Ok, I am just going to do this now and get it out of the way: YES - there are passing similarities between Tom Angleberger's amazing new book, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid that go well beyond their shared publisher, the excellent Amulet Books. Both are set in middle school, both are first person narratives, both contain kids who exist on the fringes (and far, outer fringes) of popularity and both contain a healthy dose of illustrations done by the young characters in the books. However, the whole story arc of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda involves introspection, observation, self-examination and, in more than one instance, forgiveness and the story wraps up in one book that has a very satisfying ending. I guarantee you that, even if Angleberger can't wrangle a few more books out of his well formed characters, The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda will find itself hugely popular among young readers and have a very long shelf life. And, I am sure that, for years to come, thanks to the instructions in the back of the book and on the website, teachers will be confiscating origami Yodas from their students.
The unifying force (no pun intended, Star Wars fans) for The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda is frequent narrator, Tommy. But, from my perspective, the star of the book is the creator and mouthpiece for the origami Yoda, the oddball, outcast Dwight. While he claims never to have seen the Star Wars movies, Dwight finds his origami Yoda, when perched atop of his finger, is a master at dispensing somewhat cryptic, yet mysteriously pertinent, advice. Tommy is desperate to get to the bottom of this phenomenon because he has a burning question to ask Yoda - if Yoda really is a wise piece of paper and not another odd expression of Dwight's oddball personality. Some of Yoda's advice is spot on, like his suggestion that Kellen splash water all over his pants after a mishap in the boys bathroom with a wet sink. This larger splash will mask the smaller, original splash that made it look like Kellen had wet his pants. However, some of Yoda's advice is off the wall, like the day when the only advice he dispenses, regardless of the question, is, "The Twist you must learn." So, Tommy decides to compile a case file and have each person who asked origami Yoda a question tell his or her story about the incident, allowing Harvey, the skeptic in the group, to add his perspective at the end of each case file. In the process, Kellen, another friend in this group of middling outcasts, adds his doodles to each case file. In addition to this, the pages of the book are printed to look like real paper, creases and all, with tiny, yet accurate sketches of tie-fighters and x-wing fighters in the lower corners. This adds to the authentic diary/journal look of the book, which I think is a major selling point for Jeff Kinney's books, and only serves to enhance the genuine voices of the characters.
Tommy's question pertains to a girl he has a crush on, as do many of the other questions asked of origami Yoda, and this kind of romantic tension is an ongoing theme in the book, albeit one that is VERY low key. Tom Angleberger walks a fine line in terms of age appropriate plot and reading level with The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda. Set in a school, the drama of the book has to come from either a boy-girl situation, a bully or possibly a mean teacher. The more books I review, the more I see the map of children's literature and what terrain can be covered in any given reading level. Real life stories, school stories especially, usually only have a couple of options when it comes to creating dramatic tension that will propel a plot, and that tension is often dictated by the reading level that the book is written at. With books written in a fantasy genre, even those at a second grade reading level, the possibilities for tension and drama and really bad bad guys is much greater. When basing a story in reality, there are certain lines you have to color inside of to keep your story real. Tom Angleberger does this so well I find it very hard to believe that this is his first book for young readers. His writing, although markedly different, is on par with the master of real life kid stories, Andrew Clements, author of one of my favorites, The School Story, among many others.
As I mentioned above, I really like the characters in The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, especially Dwight. Dwight does things like dig holes then sit in them, as Sara, his longtime neighbor and case file contributor, comments. He also lies down in inappropriate, odd places. When he wears a hideous holiday sweater vest to school, Kellen questions and goads Dwight into taking it off, but eventually apologizes when he realizes that Dwight is wearing it to impress a girl. In his investigative efforts, Tommy even probes into Dwight's backpack and personal life in an effort to prove that origami Yoda must be real because Dwight himself doesn't take Yoda's advice. He learns some interesting things about Dwight, but, in a genuinely kid-like way, he doesn't judge him or ostracize him. While other boys in the group wish Dwight wouldn't sit at their lunch table and have no problem when a new kid comes along and takes Dwight's seat, Tommy sticks up for him and maintains the status quo. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda ends where it began, at the monthly PTA sponsored McQuarrie Middle School Fun Night, music in the cafeteria, basketball in the gym, with Tommy wondering if he should ask Sara to dance. Afraid that she will reject him and his friends will laugh at him, and even more afraid that Dwight is using origami Yoda as a way to set him up for ridicule, Tommy overcomes his fears and decides to ask Sara to dance. As he is about to make his way over to her, Harvey points out that he doesn't know how to dance and will make a fool of himself even if Sara does agree to dance with him. Before Tommy can even begin to doubt himself, a piece of Yoda's advice that both he and Sara took proves very, very useful and unifying, giving this book a truly great ending. Did I mention how much I love this book?