Monday, September 6, 2010

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be your Class President

I am a sucker for a good title, and this one caught my eye at Barnes and Noble (who don't pay me to mention them at all. Although they should. 'Cuz I shop there. A lot. And I wouldn't say no to some free books. Or whatever.). I tracked it down at the public library and was more than rewarded for my effort. This is one of the funniest books I've ever read. Ever.

I am a long-time fan of The Daily Show -- it's one of the few things I regret about not having cable. And this book, written by Josh Lieb, an executive producer for The Daily Show, has all the earmarks of a great Daily Show episode. The humor is edgy, it pokes fun at everyone and everything, and it is merciless. Really, the whole book felt like it was channeling Jon Stewart, only through 12 year olds.

Seventh grader Oliver Watson, the dumbest kid in school, is actually a genius masterminding a worldwide empire, both legitimate and criminal, from a bunker he excavated below his family's home while they were on a trip to Hawaii. From there he orchestrates kidnappings, the overthrow of a corrupt African dictator, the love life of his English teacher, and the eighth grade student council elections. Or at least, that's what's supposed to happen. But life in 7th grade doesn't always work out quite the way one hopes.

I am a Genius may remind some people of Artemis Fowl, but without the distraction of fairies and leprechauns. However, unlike Artemis, Oliver is not a nice person. Really, really not a nice person. But he is a funny person. And being inside his head, once you recover from the initial shock, is funny, too. Much of the book is pure fantasy -- what wouldn't we have given to have a tool that could give our teachers a little electric shock every time they zinged us verbally in class? Or blow darts that our private bodyguards shoot at kids who pick on us -- darts that make those bullies suddenly flatulent in front of the whole school?

Here's my problem with this book: it's billed as a book for 12-14 year olds. That's because Oliver is 12. By this reasoning, we should be letting 8 year olds watch The Exorcist. That's a movie about an 8 year old, right? That should be okay for kids, right?

I so wanted to put a picture from The Exorcist here, but I just can't. That movie still scares the CRAP out of me.

The themes this book deals with, the satire, the relentless skewering of every junior high stereotype, is going to go right over the heads of kids who are actually in junior high. This book is deeply disrespectful of teachers, parents, basically anyone in authority. This is fine if your audience can grasp that it's satire. Otherwise, Oliver and his evil plans are just mean. There are cultural references that many kids aren't going to get, and there's a lot of crude language and mild swearing that seems not very appropriate for this age. I do think this would be fine for high school students and I highly recommend it for adults who have lived through the hell-on-earth that is junior high. It will make you laugh. A lot.

Potential distractions: Oliver likes to footnote himself quite a bit, and going back and forth from the story to the footnotes might be disruptive for less able readers. Also, Oliver writes like an adult (he's a genius, remember) so the vocabulary may be a little above some kids.

Seriously funny, but seriously not for junior high aged kids. Save this one for the 9th grade and up crowd.

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