I hear the sound of a hundred red correction pens being eagerly uncapped, so I sense you must want this book. What must I do to win this book, you ask. Make out with a hedgehog? What? No, Esteemed Reader! Why would you ask that? Is it because you secretly want to make out with a hedgehog and were just looking for an excuse? Well, if that’s the case, head to a petting zoo, because what happens at the petting zoo stays at the petting zoo. And when you get back—please keep the sordid details to yourself—you can enter this contest.
To be fair, it’s not me that’s giving away this book, but our old friend Joanna Volpe of the Nancy Coffee Literary Agency. To win your own rare and valuable Uncorrected Proof copy of The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless, all you have to do is leave a comment on this post that includes the phrase “You rock, Joanna Volpe!” You have until next Tuesday, April 26th to leave a comment and the winning comment, chosen by random drawing performed by a severely traumatized and emotionally fragile hedgehog, will be announced Wednesday, April 27th.
All of this, no doubt, raises many questions, such as why did I write “what happens at the petting zoo stays at the petting zoo” on a blog about books geared toward children? Also, why Wednesday? Is the Book of the Week not posted on Tuesday (except when the Ninja runs behind)? Right you are, Esteemed Reader. But there will be no Book of the Week next week. Allan Woodrow, author of The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless will be here on Thursday to face the 7 Questions and after that the blog will be quiet for a full week.
I agree, Esteemed Reader. This is an outrage! But, you see, this weekend I will be attending a children’s book conference here in Indianapolis hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and next week instead of interviewing authors and literary agents, I will be posting about my experiences at the conference. You are right to call this a rip-off, Esteemed Reader, but be assured that I will back to regular posting the week after. If you’re planning to be in Indianapolis this weekend, make sure to introduce yourself to me as I’d love to meet you and apologize in person for accusing you of harboring hedgehog lust. You can just yell out “Hey, Middle Grade Ninja!” or look for the goofy white guy wearing a name tag that reads “Rob Kent.” I look forward to meeting you.
Now then, let’s get down to business. The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless is a whole lot of fun and hilarious throughout. You’re going to laugh at least once or twice every chapter and you’ll fully enjoy yourself from beginning to end. Children are sure to love this tale of rottenness, but I suspect their parents will enjoy it equally. If “you’re going to have a good time” isn’t reason enough to read a book, I’m not sure what is.
Zachary Ruthless has big dreams of evil schemes, but he keeps being mistaken for a nice boy. I’ll give you a bit more summary in a paragraph, but first I want to share with you the opening passage from The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless:
Zachary Ruthless tightened his grip around the snake he had found lurking in the bushes below his tree fort that morning. No one was watching him. Perfect. He slipped the snake into Mrs. Snyder’s mailbox.
“Bwa-ha-ha!” he cackled. Zachary knew every self-respecting rotten evildoer needs a gleeful, evil cackle. But although he practiced almost every day, his cackle needed work. It sounded like a hyena with the hiccups.
How great an opening is that? I’m curious to know how many times Alan Woodrow rewrote it to get it pitch perfect. It hooks the reader right away because we want to know what happens when Mrs. Snyder opens that mailbox, but also because it establishes character right at the start. Without reading further, we know who Zachary Ruthless is and I suspect most of us like him already. I’m not sure why, but I love bad guys. Most readers do, especially when they’re sympathetic. And a bad guy who needs to work on his cackle is immediately sympathetic.
More, the opening sets the tone for the entire book and gives the reader a pretty good idea what to expect from the story ahead: a tongue-and-cheek tale about a rotten, but not unlikeable ten-year-old boy and the mischief he is about to get up to. It’s not a serious opening and the book isn’t so very serious. It just wants to show the reader a good time, and this it accomplishes in spades. In this way, The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless reminded me quite a bit of the Melvin Beederman, Superhero series by our old friend Greg Trine. In fact, I’d love to read a book in which Melvin and Zachary meet up and have an epic battle. No matter who won, I’m sure it would be very funny.
The thing about Zachary Ruthless is that no one knows he’s evil. This is because he keeps it hidden from everyone except his new henchman, Newt, and Amanda Goodbar, who is the victim of Zachary’s exploding mustard-filled inflatable fish (long story). Every time someone suspects Zachary of being evil, he blinks a lot, convincing them he must be innocent. His parents haven’t got a clue and they want to send Zachary off to Good Samaritan School, “a summer school for good boys and girls who eat their broccoli and never think rotten thoughts.”
Zachary Ruthless will have none of this. He wants to join The Society of Utterly Rotten, Beastly, and Loathsome Lawbreaking Scoundrels, or SOURBALLS. But only the most rotten and beastly scoundrel will be accepted. To get in, Zachary must do something truly rotten, so he and Newt hop on evilbadguystuff.com where they can order a laser that will turn the town into zombies and/or popcorn balls. Unfortunately, they can’t afford the laser, so they order a surprise box of rotten, that contains several items Zachary will need including hypno-glasses.
Zachary plans to hypnotize the mayor and then he can do all sorts of evil, but what if the mayor is evil himself? Dum, dum, dum! And that’s where we’ll leave the summary, but I did enjoy that Woodrow introduces to children early that though an elected official may appear nice, he could actually be evil. If this book has a theme, it’s that a book should never be judged by its cover. After all, Bernie Madoff surely seemed like a sensible financial advisor and Adolf Hitler was once a charming and commanding orator (for folks who like their racist rhetoric to be charming).
I see we’re running out of review fast and that’s all right. The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless is a short book and that’s the first of two craft points I want to discuss. A book like this one needs to be short to work. It’s only 140 pages and it’s half illustrated and has a very large font. I’ve read longer short stories and I fear you may have read longer Book of the Week reviews:)
Brevity is the soul of wit and The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless is less a story than a stand-up act. Oh, there is a story. Of course there is. We have a character with a goal, however devious, and he encounters obstacles and must overcome them, or fail to do so and arrive at a greater understanding of the nature of rotten. But the story never takes itself that seriously and therefore the reader won’t either, which is fine for a short book, but not a long one.
After all, the plot events are often gloriously ludicrous and the characters behave in ways that are usually funny rather than honestly motivated. A little of this goes a long way. Woodrow knows when to take his final bow and leave them laughing and eager for book two, which I’m sure is coming seeing as how there’s a ‘1’ on the spine of this first adventure.
The second point I want to make about craft is how effortlessly Woodrow creates set-up and pay-off gags throughout the book. Many jokes echo previous jokes, rewarding the reader for paying attention and making the gag funnier each time without every beating any one gag to death. Remember my gag about you making out with a hedgehog, which I then repeated in different variations for four paragraphs? Hopefully, you found it amusing, but I’m not going to make another hedgehog joke as that time has passed and at this point it would just be overkill. Perhaps you thought it was overkill by the second paragraph or perhaps you’re a member of the Society of Prevention of Folks Making Out with Hedgehogs, in which case you probably didn’t find it that funny at all.
My point, Esteemed Reader, is that The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless is a funny and charming book and you’re going to love it. If you would like to win a copy, be sure to leave a comment on this post that includes the phrase: “You rock Joanna Volpe!” and also be sure to come back Thursday when Allan Woodrow will be here to face the 7 Questions. I hope to see you at the conference this weekend and until then, I shall leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless:
This would be as easy as steeling candy from a baby, or even easier since it was hard to find a baby with candy to steal. They usually just had rattles and things covered in spit.
“I’ve got it!” Zachary cried out. “I’ll launch a rocket that will destroy all life on the planet.”
Newt paused. “That seems a little too evil.”
“I guess so. Besides, if all life was deystroyed, there wouldn’t be anything good to watch on TV.”
“What’s with the smell?” whispered Newt.
“All zombies smell like tuna fish. Didn’t you know that?”
“How would I know that?” asked Newt.
Zachary shrugged. “I thought everyone did.”
Snodgrass harrumphed. “Harrumph,” he said.
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.