2.11.2011

Mudshark written by Gary Paulsen, 83 pp, RL 4



I have only read one other book by Gary Paulsen in my life and, while I find that mildly embarrassing because he is a prolific, award winning author, it makes sense. Paulsen, a two time competitor in the Iditarod dog sled race, is known for his outdoor adventure/survival books like the superb Hatchet, Newbery Honor winner, being a prime example of this. Hatchet follows thirteen-year old Brian Robeson who, after a plane crash, is forced to survive in the woods with only a hatchet. This is the only other Paulsen book I've read and I adore it, especially the way Paulsen's writing style changes the longer Brian is alone in the woods. And, while I do branch out from time to time, outdoor adventure/survival books are not at the top of my to-be-read pile.  However, Gary Paulsen is a very diverse writer and very deserving of your attention. His six Mr Tucket books, which take place from 1847 to 1849, follow the fourteen-year old Francis Tucket as he travels west on the Oregon Trail with his family and is captured by Pawnees.  Over the course of the next four books and two years Francis tries to return to his family. Paulsen has a handful of other historical fiction books as well as some non-fiction, including Guts, which tells the real stories behind the Brian books, and My Life in Dog Years, which is about the amazing and unforgettable dogs that have been part of his life. And, Paulsen is also brilliant at writing very short, very funny books about (mostly) every day life. Mudhsark falls into this category, along with Lawn Boy, Lawn Boy Returns, The Boy Who Owned the School and Molly McGinty Has a Really Good Day, to name a few.

There are thirteen chapters in Mudshark and each one begins with an overhead announcement from the principal that had me cracking up and reading it out loud to the nearest set of ears. I have to share at least one of them here with you, but I first have to say that the severity of the emergencies described increases with each chapter. One of my favorites, Chapter 5, begins, "This is the principal. Would the custodian please report to the faculty restroom with a plastic shield, a hazardous waste suit and a large container of pepper spray?" The announcements also go on to address the escaped gerbil from room 206 and the continuing disappearance of the erasers. Next, we meet Mudshark, who was cool, "Not because he said he was cool or knew he was or thought it. Not because he tried or even cared. He just was." Mudshark, who's real name is Lyle Williams, got his nickname while playing Death Ball. Death Ball is a "kind of soccer mixed with football and wrestling and rugby and mudfighting, a citywide, generations-old obsession that had been banned from school property because of, according to the principal, Certain Insurance Restrictions and Prohibitions Owing to Alarming Health Risks Stemming from Inhalation and Ingestion of Copious Amounts of Mud." Lyle earned his nickname by performing a spectacular move when, apparently knocked out by a tackle, his hand snaked out of the mud and took down an opposing player. Turns out Lyle acquired these skills by being the older brother to triplet sisters who are more than a handful and often left in his care, which also make for some funny passages.

But, stealth is not the only thing that makes Mudshark who he is.  When he was five, he told his mother that he thought all the time. When she asked about what, he answered, "Fingernails grow exactly four times faster than toenails, but it's not like we need toenails because we don't even use them for scratching and did you know that an octopus doesn't even have toenails . . . It makes a man think." On top of this, Lyle has grown up in the library where his mother works reading anything and everything that crossed his path and developing his razor-sharp memory, among other things. Lyle learned to, "pay attention to every sight, smell, taste and sound every minute of every day. As with any skill, practice made him more proficient, and, over time, he'd developed a nearly photographic memory." The kids catch on to this and, whenever they have a question or problem, someone inevitably says, "Ask Mudhsark." His skill at finding lost items prompts him to open the Mudshark Detective Agency, Problems Solved and Items Found. When a parrot arrives in the library through a series of very odd events, Mudshark finds the talking bird is soon challenging his status as detective on campus.

In addition to the troubling presence of the bird and the escaped gerbil, Mudshark begins to ponder the missing erasers while helping out his classmates. There is Willamena Carson, who, after deciding to be a doctor carries a life-sized model of a skull with a removable plastic brain with her everywhere she goes so she can study during free time. But, she is always losing her brain. Then, there's Kyle Roberston, an aspiring magician who has made his father's new car disappear. Finally, there is Betty Crimper, budding scientist who likes to create creams, salves and other smelly things that might make her money someday but mostly just make bad smells throughout the school. When Mudshark eventually figures out where the missing erasers are going, he is faced with an ethical and aesthetic dilemma that requires the help of his friends, the janitor and the librarian to solve.  Being such a short book, I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but I can tell you that I was pleasantly surprised by just how funny Gary Paulsen can be and I HIGHLY suggest this book as a read-out-loud that will be both appropriate and entertaining for kids as young as 5.

Fabulous cover art by Peter Ferguson, illustrator of the wonderful Sister's Grimm series by Micheal Buckley, the engrossing Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer and he has taken over the helm for the hilarious Pals in Peril series by MT Anderson and the Hattie series by Clara Gillow Clark.

      


Below is the cover of another funny Paulsen book from my TBR pile, 
Masters of Disaster
Masters of Disaster      

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