Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book of the Week: CHARLIE JOE JACKSON'S GUIDE TO NOT READING by Tommy Greenwald

Esteemed Reader? Is it really you? We've been apart for far too long. Dry those eyes, Esteemed Reader, we are united once again! I’m so happy to see you I think I’ll give you a book. Why not this week’s book? Would you like that? You would!

Very well. All you need to do is comment on this post and include the phrase “I’m not going to read any other books ever again!” in the comments section (I'll know your fingers are crossed) for a chance to win a copy of Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading by Tommy Greenwald. And come back on Thursday to read a 7 Question Writer Interview with Tommy Greenwald himself, then come again on Saturday when we’ll have Eddie Schneider of JABberwocky here to face the 7 Questions for Literary Agents. You don’t actually have to come back those days to win the book, but you should, because it’s going to be awesome. Comment entries will be accepted on this post until Monday, July 18th, when the winning comment will be chosen by Eeney Miney Moe from a random starting point. 

Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading is well worth winning, though it’s perhaps unfortunate that our first Book of the Week after my sabbatical is Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading. So thoroughly had Charlie Joe convinced me to give up reading there were almost no future reviews. But in the end, I enjoyed Tommy Greenwald’s book so much I guess I’ll keep searching for another book that makes me laugh as hard. It’s just a fun book and if for some reason your comment isn't selected in our contest, you should buy a copy anyway:)

And if you’re a writer, not a just reader, and I know most of you Esteemed Reader’s are, you should definitely buy a copy of Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading. Most adults might say “here, at last, is a book for reluctant readers to encourage them.” That’s all well and good for parents and teachers, but you and I, Esteemed Reader, are looking to expand our market and exploit every possible reader. Charlie Joe Jackson will arm you with an understanding as to why some children so passionately dislike reading and his tips will help you to improve your own manuscripts as to snag even the most the reluctant reader (and trick them into buying the sequel, mwuhahaha).

This is how Charlie Joe Jackson greets us on page one:

If you’re reading this book, you don’t like reading.
In fact, you do whatever you can to avoid reading, and the fact that you’re holding a book in your hand right now is kind of shocking.

From here, Charlie Joe goes on to warn us of the many dangers of reading, such as it makes us fat. In a way, this book is split into two books. One book is a conversation between us and Charlie about why reading sucks and what authors might do to improve it (that’s the part you and I care most about, Esteemed Reader). The second book is the actual story, which is also fun.

Charlie’s a like-able enough guy, though he narrates his story with impeccable skill, which is odd considering how much he hates to read:) He’s a middle school boy in Eastport, who loves beetles, chocolate, and dogs. He’s innovative in a Ferris Bueller kind of way, he’s considerate of other people (especially, shock, his big sister), and he’s popular. 

It’s been a long time since I read a book about a middle school protagonist who doesn't feel alienated from the rest of the population. Charlie’s well liked and the “hottest” girl in his grade has a crush on him. It’s refreshing to sometimes get to read from the perspective of the sort of character who’s usually a jerk and/or villain in so many other books.

Greenwald takes great advantage of the fact that his protagonist is a first person narrator and this is one book I cannot imagine written any other way. Charlie Joe is written quite well in his scenes with other characters. His dialogue is natural enough and his actions appear to be genuinely motivated. But its in the asides and the chapters between the story when Charlie talks directly to the reader that Charlie’s true self shines through. For example:

The librarian, Ms. Reedy, was an old friend of mine, even though she represented everything evil.

And later:

I actually made up a song for her a couple of years ago when I first saw her in action. “Hurricane Eliza comin’ in, the hottest hurricane in town, you’ll get blown away when Hurricane Eliza’s comin’ down.” The tune I came up with is pretty catchy, but you can’t hear it, because this is a book—another problem with books by the way.

Charlie Joe’s quest is to avoid reading at all costs. His conflict is that he is required to research multiple books for a major report and presentation at school, which pretty well determines his grade. Charlie Joe wants to do well in school, but he wants to do it without reading. It’s a good set up and the story that follows is fun and very funny. Greenwald expertly navigates the politics of middle school and delivers a good story well told. You can’t ask for much more than that.

My favorite piece Charlie Joe Jackson’s advice to reading boys is: 

If you have to read, read about girls. It helps you understand them better. 

The opposite applies for the ladies, and for the LBGT community, you read whatever you want. At any rate, this idea of getting the inside track on the girls was one of my main motivators to read at Charlie Joe’s age and I think it will strike a nerve with reluctant readers. I've read Twilight and sat through at least one episode of True Blood trying to better understand Mrs. Ninja (my comprehension is a work in constant progress).

The last point I want to make about Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading is not really a point or a criticism (I don’t do those), but more an observation. In the Advanced Reader Copy I read, this sentence was included: I’m proud of my perfect record. All the kids knew about it, and were pretty d**n impressed.

In the actual published version that I’m going to give to one of you lucky Esteemed Readers, the same sentence reads: All the kids knew about it, and were mighty impressed. I know this because the first version of the sentence stayed with me after I finished the book and I checked the new copy to see if the bad word made the final cut.

Why do I bring this up? It seems kind of a jerk move seeing as how Tommy Greenwald arranged for me to get two copies of his book and agreed to be here to face the 7 Questions. Am I really so offended by the d-word? Esteemed Reader, please. 

As I said, I don’t have a point, just an observation. I like the first version of the sentence better. Mighty impressed is not the same as d**n impressed and frankly I’d be surprised if a boy of Charlie Joe’s age didn't use a few naughty words now and again. So why the change?

Well, for one thing the final book has wonderful illustrations by J.P. Coovert sure to attract younger readers who are fans of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Would the d-word cause parents and some librarians to pause before recommending the book to younger readers? It might, alas (stupid country being founded by puritans). Would it turn off some readers? In a perfect world, no, but in this one, probably.

This isn't to say middle grade writers shouldn't ever use profanity in their books. I’m headed off to see the final Harry Potter movie this weekend and I’ll be very disappointed if Mrs. Weasley doesn't yell “Get away from her, you b***h!” But that scene has a great deal of impact and is the pay off for seven books of wizard mischief. 

Whereas, Charlie Joe Jackson’s aside is not pivotal. Inserting “mighty” does not drastically alter the tone of the book or hamper the story or even change the meaning of the scene. The impact of the change is extremely minimal. If it were my book and I had to choose between a fairly innocuous change like this and potentially alienating precious readers for a debut novel, I’d make that change in a minute. Risk versus reward, man.

And that’s going to do it.  I'll leave you with some more of my favorite passages from Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading:

I’ve been head over heels for Hannah Spivero since… what’s today, Saturday? Let’s see… Wednesday… Thursday… Friday…
About seven years.

Middle-school parties are all pretty much the same; cold pizza, soggy cookies, flat soda, deafening music, a couple of kids kissing, a ton of kids pretending not to look but actually staring at the kids kissing, and the little sister of the host constantly coming in and out, supposedly to see if the chips bowl needs refilling, but really just to check out what was going on and report back to the parents that nobody had overdosed on potato chips and was projectile vomiting on the couch.

The place erupted. Chaos. Pandemonium. Anarchy. Bedlam. (Thesaurus.com—check it out.)

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. 


  1. I’m not going to read any other books ever again!

    Sounds like a fun book for a grade school/early middle school kid. I've heard that it's good. If someone who has a kid at that age enters, you should feel free to pass it onto them instead of me. My daughter is too old for this though I'm sure she would have enjoyed it in 5th grade.

  2. I interviewed Tommy over at my blog. Cool, funny guy, great writer, and a very cool book. Recommended.

  3. I've gotta get my hands on this book! It's already slipped through my fingers in one contest, and I can't let it happen again! Tommy Greenwald is the coolest, and I'm convinced my reluctant reader will gobble this book up. Okay, to be fair, my reluctant reader is on a growth spurt (he's newly 13) and isn't very picky about what he gobbles up. Anyway, after I read it three or four times, I'll pass it over to him. And by the way, after reading Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading, it's very likely that I'll run through the streets declaring:

    I’m not going to read any other books ever again!

    Thanks for the contest :)

  4. Mighty? Mighty? My son is 10 and trust me, he'd never use that word to describe ANYTHING. Even "bleep" would be better than mighty. grr

    Anyway, I really really want this book (and will buy it if I don't win it after all my attempts this week!). My oldest (the 10-yr-old) is a voracious reader, but my 2nd?? Yeah, not so much.

    Did I mention I want this book?

  5. And, um, I had a tiny error in my last post. I forgot to say this: “I’m not going to read any other books ever again!”

  6. I'm never going to read again - UNLESS it's this book :) or a book with time travel. Those are kinda fun :)

    I really can't wait to share this book with my students that really don't want to read!!!


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.