Category Archives: funny

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

This morning, I read the first two chapters of Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (recent Newbery winner) to two classes of 6th grade boys.  In one class, once we hit the part where the narrator, Jack, says “cheeze-us crust” as a substitute for the swear “Jesus Christ,” the laugh-fest began and continued off and on for the rest of class.  When I set the boys free to look for books in the library, I heard many exclamations of “cheeze-us! cheeze-us crust!”  It’s funny to me how I can never predict what the kids will go crazy over.

This is a great book to read aloud, because the voice of young Jack is so strong and so genuine.  Jack is young boy living in the small town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1962.  He has problems with nosebleeds that, in his own description, spurt out of his nose like water from an elephant’s trunk; some very humorous scenes in the book involve his unruly nose and its spewing of blood.  Jack has been grounded for the summer as punishment for firing his father’s Japanese sniper rifle without permission and then mowing down his mother’s cornfield (at his father’s insistence, but just try to get his mother to have sympathy for that!).  He is only allowed to leave the house to help his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, type obituaries for the town newspaper (her arthritis has made it impossible for her to type them on her own).

There were several things I liked about this book.  As I said, I loved the voice of Jack.  The humor was great; I laughed out loud several times, and it was the sort of humor that middle school kids would appreciate.  I enjoyed learning a bit about the history of Norvelt and how it fit with the New Deal and a series of planned government communities.  Seeing the history and learning about it through Jack’s perspective, as well as through the conflicting opinions of his parents, made it interesting.

So, I liked the book, and I think it will appeal to kids who like humor mixed with history.  However, I do not think I would have picked this to win the Newbery.  There were parts that dragged a bit for me, and I just did not think this book had the emotional punch of something like A Monster Calls or the beauty of Breadcrumbs.  It’s a solid little book, though, and if the laughter in class this morning was any indication, it’s a book that knows its audience and hits the mark.

Update:  Here is a short audio clip of Gantos himself reading the beginning of the book.  Thanks to Macmillan Audio for the link!

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Filed under funny, historical fiction, realistic fiction

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

What a funny little book The Unforgotten Coat is.

Two Mongolian refugees show up at sixth grader Julie’s school one day, and she becomes their guide to navigating life in Bootle, England.  The opening scene, when Chingis (the older brother) takes on a teacher in a battle of wills, had me literally laughing out loud, and those bursts of laughter continued throughout the book.  Frank Cottrell Boyce has a true grasp on middle school humor.  At the same time, there was an undercurrent of sadness and fear.  Nergui, the younger brother, worries about being taken away by a demon, and much of the story revolves around his and Chingis’ various tactics for avoiding this demon.  (Which might sound kind of silly, until you get to the end of the story, which I won’t spoil.)

I read a review that criticized this story for being insensitive and misrepresentative of Mongol culture.  I did not see what that reviewer saw.  I saw this experience of being confronted with difference, through the eyes of a young girl who does her best to understand and help these two boys, who become her friends.  But I’m curious to know more about what might be offensive or incorrect; this particular reviewer did not elaborate.

This book would be wonderful to read aloud to a class; I can’t wait to read part of it to my 5th and 6th graders.  It is short, and funny, and in the end, gives you a lot to talk about.  Be sure to read the Afterword, which describes the true story that inspired Cottrell Boyce to write this tale.  This book reads very much like nonfiction, with a series of Polaroid photos (including ones of the characters), so I wondered if it were actually true.  It is not, but the story behind the story made me feel like it kind of was true.

The only thing that bothered me about this book was the setting in terms of time.  The narrator is looking back maybe 20 years, but talks about doing searches on Wikipedia.  The present day bits read like they are in the true present (the narrator uses Facebook).  It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was a bit jarring to my former editor’s brain.

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Filed under fiction, friendship, funny, realistic fiction

Funny Stuff (alternate post title: If you liked Diary of a Wimpy Kid. . .)

Funny books are always in high demand.  Who doesn’t like to laugh?  Of course, humor is very subjective, so what one kid finds hilarious can be utterly lame to another, but here are some humorous books that have been loved by many of our Diary of a Wimpy Kid fans, plus others with a different brand of humor.

I’ve already written here about Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.  That book and its sequel, Darth Paper Strikes Back, are pretty much guaranteed to be appreciated by anyone who likes the Wimpy Kid books.  Angleberger has another book, not part of that series, called Horton Halfpott, or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor, or The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset, that will likely also appeal.

My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian centers on a kid who doesn’t like to read trying to solve the mystery of his former babysitter’s death while she was watching him.  The cartoons in the margins provide some lightness and humor, and the mystery adds some emotional weight.

Another book about a kid who hates to read, Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading (by Tommy Greenwald) follows a middle school boy’s exploits as he attempts to get by in school without ever cracking a book.  Funny and fast-paced.

Time travel? Check.  Aliens?  Check.  Two kids trying to save the world?  Check.  Herbert’s Wormhole by Peter Nelson has all of these, and more.

Micheal Buckley’s NERDS series (about the National Espionage, Rescue and Defense Society, populated by superhero spies who have gone undercover into middle school) has an interesting dilemma.  Kids who are reading these books LOVE them, but there is a bit of reluctance to initially check them out because of the title.  It’s funny, because once one kid takes the plunge, that whole class will happily check them out and talk about them and speculate on when the next one is coming out.  Fast, adventurous, and very silly.
The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander is the goofy, suspenseful story of  how a kid named Mac’s bathroom-stall business (he helps protect little kids from bullies; get underage kids into R-rated movies; sells test answers–pretty much anything for a buck or two) gets complicated when he goes up against a big bully with a gambling ring.  Kids get hooked right away by the whole idea of a shady business run out of an unused school bathroom stall, and the suspense over what Staples (the big bully) will do next pulls them through.
In Cosmic (by Frank Cottrell Boyce), 12-year-old Liam looks like an adult and ends up in various funny, odd situations as a result (test driving a car, for example).  His ability to pass as a grown-up is all good fun until he ends up being the only “adult” on a spacecraft full of kids that is off course and heading for disaster.  This novel is far-fetched, for sure, but great fun to read.
Anything by Daniel Pinkwater.  Pinkwater has a quirky sense of humor, so he’s the sort of writer one either loves or hates.  I have met adults who say that reading his books when they were kids changed their lives.  Check out The Neddiad and/or The Yggyssey for a middle-school-friendly taste of Pinkwater’s odd, goofy writing style.
It occurs to me, looking at this list, that all of the protagonists are boys.  That’s not right!  I think they are books that will appeal to both boys and girls, but I don’t like having a post with that imbalance.  So, coming soon:  a post on funny stuff with girl protagonists.  If anyone has suggestions of titles for such a post, please send them along!
I also apologize for the awful layout of the images/text here.  If anyone can tell me how to fix that, I’m anxious to hear it!

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Filed under fiction, funny, If You Liked, mystery, Uncategorized

Brain Candy: Fun Factoid Books

Is your copy of The Guinness Book of World Records falling apart from overuse?  Does the photograph of the Largest Forehead Inflation (wha?) fail to impress you because you’ve seen it so many times?  Have you read Ripley’s Believe It or Not so much, it has become all too easy to believe?  If so, here are some other middle-school friendly books that don’t need to be read cover-to-cover to be relished and enjoyed.

Pick Me Up by DK Publishing.  This one is new to our library, so I have only had a chance to peruse it lightly, but from what I can see, it is chock full of facts about just about everything, presented with loads of fun illustrations and engaging bits of text.  Entries include cross-referential links to other articles in the text, and part of the fun of reading this book is jumping from one place to another via these links.  (To write this blurb, I started reading through the book again, and I swear, I could spend all day with it and not get bored!  I did not know that there are 99 million sheep in Australia!  Or that the average American eats 230 sandwiches a year!  Or that Albert Einstein’s brain was 15% wider than the average human’s!)

Show Off: How to Do Absolutely Everything. One Step at a Time by Sarah Hines Stephens and Bethany Mann.  I would love to go back in time to when I was 10 and get this book for my birthday.  Instead, I’m going to have to buy it for my kid and get her to do the activities with me, which I suspect will be met with plenty of enthusiasm.  Show Off is full of step-by-step instructions for doing a wide variety of random things, such as:  mess with a computer (e.g., put opaque tape on the mouse censor); read palms; blow a nose bubble; fake a cheek piercing; make an exploding volcano; weave a friendship bracelet; make friends with a cat or dog; make fortune cookies; tailwhip a scooter; moonwalk; and tons of other fun stuff.

Do Not Open by John Farndon.  Full of mysteries, codes, illusions, interesting stories and anecdotes (some on the macabre side), all conveyed with a lively combination of text, charts, and a variety of colorful illustrations, this is just the sort of book to dive into on a rainy Saturday.  Like in Pick Me Up,  many entries include “links” to other, related parts of the text.  Students in my library have really enjoyed this one.

Other browsable titles to look for . . .

The Wicked History of the World by Terry Deary and Martin Brown and The Stunning Science of Everything: Science with the Squishy Bits Left In! by Nick Arnold and Tony De Saulles.  Our library copies of both of these titles are well worn.  Both are full of cartoon illustrations and all the gross facts and details behind the stories or facts.  Note:  These titles are not for the faint of heart; the descriptions of torture techniques in Wicked History truly made my stomach turn.  (Also note: I think the Wicked History one has been republished as Horrible History, but it appears to be the same book.)

For Girls Only: Everything Great about Being a Girl by Laura Dower and For Boys Only: The Biggest, Baddest Book Ever by Marc Aronson.  I will confess that I am not always keen on books that label themselves as for girls or for boys.  Why reinforce gender stereotypes like that?  But the truth is, many kids love these books (including my own, who recently spent an entire weekend immersed in For Girls Only), and these two are pretty good examples.  Both are full of trivia, advice, puzzles, facts, activities, etc., all conveyed with humor and wit.

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Filed under funny, nonfiction, puzzles, Uncategorized

Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

When I was about 12, I read Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die, a slim novel about a girl coming to terms with her older sister’s death from cancer.  Then I read it again.  Then I read it yet again.  I don’t know how many times I ultimately read that book, but I can tell you that I still have that same battered copy, and the folds and stains on the pages attest to many, many travels through them.

Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls has a similar magic, I think.  The narrator, a boy named Sam, is dying from leukemia.  The book is a collection of Sam’s journal entries, lists, questions (mostly ones that grown-ups refuse to answer or can’t answer, like “How do you know when you’ve died?”), goals, and sketches.  Sam loves science (the fun kind, where you learn about UFOs and loch ness monsters, and make volcanoes that actually blow up), and he approaches his illness like he would a complicated science experiment–observing, asking questions, researching possible answers.  He knows he is dying; he wants to understand why and what it means and what will happen next.  Sam and his best buddy Felix, who also has cancer, have very different ways of seeing and coping with their illness, and their friendship adds a lot of humor and a bit of adventure to the story.

The result is a story that is, all at once, tender, hilarious, sad, and hopeful.  Kids who I’ve talked to about this book always ask, “Is it sad?  Did you cry?”  Yes, I cried.  Yes, it is sad.  But it is also funny, and quirky, and true.  Sam doesn’t seem like a character in a book.  He seems like a real boy, with real questions that don’t always have answers, and it feels like a gift to be able to go on this journey with him.

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Filed under fiction, friendship, funny, realistic fiction, sad

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Dwight, a goofy, odd kid who can barely walk across a room without tripping over something, knocking someone over, spilling something, AND saying something weird, does something incredible.  He makes an origami paper Yoda, sticks it on his finger, and suddenly is the wisest, most perceptive kid in the entire 6th grade, possibly the whole world.

No, wait.  Dwight isn’t wise. Origami Yoda is wise.  But how is that possible?  How can a folded piece of paper be wise?

Each chapter of this book is devoted to a different kid’s story about how Origami Yoda gave him/her great advice and solved a problem s/he was having.  Toss in some drawings (a la Diary of a Wimpy Kid–kids who have enjoyed that series will love this book), some comments from Harvey (who is skeptical about Origami Yoda’s powers), and loads of middle school mishaps, and you end up with a delightful, funny, light read.

We have about 100 holds on this book in the library right now.  I’m willing to bet that most, if not all, of the kids who read it will come back anxious to read Darth Paper Strikes Back, the sequel.

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Filed under fiction, funny, misfit