly like real kids but their world makes sense on its own terms. It feels real, even though we know it isn't. I realize not everyone can be him but it's a worthy goal.

    4. 'It feels real, even though we know it isn't.'

      is the challenge of any writer worth her mettle, especially in this climate's somewhat sordid and titillating unreality. I've written what I feel are real kids and I'm being asked to 'heighten the stakes' because extreme situations with extreme stakes are what make stories *stories,* according to the person who is asking me to make these changes.

      I am deeply mired in a mix of emotions about whether or not this is something I can pull off and this is the stone in all of my paths. I am having trouble moving forward but I don't see turning away or standing still as easy options, either. I've opted over the last few days for standing still.

      Charles Schulz had the benefit of being a creature of his less-complex, less-saturated time, less-observed time when it was easier to be the first at something and to be it well. Lois Lowry was perhaps the victim of her time; one which I concede had the painted-on smiley face of the '80s that I did not realize was painted on until fairly recently when I began to read books about US economic history.


    5. May I offer another perspective? We've discussed this before but...

      You are very protective of your characters. You love them deeply and you don't want us to judge them poorly. But I do think you need to give us a little more so that we have reason to love them, too - to root for them in the struggle. If they're already perfect, they don't need our investment.

      I would argue against the idea of extremes, though. Motivation comes in many forms. Needing to find a bathroom is a powerful motivation, easily relatable for audiences everywhere, though it rarely qualifies as extreme.

      The best stories in the world are very simple ones at heart. But we need a reason to feel invested.

    6. I don't believe I've ever written, nor have I attempted to write, a perfect character.

    7. Okay. Poor choice of words on my part. But you ARE protective of them.

      I didn't mean for this to become a Suze critique. I do think that whatever you might do to your pieces, you must stay true to yourself. But as I encouraged before, pushing your limits, and those of your characters, could be a most fruitful exercise. Embrace the boulder. Make it work for you.

    8. Yes. That is true. I am protective of them without even meaning to be. I'd be a helicopter God if I was responsible for everything. While I was on the phone with the agent, he mentioned this one scene toward the end of the book during which it was the first time one of my characters was in 'physical peril!' But then he said that it was over too quickly and that I needed to be okay with letting the 'scary parts' last longer. That is precisely what has had me wondering if I should be writing fiction at all. My abiding loathing for fuss and melodrama. He surprised me, though by writing in a follow-up email:

      'My sense is you want to create true-feeling, emotionally resonant stories. In my experience, sometimes this creates a hesitancy to create high stakes, because high stakes can feel “unrealistic,” hammy, or melodramatic. But of course, extreme situations with extreme stakes are what make stories worth reading, what makes them *stories*, rather than slices of life. If you are hesitant to put your characters through the emotional and physical ringer, don’t be. The truth of their voices (which you do so well!) will ground us in the reality of their lives— will give them their “dignity” as you put it. The extreme circumstances they are going through will make us eager to read about their adventures, and find out what happens next. The two things combined will make us believe in them and worry about them, i.e., will make us care.'

      I confess he sounded a lot like you.

    9. I promise. He's not me.

      Helicopter God - I like that. Now there's a great book title, Suze!