Kropp, Paul 1948-
Paul Kropp 1948-
(Full name Paul Stephan Kropp) American-born Canadian novelist.
Kropp has focused his writing career on providing exciting, age-appropriate material for reluctant adolescent readers. His books are characterized by exciting action, simple plots, and easy-to-understand vocabulary. Kropp's fiction tackles difficult issues facing the contemporary teenager. His work has filled an important niche in juvenile literature.
Kropp was born on February 22, 1948, in Buffalo, New York, to Lloyd, an engineer, and Marjorie Kropp. He received a B.A. from Columbia College in 1970 and an M.A. from the University of Western Ontario in 1972. Kropp became a teacher in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1974. Kropp's first novels were written for "Series Canada" and had very restrictive rules governing their vocabulary and composition. In addition to his fiction, Kropp wrote and then revised a book about raising children to read in which he gave advice on how to promote reading in the home.
The protagonist of Wilted (1980) is Danny Morrison, an adolescent boy living in a chaotic home. His father drinks excessively and physically abuses Danny's mother. His older sister smokes marijuana to escape, and his younger brother is needy and fearful. When Danny meets Samantha, he must beat out another boy for her affection. In the end he wins Samantha's heart, but his problems at home remain.
Justin, Jay-Jay and the Juvenile Dinkent (1986) tells the story of two brothers, Justin and Jay-Jay, and their baby sitter Fred, a juvenile delinquent. They proceed through a series of misadventures, including encounters with a school bully named Beefy, and must prove to their parents that Fred is a good friend and not a bad influence. The Ski Stooges (1993) reintroduces the characters from Justin, Jay-Jay and the Juvenile Dinkent. This time they are on a ski vacation, and the novel is modeled on the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges. There are snowmobile rides, ski races, and a talking computer that dispenses romantic advice.
In Get Lost (1987), Sherri wants to get closer to Todd, the boy she likes. She volunteers to baby sit for his five-year-old brother Jamie. She does not take her responsibility seriously, and Jamie winds up missing. The only clue is his water pistol found on the side of a highway, leaving Sherri to contemplate Jamie's fate and her own responsibility.
Kropp's Not Only Me (1987) tackles the subject of incest. The main character, Lynn, tries to deal with the pain of incest by pretending that it never happened and keeping it a secret from those around her. When she discovers that her sister Chrissy has also been sexually abused, Lynn recognizes that her five years of secrecy have not healed her pain. The novel traces the steps that a victim of sexual abuse can take to seek help and describes the various agencies and professionals that offer assistance.
Told from the alternating perspectives of a brother, Moonkid, and sister, Liberty, Moonkid and Liberty (1991) revolves around family issues. Liberty longs to fit in and have a conventional life, but her eccentric father makes this difficult. Complicating matters is her brother Moonkid, who is intellectual and nerdy and convinced he was born someplace other than Earth. Liberty is given an opportunity to leave her oddball life behind and move in with her more conventional mother.
The Countess and Me (2002) tells the story of Jordan Bellemare, who has just moved to a new neighborhood in Winnipeg. Jordan feels alienated from his peers and develops a friendship with an elderly female neighbor, Countess von Loewen. Mrs. V., as she is known, shares secrets with Jordan about her life, her former wealth, and the cursed skull that she has buried in her backyard. Their friendship is tested when Jordan betrays Mrs. V.'s secrets to a popular group of boys at school.
Critics point out that Kropp's novels are typically high on action but weak on characterization. Their chief complaint is his reliance on stereotypes. Most reviewers agree that this characteristic makes Kropp's novels a good read for adolescents. Some reviewers complain that the narrative voice in Kropp's novels makes use of slang or grammatical errors, even though they find this appropriate in the dialogue. Justin, Jay-Jay and the Juvenile Dinkent hit a nerve with some reviewers because of the irresponsibility of Fred as a babysitter. Reviewers also take exception to the negative portrayal of adults in Kropp's novels. In general, however, critics agree that Kropp and other "Series Canada" authors have filled an important need for reluctant adolescent readers by creating age-appropriate fiction with interesting subject matter. Reviewers also point out that Kropp does not shy away from difficult issues that teens face and often handles such subjects with great sensitivity and without sensationalism. David W. Atkinson, in Canadian Children's Literature in 1985, stated, "Kropp, too, shows no reluctance in addressing the awkward, sometimes embarrassing problems of adolescents, including everything from birth control and teenage sexuality to bad complexion and problem perspiration."
In 1981, Kropp received an honorable mention from the Young Adult Caucus of the Saskatchewan Library Association for Wilted.
Wilted (novel) 1980; revised as You've Seen Enough, 1991
Baby Baby (novel) 1982
Gang War (novel) 1982
Snow Ghost (novel) 1982
Wild One (novel) 1982
Hitting the Road (novel) 1985
Getting Even (novel) 1986
Justin, Jay-Jay and the Juvenile Dinkent (novel) 1986; republished as Fast Times with Freddy, 1990
Get Lost (novel) 1987
Not Only Me (novel) 1987
Under Cover (novel) 1987
Tag Team (novel) 1988
My Broken Family (novel) 1989
The Rock (novel) 1989
We Both Have Scars (novel) 1990
Moonkid and Liberty (novel) 1991
Ellen/Elena/Luna (novel) 1992
Scarface (novel) 1993
Ski Stooges (novel) 1993
Street Scene (novel) 1993
Moonkid and Prometheus (novel) 1998
The Countess and Me (novel) 2002
David W. Atkinson (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: Atkinson, David W. "Romance and Realism: Novels by Paul Kropp." Canadian Children's Literature no. 37 (1995): 59-62.
[In the following essay, Atkinson discusses the strengths and limitations of Kropp's novels in "Series Canada" and asserts that Kropp's Wilted is more sophisticated work.]
The last of the five novels, [Baby Baby, Gang War, Snow Ghost, Wild One, and] Wilted, is by far the most sophisticated, while the remaining four belong to Paul Kropp's "Series Canada" and feature the limited vocabulary characteristic of the series. Despite the fairly broad strokes of "Series Canada," however, these novels remain convincing portrayals of realistic characters. Baby baby looks at the romantic idealism of teenage love in the face of an unwanted pregnancy, while Gang War and Snow Ghost center on adolescents from socially and economically deprived families. Kropp's long novel, Wilted, also falls into this category, dwelling on problems found in contemporary family life. The exception to this pattern is Wild One, an account of a young girl saving a horse and training him to be a champion. All these novels are about the difficulties of growing up, signaling to young readers that life is far from easy and that life's problems often have no ready answers.
Nowhere is this more the case than in Baby Baby. The love Lori and Dave share is very real, but it is not the love for a lifetime. This lesson they painfully learn when Lori's pregnancy forces them to decide about their future together. While physically capable of producing a child, neither is psychologically mature enough to be a good parent or in a position to offer the baby a secure home. That giving up the baby is the right decision is underlined by the situation of Tammy, Lori's best friend's sister. As an unwed mother, Tammy experiences the many difficulties of raising a child alone, and reveals what might happen to Lori if she keeps the baby. The final scene of the novel is especially poignant, revealing as it does Lori's pain in parting with her new son.
Very different from Baby Baby are Gang War and Snow Ghost. The main characters of both novels are so-called "tough guys," an image which masks their own insecurity. Without a mother and out of touch with his father, Charlie, the leader of the Saints in Gang War, learns that beating the Punks, a rival gang, is not as important as developing a meaningful relationship with Lisa and getting back together with his father. In Snow ghost, Martin, who describes himself as a "hood," is invited by his teacher, Crawford, to a cabin north of La Pas for Christmas. The plane, piloted by Crawford's brother, goes down on the flight in, leaving Crawford's son, Doug, and Martin to hike the fifteen kilometers for help. Martin's struggle against the cold and snow marks him as a very different person from the boy at the beginning of the novel, who boasted, "Dope is my survival kit. When things get rough, I smoke it."
Wild One, the fourth of the "Series Canada" novels reviewed here, is the least effective. While Baby Baby, Gang War, and Snow Ghost focus on growth in the main character, emphasis in Wild One is on plot and action. Kate saves Wild One from Banner, the fraudulent trainer of Cherry Hill Farm, and is herself given the opportunity to train the horse. She takes up the challenge, and the story concludes with Wild One winning the big race. Not only is the plot a rather tired one, but Kropp has some difficulty developing it. He devotes considerable time, for example, to the animosity between Kate and Banner. This promises a showdown, and, while Banner's horse does appear in the big race, no further conflict develops, leaving the novel hanging badly. An other problem surrounds the character Steve. At the beginning of the novel, a self-indulgent, rich kid, who wishes only to return to his city friends, he is transformed at the end into the nice guy who is concerned about others and has learned to love the farm. This change is difficult to accept, largely because the novel is not long enough to allow for adequate development of Steve's personality.
The verisimilitude lacking in Wild One, however, is the strongest feature of the longer work, Wilted. While Kropp is not needlessly sensational, he pulls no punches in this account of family break-up. The deteriorating relationship between Danny's parents, the result in part of his father's excessive drinking, produces a tense and insecure home environment. Danny's mother is physically abused by her husband, his older sister finds solace in drugs and counter culture, his younger brother lives in constant fear, clinging to Danny for protection, and Danny himself is far from being a positive thinker. In the midst of this, Danny meets Samantha, who has it all, good looks, brains, a comfortable home, and loving parents. To get Samantha, Danny must vanquish her self-elected boyfriend, and, while one rarely solves anything with a fight, this one does wonders for Danny's self image. Wilted is not, however, a novel that ends with a simple happy ending. Although Danny wins the girl, there is the sense that things are far from resolved: Danny's favorite teacher is dead of a heart attack, his father is nowhere to be found, and the washing machine remains repossessed. The message is clear: the happy ending is a thing of dreams, not of real life.
These novels provide teenage readers with situations to which they can readily relate. Many of Danny's insecurities, for example, are those of all teenagers; one does not have to come from a broken home to experience them. And every adolescent probably knows a couple like Lori and Dave, and suffers the pain of first love. Kropp's stories also teach some valuable moral lessons. Martin in Snow Ghost learns about responsibility, while Charlie in Gang War discovers that revenge and pride are poor reasons for violence. Kropp, too, shows no reluctance in addressing the awkward, sometimes embarrassing problems of adolescents, including everything from birth control and teenage sexuality to bad complexion and problem perspiration.
Kropp's novels have other strengths as well. Wild One places great stress on action, which in part makes up for weaknesses in characterization. Snow Ghost contains elements of the adventure story, as two teenage boys find themselves in unusual and dangerous circumstances. There is the enigmatic figure of the "Snow Ghost" itself, which as a thing of Martin's dreams becomes a frightening reality for him.
But the major accomplishment of the four novels from "Series Canada" is that they remain convincing, despite the limited vocabulary Kropp uses. For the most part, Kropp captures well the nuance of adolescent speech, something which is best revealed, of course, in Wilted. Perhaps there is a bit too much of "boy meets girl" in the novels, but this is easily justified in developing stories appealing to teenagers. It should be noted, too, that Kropp's use of the first person in Snow Ghost and Wilted is especially effective, heightening as it does the realism of the two novels. One thing, however, must be improved: the drawings in the four novels of the "Series Canada," indeed the drawings in the complete series, are appallingly bad. They are a real disappointment after the attractive and imaginative covers of each book of the series.
Despite some flaws, these novels are well-crafted stories realistically portraying teenage sentiments. They are rarely preachy, and are likely to attract a wide readership. The "Series Canada" is valuable in providing stories for slow readers, who wish to read something that recognizes their maturity in every other way. It will certainly be valuable in the classroom, and to this end a Teacher's Guide accompanies the series. Discussion of Wilted is perhaps best concluded with the remark that it is an accomplished novel written by someone who understands teenagers.
Roderick McGillis (essay date winter 1994)
SOURCE: McGillis, Roderick. "Master Teague, What Is Your Story? Male Negotiation in Fiction for Children." Canadian Children's Literature no. 76 (winter 1994): 6-21.
[In the following essay, McGillis discusses the way men are portrayed in juvenile fiction, including Kropp's Fast Times with Fred.]
Lamenting lost masculine virtues has emerged as an interesting recent pastime, if still a slightly surreptitious one.
(Peter N. Stearns)
We badly need some training for our lads if we are to keep up manliness in our race instead of lapsing into a nation of soft, sloppy, cigarette suckers.
I'll get to the reference in my title later. Right now let me focus on my two epigraphs. Lamenting lost masculine virtues may have been a surreptitious pastime in 1987, the year Peter Stearns published his article, "Men, Boys and Anger in American Society, 1860-1940," but since 1990 and the publication of Robert Bly's Iron John: A Book About Men lamentation is fashionable. One article in USA Today asks, "Has the 1980s Man Become Superwimp to Super-woman" (Nov. 26, 1986). And as my second epigraph illustrates, ruing the failure of boys to become men is not so recent as we may believe. The belief that boys need "training" or initiation to become real men sticks with us, suggesting that the notion of manliness or masculinity is learned rather than innate. Men are made, not born. The films of John Wayne from the late 1940s to the late 1970s regularly present the process of boys learning to be men under the tutelage of an older man. Perhaps the most egregious of these films is Mark Rydell's The Cowboys (1972) in which a group of boys learn that to be men they must take control of their lives and thrust off weakness and femininity. They learn to accomplish noble deeds through violence. In short, they learn to kill. Aggression and anger are the means to manhood.
The aggressive, angry man receives some superficial tempering in more recent films, as Paul Smith's treatment of Lethal Weapon (1987) and Heartbreak Ridge (1987) illustrates (see his Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production 1994: 181-190). My example is, however, James Cameron's Terminator II: Judgement Day (1992) in which the male robot, programmed for destruction, learns that he must not kill from the young boy he must protect. Instead he shoots platoons of policemen in the knee-caps and demolishes automobiles by the scores. Despite the cute twist the film gives to Wordsworth's famous phrase, the child is father of the man, in the end it is the man or at least his cyborg equivalent in the figure of Arnold Schwarzenegger who teaches the boy that a man leads, has courage, protects, follows a code of honour, and is strong and taciturn—all those things John Wayne stood for in film after film. The Schwarzenegger male is no less aggressive, even wild, than the Wayne male before him. The male as protector, sensitive yet not averse to violence, heroic without being bloodthirsty, is evident in this year's Forrest Gump (1994), starring Tom Hanks as the innocent who looks good in a uniform. Plus ca change. …
Recently, Robert Bly has spoken favourably of the strong male, naming him the Wild Man; he argues that our society has given too little attention to this aggressive and primitive side of the male character. Trying to salvage something of the authority and confidence of manhood in a world in which insecurity has weakened males, Bly distinguishes between the Wild Man within each male and each male's primitive urges to violence and power. Today the male has become, in Bly's view, "soft" (2). He may be "life-preserving" but he is "not exactly life-giving" (3). To right the balance, men must make "contact with this Wild Man," "descend into the male psyche and accept what's dark down there, including the nourishing dark" (6; Bly's italics). Men must separate from the debilitating effects of the mother and femaleness generally. I suspect that the popularity of Iron John derives from some misunderstanding of Bly, a misunderstanding that focuses on the aggressive and "dark" aspect of masculinity that is so readily available to us in films such as The Cowboys. Indeed, the return of the western in our culture signals a desire for men to revalidate the traditional male values associated with the cowboy, even if we know that cowboys do cry. Bly himself tries to dissociate "the true radiant energy in the male" from both the "feminine realm" and "the macho/John Wayne realm" (8), but when he asserts that the male should revive the inner warrior, that part of the self which is confident and even combative, forceful, resolute, and authoritative the whiff of the Waynes and Schwarzeneggers returns to the air. As Marina Warner argues, "the monsters of machismo are created in societies where men and women are already too far separated by sexual fear and loathing, segregated by contempt for the prescribed domestic realm of the female, and above all by exaggerated insistence on aggression as the defining characteristic of heroism and power" (30).
Bly's book did strike a chord in our society, and similar books sprang up extolling the virtues of the male warrior. Two of these are Dan Millman's Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior (1991) and Robert Moore's and Douglas Gillette's The Warrior Within: Accessing the Knight in the Male Psyche (1992). I react to such books with a shiver. As Victor Seidler suggests, there is "something disturbing in the return of the warrior image of masculinity, especially if it means turning your back on relationships with women and children to take this heroic journey on your own" (4). Often in the books young boys read, the model of development is just such a journey away from friends and family. The journey tests and tempers the male, readying him for the battles to come.
My argument, then, is that little has changed in the way we view masculinity, and that our culture continues to train boys to become men, men who are aggressive, misogynistic, independent, and authoritarian. Obviously, such an argument amounts to a generalization. Like any other social construct, masculinity is not one-dimensional, although the force of the title of a book I read nearly thirty years ago, remains; I refer to Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man (1964). Forces in our culture do move to create men and women without wrinkles, without deviation from a popular norm. All one need do is glance at the toys available for young boys: G.I. Joes, transformers, and a dazzling array of futuristic weapons. Or glance at the video games springing up like infectious insects, games such as "Streets of Rage," "Street Fighter," and "Mortal Kombat." One does not have to think too long or hard to understand that a one-dimensional notion of the male is implicit in such cultural products.
This preamble deals with aspects of American culture rather than strictly Canadian culture because, despite our heart-felt desire to express something other than our neighbours to the south, Canadians share many cultural assumptions with Americans, including assumptions about gender. Our heroes, as I have argued elsewhere in CCL 's pages, may be ordinary, little guys such as Jacob Two-Two or Nicholas Knock, but the little fellow is also a scrapper who aspires to be a superhero. Whatever subtleties and complexities might be evident in the various depictions of the Canadian male, one thing remains certain: he has not changed over the years as much as we might think. And despite the vaunted penchant for compromise in the Canadian psyche, Canadian males learn that negotiation is best carried out with physical force, or at least with aggression.
I must explain what I mean by "negotiation." Negotiation derives from the Latin for "business," the negative of leisure, "not at ease": neg otium. Ease and leisure are, of course, supposed to make up some of childhood's delights, and when a child grows up, he puts these behind him for the more serious activity of work and negotiation. In other words, the very process of growing up involves a necessary initiation in the ways of disease and negotiation. To negotiate, we say, is to discuss a matter with a view to settling it or forging a compromise (I paraphrase The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). The word "negotiate," however, has origins in hunting where it meant the act of clearing a fence or overcoming an obstacle. This association with hunting nicely reminds us of things predatory, and if we remind ourselves of the medieval period's use of hunting as a metaphor for sexual activity then we have even more striking evidence of negotiation's relation to power and authority. To negotiate is to manoeuvre for a position of authority—to get what one wants.
In order to examine the image of the male in recent Canadian fiction for young readers, I focus on six books, all but one of which appeared within the last three years. Three of these books are by men and three are by women; the three books by women target an audience of roughly eight-to twelve-year olds, and the books by men target a slightly older audience, in one case an audience of high school age. The books by women are Elma Schemenauer's Jacob Jacobs Gets Up Early (1991), Alison Lohans's Germy Johnson's Secret Plan (1992), and Maureen Bayliss's Howard's House is Haunted (1993). The three books by men are Paul Kropp's Fast Times With Fred (1990; first published as Justin, Jay-Jay and the Juvenile Dinkent in 1986), Martyn Godfrey's Don't Worry About Me, I'm Just Crazy (1992), and Duanne and Darcy Jahns' The O-Team (1992). What strikes me as similar about all these books is their authors' ostensible depiction of a "new," more cerebral and less aggressive male, while they maintain a more deeply felt belief in traditional concepts of maleness, including the inevitability of male negotiation through fighting or at the very least through an aggressive stance. None of these books presents males starkly; that is, all of them attempt to show that the process of growing into manhood is possible without rituals of violence. The paradox lies in the act of reading itself which substitutes for the ritual act, and the voice that speaks from the book serves as the wise older male figure, what Freud refers to as the superego.
My approach is cultural, rather than psychological, although it is difficult to speak of culture without some consideration of psychology. Recently Claudia Mitchell and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh have argued that male psychological development in Canadian books for adolescents often follows a pattern set out by Otto Rank, in which the governing concept is separation as a means of individuation (CCL 72; 1993). The idea of separation is, of course, familiar to readers of Bly who insists that all males must separate from the mother, from female influence, in order to discover the essence of masculinity. Separation from the mother, however, does not necessitate separation from the father or from other males. On the contrary, Bly argues, and depictions of male development in literature and film regularly emphasise, that the individual male needs the company of other males for successful maturing. Male bonding is alive and well in books for adolescents. The male group is an important entity for the growing boy.
We might consider such notions of male psychological development from a Freudian perspective, and note that often male adolescents in fiction separate from both mother and father in order to come to terms with the Oedipus complex by transferring their affection for a female from their mothers to a suitable substitute, and by discovering a male mentor who does not threaten their security by coming between the boy and the female of his affections. Often this growth into mature relationships with both males and females entails a character learning to accept someone in his life—an aunt, a new sibling, a young girl, a new male friend, a teacher, camp counsellor or some other adult male figure. This move to acceptance is often accompanied by a sense of loss (loss of contact with the mother who had, in the early months of life at least, fulfilled all the child's needs and desires), of something irrevocably left behind, and of something always to be desired. For a Lacanian, this signifies the inevitable entry into the father's world, into the world of loss and absence in which substitutes (simulations?) forever fail to bring back the splendour in the grass. For Lacan, this situation also touches on language which itself remains always sadly incompetent to express precisely what we think and feel. For this reason, perhaps, boys who must separate more radically from the mother than girls suffer the lack in language more acutely than females. Perhaps this lack finds some outlet in physical action. Boys negotiate physically. Girls talk.
Whether the male tendency to negotiate with arms derives from his psychological development or from culturally acquired notions of male power and authority, I think we can see this tendency's persistence in even the most innocuous products of our culture. I take for my first examples the three books about boys written by women.
2. Boys Constructed by Women
First, and because they are relatively unfamiliar, I'll briefly describe these books. Elma Schemenauer's Jacob Jacobs Gets Up Early recounts the story of eleven-year-old Jacob who doesn't conform to his family's idea of masculinity. He sleeps late, doesn't go fishing, tells stories, knows computers, and has few friends at school; in short, he isn't like his athletic and more traditionally masculine cousin, Peter. But on the first page of the novel, he saves a rabbit from the clutches of a great horned owl, and the reader knows this kid is made of sterner stuff than his parents or his cousin Peter realize. Jacob wishes something exciting would happen to him, and of course it does. During the course of the book, he meets Mary Rose O'Malley, an eleven-year-old girl who has a heart problem; she also has "spunk" (69). Mary Rose serves as Jacob's friend. Usually in books of male maturing, the main character finds a male friend who is instrumental in his maturing process. Here Mary Rose serves this role. She goads Jacob into climbing a tree by telling him that Peter, who "looks so strong and athletic," would "climb it in a minute" (70). Jacob climbs the tree to untangle the ropes of a helium balloon, but he ends up drifting over the treetops in the unattached balloon. Here is his adventure; Jacob takes a journey alone and discovers his own inner strength, his own masculine ability to survive an alien environment. Jacob ropes a branch to bring the balloon to ground, finds the whereabouts of Helga, the escaped snow-white moose, gets locked in a cabin, sends a flag made of his yellow windbreaker up the cabin chimney, and finally ropes and catches the escaped moose, saving Peter and Mary Rose in the process. At the end, athletic Peter tells Jacob: "for a weird little zombie, you're pretty brave" (109). And his father praises him, calling him "brave" and "resourceful" (115). Jacob is "a hero" (111, 113). The books ends with Jacob feeling confident and ready to make friends when he returns to school.
Alison Lohans's Germy Johnson's Secret Plan tells the story of Jeremy Johnson's attempt to rid his house of his Aunt Pru who has come for a long visit and who has displaced Jeremy from his own room. The plot is thin. Jeremy has a new cat, a substitute for the dog he longs for, and he has to cope with taunts and threats from the school bully, Shaun Higgins. His plan for getting rid of Aunt Pru is to make her sick by collecting all the germs he can and passing them her way. In order to collect germs, Jeremy has to get dirty, muck about in yucky things, in short, show he is a typical boy who delights in doing things his parents shiver to contemplate. Jeremy is a good bad boy, the type Leslie Fiedler associated years ago with Tom Sawyer. Of course his attempts to motivate Aunt Pru to leave fail, and he learns to appreciate her, to express his affection for her, and to cry. Jeremy's acceptance of his aunt signifies his newly acquired "feminine" traits. If we pursue the book's architectural metaphor, however, then Jeremy's acceptance of his aunt Pru is also an acceptance of his place in the basement, traditionally the place of rationality, the male sphere, the place of exploration and labour. At the very least, we might interpret Jeremy's relocation in the basement as a retreat, even a regression into womb-like security. The problem is how to present the "new male" without resorting to subterfuge or encouraging weakness?
Maureen Bayliss, in Howard's House is Haunted, presents the reader with a boy who resembles Sid rather than Tom Sawyer. Howard is afraid of nearly everything: "ghosts, spiders, creaky noises, slithery snakes, bullies, basements, and the dark. He was afraid of lots of things. Almost everything, in fact" (1). Bayliss does not specify Howard's age, but it is clear that he is old enough to have put behind him the need for the security of soft toys, yet he takes Scruffy Monkey with him to school to buoy his confidence. In short, Howard is a young nerd. At the beginning of the story, Howard's parents inform him that they have purchased an old house, one famous among the kids of the town for being haunted. Howard's consternation does not, however, keep him from doing the dishes.
At school, Howard faces the ordeal of coping with the class bully, Punch McLaredy. The move to a haunted house, however, gives Howard the courage to forge a truce with Punch; in turn for doing Punch's homework, Howard asks that Punch get rid of the ghost that haunts the house on Walnut Street. To effect the dismissal of the ghost, Punch brings to Howard's house his pet snake, Chokey, but Chokey simply slithers off without accomplishing what Howard expects him to accomplish. Each night Howard hears creaks and thuds throughout the house, and his fears grow. For several nights, he rises after his parents are asleep and flicks on all the lights in the house. This proves ineffectual; in fact, Howard finds a note taped to his backpack telling him he's crazy to leave the lights on. The note is signed "the ghost" (34).
Howard's next plan is to leave chocolate chip soup (yes, chocolate chip soup) and Orange Fizzie for the ghost several nights in succession, and then only put the soup out. When the ghost starts looking for the Orange Fizzie, Howard and Punch will bop him. To help them, the boys invite Willie Wong and Rebecca Green to sleep over on Halloween. The four friends succeed in throwing a net over the ghost, a palpable ghost who turns out to be Conrad Warbles, an indigent descendant of former owners of the house. Warbles is a ghost writer, a writer of ghost stories, and a ghost of a writer, unable to find a publisher for his stories. Of course, Warbles finds a home with Howard and his family; Howard manages to coax Chokey the snake from under Mrs. Nutt's (she's the next door neighbour and something of a witch, a good witch mind you) dresser. What better image for Howard's initiation into true masculinity than his drawing out of a snake from a dark place?
Each of these books tries to depict young boys who deviate from the popular norm in some way. All three boys—Jacob, Jeremy, and Howard—suffer from the badgering of bullies or bigger boys, but Jacob and Howard become friends with the bully by proving that they are not wimps, and Jeremy finds a way to ignore the bully with the help of his friends. All three authors are careful to depict their male characters interacting (to some extent) with girls, and two focus on such interaction: Lohans' plot turns on Jeremy's discovery of affection for Aunt Pru, and Schemenauer uses a girl, Mary Rose, as the means of Jacob's emergence from wimphood. These females, however, pass muster with the boys because of their spunk: Aunt Pru tells stories of chickens running about without their heads and Mary Rose is smart and open to adventure. In all three books, the male protagonist succeeds in some ordeal through a developing relationship. We might conclude, following Mitchell and Reid-Walsh, that these women writers present their male characters as developing through relationships with others.
But relationships in themselves do not necessarily mean that these males are "new," less given to the familiar patterns of patriarchal development than males in literature earlier in the century. Both Howard and Jacob must prove themselves capable of manly activity. Jacob's test comes when he is alone in the free floating balloon, and surviving this test gives him the courage to save Peter's life by throwing himself in front of the charging white moose. Howard, as I noted above, gains the courage to confront the snake, and if I invoke Freud then I need say no more. True, Howard's test is accomplished in community—he, Willie, Rebecca, and Punch together confront the ghost—but Bayliss makes it clear that the other children approach the ghost caper as a test for Howard. Willie and Rebecca remark after the event that Howard is "a lot more interesting" than they thought (71), and Punch tells Howard that he is "not a yo-yo after all" (75). As for Jeremy Johnson, he is something of a Tom Sawyer as I mentioned earlier. He plays with cars, longs for a dog as a companion (he finally settles for a cat), gets into trouble, and feels a desire to "slug" Shaun (40).
These boys have neither a complex inner life nor much to do with their parents. They have little to do with their fathers. Fathers are in the background, but rarely interact with their sons. As for mothers, they are the disciplinarians in the households. These books set out to interest young readers in plot, and their messages concerning masculinity strike me as anything but radical. The only thing noticeable about the boys in these books is that they do not solve problems with their fists. When it comes to negotiating their desires, these boys either learn to deal and compromise (Jeremy and Howard) or they overcome the objections of others the way Jacob does when he acts heroically. Perhaps the most satisfying of these presentations of male negotiation is Lohans's Germy Johnson's Secret Plan, in which Jeremy not only comes to appreciate his Aunt Pru, but he also accepts the idea of a room in the basement in lieu of his old room which Aunt Pru now occupies. My only hesitation here derives from the role of the basement as a sort of retreat, a substitute womb for Jeremy.
In any case, none of these three books perpetuates male negotiation through violence the way, for example, Geoffrey Bilson's book for older boys, Hockeybat Harris (1984), does. The covers of the three books I have been discussing show young boys who are either nerds (Howard and Jacob both wear glasses, a sure sign that the child is closer to the Sid Sawyer type than to Tom, and Howard carries a soft toy monkey in his backpack) or they are visually associated with things feminine (Jeremy stands with his back to orange-haired Aunt Pru and he has a cat on his right shoulder). These women writers clearly wish, ostensibly at least, to present their young readers with male protagonists who do not have to be independent and strong in order to succeed or gain approval of their peers and parents.
3. Boys Constructed by Men
Again I begin with a description of the three books. They are written for older readers than are the books discussed above, and they show a hipper style and willingness to be cute. Whether this is because their authors are men or because they adopt a first-person point of view is not clear to me. Paul Kropp's Fast Times with Fred tells the story of two brothers and their new babysitter. Jason and Justin have "fast times" with Fred, their babysitter, who has the distinction of being a juvenile delinquent; he got into trouble by trying to boobytrap a public toilet. Anyway, the plot involves the three boys getting into a series of misadventures such as running afoul of this book's bully, a character called Beefy, losing money in McDonald's, making home-made French fries and onion rings, sneaking into a drive-in movie theatre, bumping Fred's truck into Beefy's Camaro, and nearly being smashed by a train. These misadventures are all in good fun, and the boys' parents learn to appreciate and trust Fred as their sons' friend. The book ends with a family conference in which Fred takes part, and we might consider this a major step in the process of the boys learning how to negotiate in words rather than with aggressive action. We might consider this, but the book as a whole gains its readers' interest through the nearly constant immanence of a violent outburst of some sort, especially as a way of dealing with the perpetual threat of Beefy and his gang. The youngest of the boys, Justin, keeps urging Fred to beat up Beefy, a solution his older brother Jason finds too simple (85). Among the solutions suggested by the less aggressive Jason is "to seek protection from the local Mafia" (85-86).
The O-Team by Duanne and Darcy Jahns also concerns a group of children, this time three boys and a girl. The O-Team of the title refers to the name three of these kids give to their money-making enterprise; Max, Pigeon, and Hoddy decide one summer to do odd jobs around their town to earn money for Blitz Blades. The name they choose might bring to mind another group, TV's A-Team, itinerant soldiers of fortune and fugitives from the law whose penchant for violent activity resulted in many weekly explosions, fistfights, and shootouts. The allusion is strained, but it does suggest that Max, Pigeon, and Hoddy are your usual aggressive, energetic, and resourceful young people. The fly in their summer ointment, so to speak, arrives in the person of Max's cousin, Woodrow Delschneider, better known as Woody. Woody's a "klutz," a "geek," a "nerd" whose "got an I.Q. somewhere around the speed of sound" (15-16). And of course he wears "thick, black horned-rimmed glasses" (21). The plot has Woody ruining several of the O-Team's jobs, but finally he comes to the rescue with his worm farm, and he finds acceptance with Max and the others. Significantly, Woody's acceptance by Pigeon and Hoddy follows an incident in which he shows that he is capable of typical male negotiation tactics; while in the local arcade, the O-Team meets town bully, Ivan O'Connor, who threatens to pulverize Max only to rouse the ire of Woody who puts a lock on the bully's thumb and then threatens to put a "solar plexus reflex" on him (108-109). In admiration, Hoddy announces "It's Rambo" (109).
Martyn Godfrey's Don't Worry About Me, I'm Just Crazy is the most ambitious of the books under scrutiny. It tells the story of Roob Fowler and his friend Paul Lawson, and their coming to terms with dysfunctional fathers. Roob's father is an itinerant alcoholic who used to be a writer, and Paul's father is "a manager for the city" (34) who used to be a marine sergeant. The one father shows no responsibility for his son and the other places too much pressure on his son to perform well in school and sports. I might add that Paul's family is black, whereas Roob's is white, although this seems of little consequence in the story. In fact, the simplicity of Godfrey's attitude to racial difference indicates the simplicity with which he approaches his other important themes: sexual awareness, family romance, peer pressure, and adolescent thoughts of suicide.
The story follows Roob in his attempt to make the school relay team so that he can avoid probation. This brings him into conflict with his best friend, Paul, who is going through difficulties at home, difficulties that are driving him to the edge of hysteria. We might say that male hysteria is the subject of this book. It takes form in Roob's anti-social behaviour and in Paul's wild drive toward suicide. Male trouble here is a result of poor fathering. The book's penultimate chapter takes the two boys to the edge of Niagara's precipitous falls where Roob succeeds in saving his friend Paul from plunging to his death. The location with its torrent of a river nicely captures the emotional swirl that goes on inside the two adolescents. But the book does not end with this heroic rescue. In the final chapter, Roob's sexual fantasy, one he has indulged in throughout the book, proves not to be a fantasy at all. Rachel Parsons proves to be as accommodating as any full-blooded thirteen-year-old could wish for. Godfrey's vision is as sexist as it is virile.
In general, these three books present the male experience in traditional ways. Unlike girls, boys chafe at family. They seek ways to move beyond the family orbit, and they attempt to solve problems with aggression rather than with words. Males negotiate with their fists, or at least in some sort of aggressive manner. In Fast Times with Fred, even six-year-old Justin encourages Fred to beat up Beefy (85) and later he tells Fred that he would "have punched them all right in the nose" (122). Even more telling is the emergence of Woody in The O-Team as a fighter, a figure his friends associate with Rambo. Despite his intellectual mode of discourse and pursuits to match, Woody knows the importance of venting aggression; his preference is for "primal-scream therapy" (113). As a side issue here, we might note that Woody is also the most inventive entrepreneur of the group, a budding capitalist who understands the ways of the market economy. Aggression well controlled can turn into profit. The other children come to respect Woody: "What a man.… Yeah. …a man of science" (167). On the final pages Woody confesses his need to belong to the group and he is prepared both to learn how to use Blitz Blades and to change the diapers on his new baby sister. The Jahns try to envisage a masculinity that is all things, independent and rational, feeling and relational, adventuresome and domestic, sensitive and strong.
Finally, however, what comes through is a vision of masculinity that continues to privilege virtues of strength and a touch of wildness. The boys in The O-Team cross domestic rules when they set up their worm farm in Max's dresser drawers; Jason and Justin in Fast Times with Fred succeed in perpetuating their fast times by convincing their parents that Fred is a good friend and not a bad influence; and both Paul and Roob in Godfrey's Don't Worry About Me, I'm Just Crazy achieve their ends through hysterical acts. Roob pushes everyone to the edge of restraint until finally his mother hysterically orders him out of the house (53). Paul plays his suicidal game of hanging over the dangerous river until he accidentally falls in. The picture of adolescents here owes something to images of youth in such films from the 1950s as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Blackboard Jungle (1955), and High School Confidential! (1958). More recent influences are in the books of S. G. Hinton and films made from her works such as Rumble Fish (1983) and The Outsiders (1983). Roob's preparation for adolescence included toys such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures, a Sega Genesis game, and a BMX bicycle. On his wall is a poster of the Rolling Stones and one of his fantasies is playing in a heavy-metal band. In other words, little has changed in the way these writers envisage masculine entry into adolescence and adulthood.
4. Children's Books and Masculinity
To generalize from these six books is dangerous, especially since their audiences differ. But they do illustrate a common desire to revision masculinity for today's young reader. Four of the six books contain, for lack of a better term, nerds who prove to be made of stronger mettle than either the reader or the other characters in the books first imagine. Just because a boy wears glasses, likes to read, or is clever at school work is no reason to devalue him. Indeed, such a boy is not necessarily weak and cowardly. In short, such a boy might prove to have all the masculine virtues patriarchy could wish for. We have seen this kind of thing before in, for example, films such as The Big Country (1958) and Superman (1978). Mild-mannered men may appear weak, but underneath they are as strong and powerful as a man's world could want.
The other two books clearly show boys interested in girls as sex objects and willing to exert their masculine authority in typically aggressive ways. Boys who have reached adolescence—Fred in Fast Times with Fred and Roob and Paul in Don't Worry About Me, I'm Just Crazy—act more openly rebellious than younger boys. Indeed, Fred serves as a role model and initiator into male behaviour for Jason and Justin, while Paul and Roob serve as wish-fulfilment models for young male readers. Neither Kropp nor Godfrey envisages a masculinity different from that of the time in which they themselves grew up. Male rebellion from adult authority is, it seems, a necessary ritual in the process of growing up.
Also necessary is what I think of as a phallic aggressiveness. Roob couches his fantasies of Rachel and himself on a desert island in a self-deprecatory and parodic tone. However, the image these fantasies project of a strong and capable male ordering the world for the passive female, his mate, is not far from the reality Roob finds (and Godfrey imagines) at the end of the book. Roob discovers that Rachel has, in fact, been interested in him for some time and that she is eager to help him with his homework. She has her own fantasies of being on a desert island with Roob, something, she admits, akin to the hokey idyll offered by the film Blue Lagoon (98; presumably the recent version with Brook Shields and Christopher Atkins made in 1980).
Perhaps because writers of books for children must make their stories accessible to young readers, they cannot confront openly the complexities of gender construction. Having said this, I hasten to add that these books do enter a cultural discourse about gender. The use in these books of phallic objects such as snakes and worms, cars, balloons, and dinosaurs indicate that a young boy needs to come to terms with all that the phallus represents: power, language, rationality, the external world, even the female. Females in these books are either absent or unthreatening. When they are present, females invariably fit in with the masculine ethos in some way. For example, Mary Rose in Jacob Jacobs Gets Up Early is as isolated as Jacob and therefore a suitable companion for him. She is smart and daring, but she does not offer competition to Jacob because of her heart problem. As so often, the female here is saved by the male, saved from boredom and from the threat of a charging moose. Pigeon, in The O-Team, fits in with the male group and the fact of her being a female is irrelevant to the plot. The same can be said for Rebecca Green in Howard's House is Haunted. When females are threatening, as in Germy Johnson's Secret Plan, the plot makes clear that the threat is an illusion; in reality the female is kind and nurturing.
The attempt in these books, and others, to present masculinity in a new and sensitive way results in highlighting what Jonathan Rutherford, in the subtitle to his 1992 book, points out are "predicaments in masculinity." Simply put, the male predicament stems from the dual attractions (and fears) of the mother and father, what we have known for decades now as the Oedipus complex and the family romance. How many stories for children deal with a young person's (often a boy's) departure from home, confrontation with adult figures who represent aspects of the mother and/or the father, negotiations with other young people, and a return to a reformed family? Even when the child remains at home, this pattern is evident. For example, in Howard's House is Haunted the main character does not leave home, although he experiences a separation from his parents because of his fears that their new house is haunted. The ghosts, however, have come to this house with Howard and his family; they are his mother and father. Howard is forced into independence when his father refuses to allow him to sleep with them anymore (42). He calls his friends to help him cope with the ghost, and when the children succeed in unmasking this mysterious stranger they discover he is a writer who has hidden himself in the house because he has nowhere else to go. The ghost is both a male and a writer nicely drawing together Howard's father and mother (she is a magazine writer) into one person. When the ghost is no longer a threat, Howard's parents ask him (aka Conrad Warbles) to stay with them. Howard now feels vindicated in his earlier fears, and at the same time he discovers that these fears are gone. Freud, in his case study of Little Hans, argues that Hans' phobia arises from his fear of his mother's absence; it is the father's duty to help the child overcome his reliance on the mother. Howard's father initiates this process of separation when he refuses to let Howard sleep in his parents' bed.
A similar removal from the regressive tug of home, domesticity, and the mother is evident in all these books. Jacob Jacobs leaves the comfort of his tent and flies the New Brunswick skies; Jason and his younger brother Justin follow their older friend Fred in his various adventures; members of the O-Team embark on a business venture that takes them at first away from home, and then back home where they discover that their best customer is Max's father; Roob and Paul in Don't Worry About Me, I'm Just Crazy take different routes, but both lead away from and then back home. Jeremy Johnson is perhaps the odd one here because his acts of rebellion lead to a final return to his parents' fold. Here the images of the basement room, the feline pet, and the feminine warmth of Aunt Pru suggest regression rather than independence. In any case, the return home brings these characters to a new relationship with their parents, one in which their parents know and accept their sons' anxieties.
5. Master Teague, the modern male, and the superego
My title refers to a nursery rhyme:
Ho! Master Teague, what is your story?
I went to the wood and killed a tory,
I went to the wood and killed another;
Was it the same or was it his brother?
I hunted him in, and I hunted him out,
Three times through the bog, about and about;
When out of a bush I saw his head,
So I fired my gun, and I shot him dead.
William and Cecil Baring-Gould, editors of The Annotated Mother Goose, have little to say about this rhyme, noting only that the word "tory" in Elizabethan England meant something akin to a knave and a highwayman (144). The inference is, I guess, that Master Teague rids the world of a blighter. But who is Master Teague and who is the "tory" and does Teague shoot the same person twice or does he shoot two people? The Annotated Mother Goose remains silent on these questions. Whatever the answers to such questions might be, one thing is certain: Teague goes to the bush to hunt someone, and when he finds him he shoots him.
What interpretations might we bring to this nursery rhyme? One possibility is a Freudian approach in which Teague seeks out the person who stands in his way to maturity; that is, the father. He must hunt him through a feminine landscape, the wood with its verdant bushes. But why must he repeat the violent act? And who questions him? More pressing might be the question: why is the voice of the questioner so nonjudgemental? Teague has perpetrated an act of violence—for whatever reason—and his interlocutor does not express disapproval. I confess the secret to this rhyme remains a mystery to me, but I want to use it as a paradigm of male aggression and the acceptance, indeed encouragement, of such aggression by social forces.
The voice that speaks to Teague in the nursery rhyme might conventionally be taken for the voice of the writer, the person who invokes the story in the first place: "Ho! Master Teague, what is your story?" This person encourages Teague to tell his story, to confess his violent acts, and then through silence tacitly approves of Teague's behaviour. If we take Teague's actions as negotiation, then we can see that the narrator does not disapprove of these negotiating tactics. Perhaps the shooting of the father, discharging one gun to rid the world of another, is simply the way things go round. We hunt the bushes for those whom we will replace.
The shooting of the father, however, is something society must manage if it wishes to replicate one generation from another. In other words, parricide must remain strictly metaphorical and imaginary. Children's books allow the child reader the luxury of parricide without the dire consequences of separation from his parents. The book, or more obviously the voice which speaks from the book, manages the imaginary parricide. This voice functions as a superego, which Freud compares to "the parental agency." The superego, he goes on to say, "often keeps the ego in strict dependence and still really treats it as the parents, or the father, once treated the child, in its early years" ("Humour" 430).
In the books I have dealt with here, the voice speaking from the text tacitly approves of behaviour that I have identified as traditionally masculine. In Fast Times with Fred, for example, the two brothers get what they want because of the younger brother Justin's aggressive behaviour: he wails and cries uncontrollably until his parents give in to his wishes. Older brother Jason reinforces this behaviour by urging his brother to turn on the tears at appropriate occasions.
Learning to get what you want through negotiation that involves both subtle and aggressive means, then, is what we pass on to our male child readers. I want to offer another example, Perry Nodelman's Same Place But Different (1993). This book offers as clear an instance of the pattern of male growth as we could wish for. In it, young Johnny Nesbit is the familiar Canadian ordinary superhero; he hates hockey and avoids the usual masculine pursuits of his peers. The plot has him travel to the land of the fairies to save the world from Strangers. Ultimately, Johnny must confront the Hunter, a figure who remains mysterious here, but who might represent the dark paternity who threatens to inhibit growth. Johnny must blow the horn of the Hunter, confront the Hunter himself, and exchange bodies with him. In the book's central scene, Johnny inhabits the Hunter's body, looks out from his eyes at his own puny body, and proceeds to eat the person who was himself. Not only does this act of self-devouring save the world, but it also results in a new Johnny, one more forceful, confident, and physical. As the book ends, Johnny can even contemplate body-checking without disgust. The male, then, must grasp the horn, blow it for all he's worth, and become the Hunter, he who can protect babies and restore order to a disordered world; he must replace the father. In order to accomplish this heroic task—blowing the horn, exchanging bodies with the Hunter—the male must learn to negotiate wilfully, we might even say manfully.
6. A Closing with Hope
Before I turn to "Works Cited," I want to add that not all books for young readers perpetuate patriarchal norms. We can conceive of a masculinity without aggression and without the necessity of authority and power. The work of Brian Doyle comes to mind here. His two books about Hubbo O'Driscoll, Easy Avenue (1988) and Covered Bridge (1990), present the reader with a male protagonist who is sensitive, willing to work, bibliophilic, athletic, and tough. The bridge in the second book nicely serves as an image of ritual space, a place that represents not only connections between past and present, the individual and the community, but also between Hubbo's childhood and his maturity. Hubbo's desire to paint the bridge and in the process to preserve it reflects both his acceptance of things past and his hope for the future. In these books, the wars men wage are past and Hubbo shows little interest in reviving memories of what his surrogate father, O'Driscoll, experienced. He also shows little interest in the fraternity of boys at Glebe Collegiate. Hubbo's interests are in creating and constructing, and what he constructs best are relationships. In Covered Bridge, Hubbo writes a long and continuous letter to his absent friend, Fleurette Featherstone Fitchell, and this letter contains the information, the stories, that he relates to us as well. In short, Hubbo's writing creates a community in which questions of authority and dominance have no place. This is as it should be.
My thanks to Dr. Donna Batycki who has not only taught me much about masculinity and femininity, but who also gave me the idea for this essay.
C HILDREN ' S B OOKS :
Baring-Gould, William S. and Cecil Baring-Gould. The Annotated Mother Goose. New York: New American Library, 1967.
Bayliss, Maureen. Howard's House is Haunted. Richmond Hill: Scholastic, 1993.
Bilson, Geoffrey. Hockeybat Harris. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 1984.
Doyle, Brian. Easy Avenue. Toronto/Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1988.
———. Covered Bridge. Toronto/Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1990.
Godfrey, Martyn. Don't Worry About Me, I'm Just Crazy. Toronto: Stoddart, 1992.
Jahns, Duanne and Darcy. The O-Team. Toronto: Stoddart, 1992.
Kropp, Paul. Fast Times with Fred. Richmond Hill: Scholastic, 1990.
Lohans, Alison. Germy Johnson's Secret Plan. Richmond Hill: Scholastic, 1992.
Nodelman, Perry. The Same Place But Different. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1993.
Schemenauer, Elma. Jacob Jacobs Gets Up Early. Halifax: Nimbus, 1991.
Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book about Men. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990.
Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Dell, 1966 (1960).
Freud, Sigmund. "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy ('Little Hans')." Case Histories 1, Harmondsworth, England: Pelican, 1983 (1909): 167-305.
———. "Humour." Art and Literature, Harmondsworth, England: Pelican, 1985 (1927): 427-433.
McGillis, Roderick. "Where is here? Canadian children's literature," CCL 52 (1988): 6-13.
Millman, Dan. Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior. Tiburon, CA: H. J. Kramer Inc., 1991.
Mitchell, Claudia, and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh. "Mapping This Dark Country: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Young Adult Literature," CCL 72 (1993): 6-23.
Moore, Robert and Douglas Gillette. The Warrior Within: Accessing the Knight in the Male Psyche. New York: Avon, 1992.
Rutherford, Jonathan. Men's Silences: Predicaments in Masculinity. London/New York: Routledge, 1992.
Seidler, Victor J., ed. Men, Sex & Relationships: Writings from Achilles Heel. London/New York: Routledge, 1992.
Smith, Paul. Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1993.
Stearns, Peter N. "Men, Boys and Anger in American Society, 1869-1940." Manliness and Morality: Middle-Class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800-1940, ed. J. A. Mangan and James Walvin. New York: St. Martin's P, 1987: 75-91.
Warner, Marina. Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time. London: Vintage, 1994.
Joan Marshall (review date 6 June 2003)
SOURCE: Marshall, Joan. Review of Tag Team, Street Scene, Scarface, My Broken Family, and Hitting the Road. CM: Canadian Review of Materials 9, no. 20 (6 June 2003), <http://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/>.
Tranh looked around at the fog, but he was thinking of the past. He saw water over his head. He saw the knife coming down and the water over his head, clear and green, and then red with his blood.
He should have died then. But he didn't die. He came sputtering to the surface to find that the boat filled with refugees was gone. His family was gone. His life, as he knew it, was over.
Later, another boat picked him up. It brought him to another refugee camp where he began to piece together a new life.
Republished under new titles (originally published in the late 1980's and 1990's), these five high interest controlled vocabulary novels [, Tag Team, Street Scene, Scarface, My Broken Family, and Hitting the Road, ] are extremely short, emotional stories that gallop through action-packed plot lines centered around teen problems. Like all similar books, they are written to attract neophyte teen readers who need lots of immediate action in a straight narrative style, a strong, simple moral with a clear ending, and very little description.
The plot line in Hitting the Road is so unbelievable that even unsophisticated readers will be incredulous. Matt, 16, agrees to run away with Cody, 13, when he can't talk him out of leaving home. Although Matt knows of better solutions, he ignores them in order to teach Cody the hard truth of "life on the road." It's difficult to imagine a sillier reaction from an older teen. No adult or police officer looks for them either. In Scarface, Tranh learns to ski in a morning. Not only is this event unlikely to happen with a Canadian teen who is used to snow, it is even more unlikely with an immigrant teen. On the other hand, Scarface is touching because of 19-year-old Tranh's heart-rending history. The cheerful camaraderie of the black boys in Street Scene is palpable, and Dwayne's death is so sad even if it is predictable. Maddy's bitter, ironic look at divorce in My Broken Family will provoke a knowing nod from many younger teens. Jes' struggle to succeed at the school wrestling team in Tag Team is a realistic look at how difficult it is to learn a new sport and control your emotions.
The vocabulary level of these books is very low—approximately grade 3-4, but the characters are all teenagers. Although the language is occasionally striking (see excerpt for the best example), most of the sentences are short and simple to advance the plot and allow for short attention spans. Unfortunately, there are far too many copy-editing errors that should have been caught originally, let alone in a second edition. Sometimes the narrative voice slips into slang or worse yet, grammatical error. Beginning readers have enough difficulty distinguishing between voice and narration. Let's not confuse them by using terms like "a couple cans" instead of "a couple of cans" or "us new kids" or "mom and me waited" in narrative. Dialogue is another matter, and Kropp accurately portrays the black voice through the voices of Jamel and his friends.
The covers are critical for high interest books. The cover of Street Scene is exceptional and will draw older boys like a magnet. Tag Team and My Broken Family will attract a younger audience, and Scarface will appeal to Asian immigrant teens. The car buffs may be mistakenly drawn to Hitting the Road by the old car in the background.
Many beginning teen readers in Canada today are immigrants, and many of them are from very traditional cultures and families. It is disappointing that these books represent Canadian culture as brutal, bullying and full of sensational, gratuitous or racist violence. The stereotypes of the spoiled rich boy and the jeering bullying father pop up because there isn't space to develop character, but surely we could publish some high interest stories that are not violence, gang and runaway related.
If you have to buy these books to jumpstart your beginning teen readers, think of them in the same way primary teachers consider "I Can Read" books—books to read through quickly to gain confidence. How fast can you get them beyond this series and hook them on books by Carol Frechette (In the Key of Do), Louis Sachar (Holes), Ishbel Moore (Dolina May) and Mary Ann Scott (Eyewitness, and New Girl) ? Have these other books ready when your students have slurped down the "New Series Canada" and are hungry for reading with more lyrical language, complex characters and realistic plot and settings.
Recommended with reservations.
Steve Matthews (review date 1980)
SOURCE: Matthews, Steve. School Library Journal 26, no. 9 (May 1980): 76-7.
Family trauma and feeling like a predestined loser plague Danny Morrison in [Wilted, ] this novel of pubescent passage. The tightly written first chapter, where Danny gets a pair of egghead glasses, the true badge of his wilted status (the term "wilted," of course, is which the rest of the book slowly whittles away. We are treated herein to alcoholic fatherhood (well handled), sexual awakening (rather too on schedule), and peer rivalry. But this is slice of life, seemingly without any moral viewpoint. Characters here are well-developed from Danny's shiftless potsmoking sister to his best friend "the Bloop." This is a better than average effort that could have been better still had we seen more than Danny's libido developed.
GETTING EVEN (1986)
Leonore Loft (review date 1989)
SOURCE: Loft, Leonore. Canadian Children's Literature, no. 53 (1989): 61-2.
Kropp's Getting even disappoints by not realizing the potential of a promising conflict. Keith feels overshadowed by a high-profile brother whom he refers to as "God". Jane is filled with resentment against her divorced parents. The personal and interpersonal development of the two characters is well served by a point of view that alternates between them. There are a number of moving moments, but the high level of tension established at the beginning is difficult to sustain. Jane's tough language comes across as forced and the psychological transitions are not quite believable.…
JUSTIN, JAY-JAY AND THE JUVENILE DINKENT (1986)
Brenda Watson (review date March 1987)
SOURCE: Watson, Brenda. CM: A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People 15, no. 2 (March 1987), <http://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/>.
Paul Kropp has written many hi/lo novels for adolescents. [Justin, Jay-Jay and the Juvenile Dinkent ] is aimed at a younger audience and is not part of a hi/lo series. However, it uses the same fast-action, high-interest formula combined with an easy-to-read vocabulary.
Jason, a reliable ten-and-a-half-year-old, and Justin, an inquisitive six-year-old, have a new babysitter, Fred. Fred is the current project of the boys' father, a high school teacher. Against Mother's objections, Fred, an awkward-looking fellow who lives with an uncaring brother on the wrong side of the tracks, becomes the boys' regular sitter. Fred has a dilapidated truck he uses to haul manure and an enemy called "Beefy." Both the truck and Beefy become part of the madcap adventures of Justin, Jay-Jay, and Fred.
This reviewer sides with the boys' mother. Fred is an irresponsible babysitter and the escapades he and the boys have are unbelievable. The humour that might have redeemed the incredible plot is old hat and stale. The truck smells like "poo," Fred has a fake fainting spell to avoid paying at a burger joint, and Fred's big offence against Beefy was rigging a toilet to give him a "bumwash."
The characters are stereotyped and all but static, from the smart-mouthed six-year-old to the little professor older brother. Fred does not mature except to admit that he is irresponsible, and to hand the babysitting over to Jason. The issues of Fred's poverty and near homelessness are never addressed. A real affection does develop between the boys and Fred. Justin and Jason recognize the person behind the odd exterior. However, this development is negated by the inanity that accompanies it. There is better humour for children to read.
GET LOST (1987)
Jo Anna Burns Patton (review date January 1988)
SOURCE: Patton, Jo Anna Burns. CM: A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People 16, no. 1 (January 1988): 17-18.
Paul Kropp and William Bell have provided two interesting additions to Series Canada for reluctant readers [Get Lost and Metal Head ].
In Get Lost, young Sherri, anxious to know Todd better, gets an opportunity when she volunteers to baby-sit his brother Jamie. Unfortunately, Sherri does not take her job seriously enough and five-year-old Jamie disappears. The only remnant of his wanderings is his broken water pistol on the side of the highway beside the marsh. This ominous clue raises several questions: was Jamie kidnapped by some passing motorist, or did he wander into the marsh? Several lessons are learned both by Sherri about responsibilities and by Sherri's father about unfounded prejudices.
In the second story we get a fresh look at an old problem—the conflict between two different social groups in high school. Although the conflict revolves around musical tastes—metal heads preferring hard rock to the preppy's choice of music—the usual fights and "get-even" plans abound. Donnie is a metal head who finds himself caught up in the conflict when he is required to work with the high school cross-country team as penance for a past deed. It is not until he begins to accept himself as a person rather than as a member of a group that he is able to see things straight.
Both stories are easy to read, well illustrated (Heather Collins illustrates Get Lost and Leonard Arguanno illustrates Metal Head ) and fast paced. The vocabulary is simple but not childish and the lines and chapters are designed to not look overwhelming. The subject matter is timely; however, the adults, especially the ones in authority, are not very positive images. (In Get Lost the police officer was more interested in interviewing the adults than the teenagers involved with the lost child. In Metal Head the principal is more interested in suspending young Donnie than offering a more constructive punishment.)
These are both recommended reads for a collection for reluctant readers. The reading level will be appealing and the subject matter will maintain the students' interest. Paul Kropp has written over fifteen titles in Series Canada and William Bell, a high school English teacher, also wrote Crabbe.
Sue Tait and Christy Tyson (review date March-April 1988)
SOURCE: Tait, Sue, and Christy Tyson. Emergency Librarian 15 (March-April 1988): 55.
Those of us who read for fun, who find pleasure and amusement and suspense and—well, good storytelling—in the books we value, most often feel frustrated with books designed for teens who don't read well. There are a few writers out there, Daniel Cohen among them, who offer lively, interesting books at lower reading levels, but too often high-interest, low-vocabulary titles emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. Who would want to read, even when the actual decoding is not a problem, when the content is blander than the most mindless TV sitcoms? Series Canada, at least to judge by its four latest entries, proves that those who read below grade-level can now have their cake and eat it too. Each title is presented in an oversize format that includes full-color cover photographs and black and white interior illustrations. Printing is large, clear and easy to read, spacing is generous, and the price at $4.95 each is certainly right. But the really remarkable aspect of this series is that the writers are all high-quality storytellers who seem at home with a simpler style. Although they were surely written to formula, all four titles offer fast-paced excitement involving likeable, believable characters.…
Get Lost by Paul Kropp, author of Wilted and Getting Even as well as fifteen other Series Canada Titles, will date less quickly and appeal to an even broader audience. Sherri, aged fourteen, agrees to babysit five-year-old Jamie as a favor to Todd, Jamie's older brother and Sherri's latest romantic interest. It should be easy enough. Jamie and her little brother are best friends. They'll keep each other occupied. But the boys have a fight, Jamie wanders off, and it's over an hour before Sherri discovers the boy is missing. The police are sure he's been kidnapped, but Sherri can't forget the treacherous marshes near their home. There is real suspense here as well as a girl-who-takes-charge.…
NOT ONLY ME (1987) AND UNDER COVER (1987)
Nancy E. Black (review date September 1988)
SOURCE: Black, Nancy E. CM: A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People 16, no. 5 (September 1988): 171.
These "Series 2000" titles [Not Only Me and Under Cover, ] are, as always with this hi-lo series, fast paced in action and dialogue. Not Only Me and Under Cover present appealing situations with which readers will identify.
Not Only Me effectively deals with the subject of incest. After keeping "the secret" for five years, Lynn discovers that she hasn't really escaped the problem, especially when her younger sister Chrissie finally admits that she has also been sexually abused. Without being condescending in tone, the author moves the characters through the steps and the procedures of dealing with abuse, clearly indicating the agencies that take action against this serious problem. The strength of this volume is its calm tone. Because Kropp does not sensationalize the theme, the message comes through loud and clear: if this has happened to you, you're not the only one.
When Kevin's best friend Matt dies as a result of a drug overdose in Under Cover, a detective asks Kevin to go undercover at Matt's high school to track down the top dealer. In his new role, Kevin joins the right crowd and quickly makes all the necessary connections leading to the Candyman, and Kevin manages, in the end, to help the police and save his new girlfriend. Again, the author tackles this theme without a patronizing, moralizing tone—the information comes out very smoothly in action and dialogue.
Both titles include dedications to the adolescents who helped the author. This kind of contribution lends accuracy and credibility to the titles. Recommended for your paperback racks.
THE ROCK (1989)
Constance Hall (review date 1990)
SOURCE: Hall, Constance. CM: A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People 18 (May 1990), <http://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/>.
The Rock is a longer novel in which the "Beak," Brian Robinson, tells the "history" of four friends as they grew up in southern Ontario. Brian, the "brain" from an upwardly mobile family, contrasts sharply in character with his friend "the Rock," Anthony LaRoche, the natural athlete and leader whose father is struggling financially with a car wash business. The other friends include Simon Van Geet, Nikki (Rock's younger sister), and Vicious, their three-way-owned dog.
In his history, Beak recalls episodes in their friendship when Rock proved to be a hero to his friend again and again. For example, Rock rescued his "minor niner" friends from the harassment of older students in high school, and he stopped Mr. Van Geet from beating Simon after the friends damaged an old car. Problems arose when Rock did poorly in high school and began to use drugs and to associate with members of the car wash gang. Although the three friends tried, they seemed powerless to help or change Rock's downward slide.
After a confrontation between Beak and a high-on-drugs Rock at McDonald's, the feeling of impending doom spreads. With each page, the suspense builds toward a climax that changes the lives of each of the friends forever. In the prologue Brian says, "we are history, but we are a history worth telling." He is right.
Douglas H. Parker (review date 1991)
Parker, Douglas H. Canadian Children's Literature, no. 62 (1991): 87-8.
… Paul Kropp's The Rock is a story about the inevitable end of youthful friendships (another "nothing lasts forever" saga) as well as a warning to all of those who "quaff the cup of life too quickly" or, indeed, too recklessly. The story's hero, or anti-hero as it turns out, is Anthony LaRoche, or the Rock as he is affectionately called by all of his friends. The Rock is tough, lousy at school, ready to risk all for his honour, loyal to his friends, formidable with enemies, and prepared to tell the world to "sit on it" if the values of that world collide with what he regards as his or his friends' code of conduct. He is a born leader, at least for those impressed by youthful daring, strength, and courage as are his gang of three followers: his sister Nikki, and his two close friends Simon and the Beak, the novel's narrator. However, for those of us who have already read about Skateboard Shakedown [by Lesley Choyce] or numerous other children's stories which employ the ubi sunt theme, nothing is certain in life but change, and those qualities which initially endear the Rock to his friends and to the reader inevitably lead to his downfall and untimely death. Following the failure of his father's business and the success and upward mobility of Beak and his family who move away from the neighbourhood to a better part of town, the always daring and unconventional Rock joins up with a gang which was initially his enemy and ends his days hooked on various non-prescription chemicals, cocaine and crack being the two most often mentioned in the novel.
The novel is in the form of a flashback with the narrator Beak telling it after visiting the cemetery where the Rock is buried. Now more mature after having completed his first year at McGill University, he can capture in his story both the appeal that Rock had for all of those with whom he came in contact as well the naïvete and carefree recklessness of youth who regard themselves as immortal, invincible, and all too certain of the rightness of their actions. This novel about a youthful Bussy D'Ambois would be a good gift for children whose parents want them to recognize the dangers of their carefree actions and of drugs but who are reluctant to get on their kids' case for fear of alienating them. And as an added bonus, it is also a well-written story.
WE BOTH HAVE SCARS (1990)
Celeste A. Van Vloten (review date 1992)
SOURCE: Van Vloten, Celeste A. "Good Reads for the Reluctant." Canadian Children's Literature, no. 66 (1992): 90-1.
The books in Collier Macmillan Canada's Series 2000 are aimed at the "reluctant reader," children at the high school level who have not yet discovered there is more between the covers of a book than a bunch of words. Paul Kropp's We Both Have Scars and John Ibbitson's The Big Story two recent titles in the series, both quickly prove themselves to be more than just words. Kropp's work, however, is the more memorable effort.
We Both Have Scars is the story of a teenage boy who, having recently immigrated to Canada from Cambodia, is the object of racist fellow students. He finds himself a member of the school's "breakfast club," a group of students whose social transgressions land them in morning detention. There, he is paired with his greatest enemy. The rest of the book traces the steps towards the mutual understanding the two boys ultimately achieve. What makes the book memorable is its communication of the pain of its main character, for, as Dinh says, "I have seen death and horror and betrayal. I am not a child.…" Yet he is in a child's body, in a child's environment, and is the victim of childish taunts and pranks. The book juxtaposes Dinh's situation with that of Dinh's enemy, who is also a victim, but the victim of over-ambitious and uncaring parents; Dinh learns that even rich white boys have personal sufferings. Hence both boys have scars.
Ibbitson's The Big Story is cast in a lighter vein than Kropp's as it depicts a rather happy-go-lucky seventeen-year-old with the ambition to be a newspaper reporter. Andy is hired by the local rag as part-time copy person, and gets himself into trouble with both the newspaper, the town's major employer, and his father when he tries to scoop a big story on the source of the pollution of the local river. In this fast-paced story Andy tries to unravel the truth and cope with the attitudes that develop around him when jobs and a way of life are threatened. In the end his idealism becomes infused with practicality, but his optimism and enthusiasm remain undiminished.
Both books are good reads. Using first-person narration, each deals with individual problems and large issues; neither moralizes or patronizes the reader. In attempting to resolve the controversy inherent to the story neither book forsakes the believable for the realm of fantasy: the happy endings are prosaic. Dinh is still poor, but he is able to give as good as he gets. Andy gets his job back, but he is not the town hero, nor does he win the girl. Both books are in the typical Series 2000 format with excellent black and white drawings. The bold type and double spacing make them an easy read—even for reluctant readers.
MOONKID AND LIBERTY (1991)
Connie Tyrrell (review date April 1990)
SOURCE: Tyrrell, Connie. School Library Journal 36, no. 4 (April 1990): 142.
Gr 8-11—Libby McNaughton, 16, longs to be normal, but with an aging hippie for a father and a gifted brother, Ian (nicknamed "Moonkid"), who's convinced he's an alien, trying to fit in with the crowd at a new high school is difficult at best. The story progresses by means of chapters that alternate between the siblings' viewpoints. Libby's efforts to belong frequently are humorous, and often poignant. Ian, the brunt of bullies at school, plans a revenge that makes him face his humanity. When their father's left-wing bookstore is trashed and he is jailed for selling pornography, specifically an underground magazine that is enthusiastic about gay sex, Libby's chances for a "normal" teenage life seem even more remote. In the midst of this, their mother surfaces in California after five years of "finding herself." In her business suit and Gucci shoes, and driving a Mercedes, she offers a far different lifestyle. Libby changes from an aspiring airhead; she is able to live up to her name of Liberty, accept herself and her family, and celebrate individual differences. While touching on some sensitive issues, this is a humorous, yet often serious story of teenage self-acceptance and independence.
Publishers Weekly (review date 18 May 1990)
SOURCE: Publishers Weekly 237, no. 20 (18 May 1990): 85.
A hippie father or a yuppie mother—that is the choice facing the title characters [of Moonkid and Liberty ]. High schooler Libby longs for a normal life, while her younger brother, a gifted boy with the idea he is not from Earth, seems to embrace the oddness of their father. Still, even when faced with school bullies, social ostracism and poverty, the siblings discover that their decision is not simple. Told in alternating viewpoints, their day-to-day dilemmas are explored carefully and, in the end, both Libby and her brother realize that they cannot run away from their problems, no matter how appealing escape may seem. The novel doesn't break any new ground, but the problems of peer pressure and conformity are perpetually interesting.
YOU'VE SEEN ENOUGH (1991)
Dave Jenkinson (review date May 1992)
SOURCE: Jenkinson, Dave. CM: A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People 20 (May 1992): 168.
Kropp's first young adult novel [Wilted ] is back in a revised hardcover edition [You've Seen Enough ]. Fourteen-year-old Danny Morrison is concerned that his classmates will think him a "wilt," a loser, because he has to wear glasses. Danny's physical appearance, however, becomes the least of his problems. At home, his parents' deteriorating marriage finally comes apart. At school, when Danny's interest in the attractive Samantha Morgan is reciprocated, he is threatened by 200-lb. Ron Masten, who claims Samantha as his territory. Danny also meets death for the first time when Major Henry, a sympathetic and wise teacher, has a sudden heart attack.
The various threads of Danny's life come together in a climactic fight scene involving Danny and Ron. While glasses have improved Danny's vision, the recent happenings in his life have also caused him to see more clearly and less egocentrically; however, for the moment, as Samantha says, "You've seen enough."
A comparative reading of the novel's two versions shows that Kropp has both tightened the original and made changes to content detail. Most modifications simply reflect new teen symbols: references to stereos are replaced with CD players, and records, with tapes. Responding to shifting social values, Kropp substitutes environmentally friendly roll-on deodorant for spray, converts "Mrs." to "Ms," and no longer has a 90s Danny offer to carry Samantha's books. The repatriated novel incorporates Canadian settings and local colour with, for example, Labatts 50 replacing Coors. Kropp also introduces some changes in characterization, with the largest occurring in Danny's presentation. Wilted 's Danny was afraid of Ron, but You've Seen Enough 's is much more self-confident.
Kropp's revisions have made the novel a crisper, even better read for middle school readers.
Barbara Kraus (review date summer 1995)
SOURCE: Kraus, Barbara. "Teenage Soul Searching—A Tired Plot." Canadian Children's Literature, no. 78, (summer 1995): 74-5.
Paul Kropp's Ellen/Eléna/Luna targets eleven-tofifteen-year-old readers and introduces them to the two alternate identities that Ellen Bertrand, the sixteen-year-old protagonist, has invented to supplement her purportedly boring everyday life. That her life is boring, however, is quickly revealed to be a self-induced verdict—not an uncommon phenomenon in teenagers. It is, furthermore, not uncommon for teenagers to temporarily reinvent who they are or, rather, who they think they would like to be. With the help of her best friend Janey, who is editor-in-chief of a city-wide student newspaper, Ellen places an ad in the personals section, inviting responses from "good-looking, creative, and definitely not boring" (29) guys, the ostensible reason being that Janey wants a research article on this type of contact.
The originality of Kropp's story lies in the fact that Ellen can not only dream about who she would like to be but also actually transform herself into new characters in keeping with the type of responses she receives to the ad. However, the tension between Ellen's life and Ellen's perception of herself, both woven into the first-person narrative, falls short of being convincing. The dialogues are often stilted and supported by too many comments introduced, it would seem, to close the gap between the sparsity of what teenagers vocalize and what they are actually thinking: "'You did, Ellen.' Janey's voice sounded like she thought I was an early victim of Alzheimer's" (18). Ellen suggests, for instance, that she was "starting to enjoy being Luna more than [she] ever liked being plain Ellen Bertrand" (71). The commentaries surrounding her dialogue, however, suggest that she is less than comfortable: "I felt this was one of those conversations where I was digging myself in with my own shovel" (72). These vacillations are no doubt real but the emphasis they are given in the narrative stands in juxtaposition with the character we are repeatedly told is boring and unimaginative. Conversely, when Ellen discovers at a party that her father was once the "king of the Screaming Poets" (83), her reaction is subdued.
Having spent an evening in the punk rocker scene as Luna, Ellen responds to a second ad and becomes Eléna, "Somebody artsy … somebody with flair and style and, uh—panache" (104). Once again, the discrepancies between Eléna's actions and Ellen's thoughts are larger than life and difficult to follow. The story culminates with the moral implication that Ellen must confess her pretences to all she has involved in her fabrications. But the fact that her first date, her father, her grandmother, and her best friend all converge at a gala event that her second date has asked her to, in order to bring about her "confession" is heavy-handed at best. A further irritant which adds to the confusion in the narrative is the allusion to places in and around Toronto that only a native of Toronto could interpret in terms of the social implications they are evidently meant to project.
Kropp's story embraces many levels of duality. On the surface, there are the various roles that Ellen plays. These in turn are embedded in their respective narrative voices which serve to reflect the inner conflicts of the protagonist. It seems, however, that these literary devices have been extrapolated at the expense of clarity, which may not be particularly helpful to the age group the book is trying to reach.
SKI STOOGES (1993)
Roy Doiron (review date May 1992)
SOURCE: Doiron, Roy. CM: A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People 20, no. 3 (May 1992): 152.
With many of the same story elements as The Three Stooges, [Ski Stooges, ] this novel for young readers, is built on slapstick humour, situation comedy and exaggerated characters. An Ontario family of five arrives at their uncle's state-of-the-art chalet for a ski holiday in the company of Fred, a clumsy, awkward university student who seems to invite disaster wherever he goes.
The story centres on the misadventures of Fred and Justin and Jason, the brothers in the family. They have the usual tumbles on the ski slopes, hair-raising rides on snowmobiles, and attempts to impress a girl. Well-known character types are drawn, with children being "cool" and "with it" while the adults are "old-fashioned" and fail to understand their children.
We see little growth in the characters, with most emphasis on moving the predictable plot forward. The one original element is the talking computer, who controls the environment of the ski chalet. This "character" never really reached full potential in the story, being left out of many situations where it could have added greatly to the comedy.
The roles of the father and mother portrayed in the family and the ski-off between the two males, who fight it out over the affections of the young female ski instructor, leave the reader with a sense that many out-of-date stereotypical situations are being reinforced in this novel. Some readers may even object when the computer tells the boys that to succeed in romance they need to be caring, to have confidence and to take control. There is no explanation why the goofy and oddball character Fred is even in this family, and his personality fluctuates between complete idiot and fearless hero.
Young readers will enjoy the antics on the ski slopes and may see Fred as a likeable, bungling fool. They are unlikely to find this story lasting or anything more than a very light escape.
Patricia Good (review date winter 1995)
SOURCE: Good, Patricia. "Superheroes Saved by Humor." Canadian Children's Literature, no. 80 (winter 1995): 82-4.
Dialogue fresh from the halls of junior high, fast moving action, pervasive humour, and lively characters, all contribute to the entertainment value of these books [including Ski Stooges, ]. In spite of these admirable qualities, these books lack subtlety in their characterization and plots. No loose ends are left untied, and any wrong-doing is overshadowed by the humour of the situations. Nonetheless, the moral lessons are there and characters who stray, if they are not punished, do see the errors of their ways.
In the [Gordon] Korman books, Douglas in The Twinkie Squad, and Jason in Losing Joe's Place, out-smart adults in outlandish ways and in the process accomplish what the adults are unable to do. Not always do plans work as expected, but these intrepid characters tackle the next-to-impossible, from rehabilitating a bunch of misfit teens to transforming an unpretentious deli into an overnight success. Much of the humour is based on exaggeration both in characterization and in implausible situations.
In Losing Joe's Place, Jason and his two friends are on their own for the first time with summer jobs in Toronto. Here is a situation ripe for misadventures and humour where the boys are sometimes at the mercy of other characters: Mr. Plotnick, their mouthy and unscrupulous landlord, shouts his way through the book; Jessica, the romantic interest, fast-talks Jason into doing her summer school home-ec. assignments and who also has perfect aim with a brass knuckles keychain; and the incredible and unexpected house guest, oversized Rootbeer Racinette, who changes hobbies like dirty socks and who endures super-human physical punishment in order to put food on the table when money becomes scarce. The humour keeps readers turning pages, but the unreality of the characters and their zany exploits does tend to wear thin by the end of the book.
The Twinkie Squad shares the same shortcomings. A popular, yet worn theme has the wealthy and spoiled protagonist, Douglas, enrolled in public school by despairing parents after he has been expelled from numerous private schools. His snobbish attitude promptly gets him into trouble again and he is placed in a special self-help group of other misfits known disparagingly by the rest of the school as "Twinkies." Unfazed by the dubious reputation of this motley crew, he soon becomes the centre of a series of giddy antics. The principal and teachers are beset with gerbils running free in the halls, a terrible stink coming from within the walls, and a play which threatens to come apart at the seams and literally does when Douglas' clown suit explodes. All of these episodes are of Douglas' making with the humour here visual and earthy, just the sort of comedy in which most children delight. This book, however, suffers from just too much going on. The shifts from Douglas to Commando and his father each setting booby traps for the other are amusing, but distracting and overdone. I could not avoid seeing the similarities in these episodes to the hilarious scenes in The Pink Panther movies between Peter Sellers and his ambushing servant, Kato.
[Martyn] Godfrey's books are only slightly less obvious in the exaggeration of characters and situations, with humour surfacing in subtler ways. It's bad guys beware as Wally in Wally Strutzgummer, Super Bad Dude and Boom Boom in Just Call Me Boom Boom surprise even themselves by becoming superheroes similar to the ones that they write or fantasize about.
In these two books the plots share the same formulaic outline, with Wally and Boom Boom not really meaning to do wrong, but not always making the right decisions. Wally makes an unfortunate bet, using a dinner with his girlfriend, Carol, as the prize, never dreaming that he will lose, and he steals his brother's valuable comics twice, with the idea that he is only borrowing them. Similarly, Boom Boom breaks into a computer disk and trespasses into the deserted Wilson Mansion more out of curiosity than dishonest intent. Lurking in the background of each of these books are the thieves who switch valuable display items for ones of little value. This latter theme is one of the more obvious similarities between the two books. With a flurry of commotion and with true superhero pizzazz, Wally and Boom Boom help apprehend the crooks.
Kropp's characters in Ski Stooges, if not bigger than life like those in the Korman and Godfrey books, at least manage the heroic and make us laugh in the process. Fred, who is brought on a skiing holiday as baby sitter for Justin and Jason, is a klutz, an improbable hero with a physical appearance that would scare crows. Fun revolves around Fred's love life as the boys attempt to help him connect with Chantal, the gorgeous ski instructor. Along the way they are helped by Oscar, the computer, who gives dubious romantic advice. Much of what keeps interest active in this book is the visual and uncomplicated slapstick humour. When Jason and Justin's father tries to control a careening snowmobile, a snowman in his path is demolished. When the snow flakes settle, dad has the snowman's carrot nose in his mouth.
Korman, Godfrey, and Kropp have admirable talent for writing funny dialogue, describing absurd situations, and for creating off-the-wall characters, all with which young people can readily connect. However, these books lack open-ended spaces where questions can arise and where imagination can go to speculate on the unknown. All have happy endings where everything is explained, settled, or is confidently resolved. Nevertheless, they are lighthearted romps for youngsters who might otherwise shy away from reading.
MOONKID AND PROMETHEUS (1998)
Carolyn Phelan (review date 1 June 1998)
SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Booklist 94, nos. 19-20 (1 June 1998): 1748-49.
Gr. 6-8. In trouble again [in Moonkid and Prometheus ], Moonkid avoids his high-school principal's threatened punishment by promising to tutor a tall, middle-school boy (Prometheus, better known as Pro) in reading. Moonkid's unconventional methods annoy Pro's teacher, but pay off for Pro, who maintains his dignity by tutoring short, klutzy Moonkid in basketball. An unlikely but entirely convincing friendship develops between Moonkid, who's white, and Pro, who's black. Though disadvantaged in some ways, in other ways Pro proves himself to be more aware and adept than his tutor. Readers who remember Moonkid and Liberty (1990) will enjoy this sequel, an entertaining Canadian novel that is spiced with the awareness, observations, and wry humor of adolescence.
William C. Schadt (review date October 1998)
SOURCE: Schadt, William. School Library Journal 44, no. 10 (October 1998): 138.
Gr 6-9—[The title characters of] Moonkid and Prometheus are an unlikely pair. The former is Ian McNaughton, an academically gifted high school student who is a stereotypical nerd—extraordinarily bright, but totally lacking in athletic and social skills. He is assigned to tutor Prometheus Gibbs, an innercity middle school student with great athletic ability but poor reading and writing skills. The two become friends, and in a predictable but engaging story, help one another overcome their respective weaknesses. On a deeper level, the boys discover they have something in common: both come from single-parent families. Prometheus is far wiser at dealing with the emotional and familial issues that accompany the desertion by a parent, and he teaches Moonkid some valuable lessons. It is this aspect of the story that makes up for a fairly pat ending and gives it some needed substance. This title should appeal to young readers, particularly those who are underachievers like Prometheus. The action moves quickly, and, although fairly long, the book is easy to read. The sports content helps as well. Kropp's Moonkid and Liberty (Little, Brown, 1990) features some of the same characters.
THE COUNTESS AND ME (2002)
Dave Jenkinson (review date 15 March 2002)
SOURCE: Jenkinson, Dave. CM: Canadian Review of Materials 8, no. 14 (15 March 2002), <http://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/>. [In The Countess and Me, ] Jordan Bellemare, 13, has recently moved from Winnipeg, MB, to a new subdivision in Surrey, BC, with his single mother and eight-year-old stepsister Priscilla, aka Miss P. (for Perfect). Making friends in any new community can be tough for adolescents, but when the move occurs half way through the school year, the challenge becomes even greater because the school social groupings for that year are already well established. Surprisingly, Jordan's first new "friend" is a senior citizen, Countess von Loewen, aka Mrs. V., who lives across the street from him. One evening, while Jordan is out sneaking a cigarette, he encounters Mrs. V. struggling to bury something in her yard. Volunteering to help, Jordan learns that the object is a quartz skull that Mrs. V. believes is cursed. Because of his act of kindness, Mrs. V. hires Jordan to tend her yard and garden, and, over time, a truly caring friendship develops between the two. Feeling he can be open and vulnerable with Mrs. V., Jordan shares that "when I was little I always wanted to be a superhero …, " to which Mrs. V. replies, "You don't need super powers to be a hero … just courage." Mrs. V. shares aspects of her past with Jordan, and he learns that Mrs. V. really was a countess, her first husband, Count von Loewen, having been killed by the Nazi's during World War II. Once a very affluent woman, Mrs. V. now has but a few tangible mementoes of that wealth.
On the adolescent social front, however, even after three months at Alex Colville Junior High School, Jordan still remains very much an isolate. Then, Cullen Thurston, "the ultimate cool guy in the school," takes an interest in Jordan, that interest first manifesting itself in the demand that Jordan supply Cullen and his buddies, Nick and Ryan, with his completed homework assignments for them to copy. Rationalizing that any attention from the school's social alpha male is better than no attention, Jordan does as they demand. Trying to impress the trio further, Jordan also brags about his relationship with Mrs. V. and tells them about the skull while, at the same time, embellishing Mrs. V.'s "wealth." The content of Jordan's bragging provides the basis for an initiation rite created by Cullen. To "prove," that he is worthy of being part of this group, Jordan must steal the skull. While recognizing that he is betraying Mrs. V.'s trust, Jordan places his loyalty to her behind his need for peer acceptance.
Jordan, however, later faces a greater moral dilemma when Mrs. V.'s house is trashed during a break-in and her few remaining objects of value, including Mrs. V.'s treasured pearls, are stolen. Although Mrs. V. was not physically injured during the home invasion, she had to be hospitalized because of the emotional stress. While a guilt-ridden Jordan quickly confirms that Cullen's group was involved, Cullen engages in blackmail by pointing out that Jordan is very much implicated in the crime for it was he who provided the information about Mrs. V.'s valuables. Jordan, the would-be superhero, must ultimately deal with a moral conundrum. He can choose between keeping silent and continuing to betray a real friendship, or he can reveal the truth and then accept the many possible consequences that will flow from his doing so.
Strong characterization, a quality found in Kropp's previous half dozen YA novels, is very much present in The Countess and Me. And, as in his other works, Kropp places his protagonist in a realistic situation in which the adolescent is faced with making a tough moral choice, one which has negative consequences no matter which decision is made. Middle school readers will most certainly identify with the social milieu that Kropp has created. Teachers using reading circles in LA might want to pair THE COUNTESS AND ME with Paul Zindel's The Pigman for the two books share many themes.
Catherine Andronik (review date 1 October 2002)
SOURCE: Andronik, Catherine. Booklist 99, no. 3 (1 October 2002): 313.
[In The Countess and Me ] Jordan befriends an elderly, eccentric neighbor, Mrs. von Loewen, a countess in her younger European days, by helping her around the house. The strangest of his jobs is burying in the garden, late at night, a cursed crystal skull. Meanwhile, at middle school, Jordan's stories of the old woman attract the attention of a clique of boys on their way to juvenile delinquenthood. Jordan is offered a chance to become part of their group—at the price of betraying Mrs. von Loewen's trust. When the boys use Jordan's information to ransack the woman's home, Jordan must decide whether friendship is worth his own integrity. The novel's symbolism is rather transparent, which may be an advantage for readers just discovering layers of meaning. The themes of appraising worth and of making the right choice versus the popular choice are believably presented in terms the target audience will understand. To intrigue readers, booktalk the skull burial.
Kim Carlson (review date November 2002)
SOURCE: Carlson, Kim. School Library Journal 48, no 11 (November 2002): 172.
[In The Countess and Me, ] Jordan is walking in his new neighborhood when a shriveled old lady asks him to help her bury something in her yard. That something turns out to be a quartz skull with a curse on it and the woman is Countess von Loewen. When she hires him to help plant her backyard for the summer, their friendship blossoms. Being the new kid at school isn't easy for Jordan, and he soon falls in with the wrong crowd. Desperate to fit in, he starts bragging about working for a rich old lady and about burying the quartz skull; as part of his initiation into a new group, he must steal it. Jordan soon learns that the group has robbed and terrorized the Countess, and he must choose between his so-called friends and telling her the truth. In the end Jordan chooses the true friendship of the Countess. Told in first person, the well-paced plot will keep kids involved, and the book is not too difficult for reluctant readers.
Carver, Peter. Quill and Quire 52, no. 12 (December 1986): 220.
Lefkowitz, Gill. "A Mix of Opinion." Books in Canada 21, no. 5 (summer 1992): 39.
Additional coverage of Kropp's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 112; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 96; Literature Resource Center ; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers ; and Something about the Author, Vols. 34, 38.