Literary Celebrity Guest Reivew: Chu's Day, by Neil Gaiman and Adam Rex AND Sixth Grade Secrets by Louis Sachar, reviewed by Eissa Brent Weissman
Like many parents, I marvel at how different my two children can be. My three-year-old daughter, Karina, is cautious. My one-year-old son, Lev, is fearless. Karina is even-keeled, while Lev’s emotions are extreme. When we have broccoli, Karina eats only the leaves, and Lev eats only the stems.
It’s not surprising that their reading preferences are different too. Karina has always been game for a wide variety of books. She has rotating favorites that she “reads” to herself daily, but she’s happy to listen to anything from the library or our shelves. Lev, on the other hand, will close the cover and toddle away from anything but the five or six books he’s deemed acceptable.
So when Tanya asked me to write about a book that’s a current favorite in our house, I instantly knew I’d have to write about the one book that is loved by them both: Chu’s Day.
This story about “a little panda with a big sneeze” is by the powerhouse team of Neil Gaiman and Adam Rex. The conflict is straightforward and presented on the very first page (one reason I also read Chu’s Day to my creative writing students!): “When Chu sneezed, bad things happen.” We then launch into Chu’s day, wondering when Chu will sneeze and what chaos will result. There’s old-book-dust at the library. Will Chu sneeze?
Chu’s near-sneezes (“Aah, aaah, aaaah…No.”) made both my kids giggle the first ten or fifteen times through. The surprise has since worn off, but the novelty of saying “Aah, aaah, aaaah!” hasn’t—especially for Lev, who flips to those pages and proudly reads them himself. When Chu finally does sneeze, the result does not disappoint, especially when my husband or I pretend to blow our kids away along with the victims on the page. All throughout, Adam Rex’s impressive illustrations add charm and contain lots of little details for Karina to analyze.
The ending comes immediately after the climax (no falling action here, I point out in my classes). But what the story lacks in closure, it makes up with brevity. The abruptness of the ending is funny, and it makes the book short, which I’ll admit is one of my husband’s and my key criteria for bedtime stories. (I love books, but I also love the quiet that comes after my little stalling experts complete their nighttime routine.)
Favorite readalouds will continue to change in our house, just like my children will continue to differentiate themselves. But for now, I’m happy to share Chu’s Day with them both, again and again and again….
Sixth Grade Secrets by Louis Sachar
I am a Louis Sachar fanatic. Though I’m sure there are fans who’ve loved him longer (his first book came out 5 years before I was born), I’ve loved him a long time. When I was about eight, I’d spend hours in my basement with my best friend and my brother, acting out various sideways stories from Wayside School. When I couldn’t sleep, I’d open to the standup comedy routine at the end of Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes and read it for the thousandth (or so) time. I searched every corner of every bookstore for a copy of the elusive Johnny’s in the Basement, only to cave and finally buy it via one of those printed order forms for the author’s other books that used to be in the back of some paperbacks. When Holes brought Sachar some much-deserved recognition, I was thrilled for him, of course, but I also let out a quiet sigh. The secret was officially out.
If you’ve only ever read Holes and Small Steps, you’ve got to start reading Louis Sachar’s backlist. You are in for a treat. Choose any title—you can’t go wrong—but since the secret’s out anyway, I’ll direct you to my personal favorite: Sixth Grade Secrets.
It all begins when Laura Sibbie starts a club called Pig City, so named for the slogan on a hat she finds at a garage sale. Clubs are banned at school, so Pig City is top secret, and all of the members must give Laura an embarrassing form of “insurance” that she’ll release to the whole school if they breathe a word about the club. Sixth grader Gabriel longs to join. He is the ultimate good guy who’d be an upstanding member, especially because he secretly likes Laura. But something goes terribly wrong during his initiation—due in part to the terrible Sheila!—and Gabriel ends up forming a rival secret club, Monkey Town. What ensues is a brilliant battle of secret clubs that consumes most of the grade. It escalates in humor and intensity, with a climax that gets my emotions reeling upon every reading. (And that’s saying something, because I’ve read this book an obscene number of times.)
As a kid, I appreciated Sachar’s simple writing style, his direct sentences and heavy use of dialogue. I also loved his brand of humor. His quirky, clever way of playing with language and situations gave me something to laugh about on almost every page. I used to run into the kitchen, breathless, to share my favorite sentences with my parents. “Listen to this!” I’d say. Then, three minutes later, “Wait, this is even funnier!”
As an adult and a writer, I have even more respect for Sachar’s craft. Those simple sentences convey a masterful plot, as deep and thematic as it is silly or suspenseful. He manages casts of thirty characters without ever devolving into confusion or relying on stereotypes. And he’s funny! The situations are clever, the one-liners are witty, and the setups are so perfect that the punchlines sing, even when they come chapters later. (There’s a joke about Mr. West in Sixth Grade Secrets that is brilliant and hilarious. It’s the best joke I’ve ever encountered in a book.)
The Pig City versus Monkey Town battle of Sixth Grade Secrets seems quaint and downright cute compared to the Hunger Games and even Wimpy Kids of today. But I still love the lightness and froth of Sachar’s style, and I’d argue there’s a much-needed place for it in our society. The metaphor may be there, but it certainly won’t weigh the story down. Sixth Grade Secrets is old-fashioned realistic fiction with a healthy dose humor. And that’s just good, clean fun.
Books by Elissa Brent Weissman:
(review to come!)