The thing I first noted about this week’s book, The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable by Dan Gutman, is its dedication: To Liza Voges. For those who don't know, Lisa Voges is Dan Gutman's literary agent at Eden Street. I think it speaks volumes of the importance of having a literary agent that this book was dedicated to her. In fact, it was Liza Voges who wrote me and asked if I'd like to read her client's book. And did I ask her some questions, say about 7 of them? You know I did, Esteemed Reader, and I'll be posting her interview on Saturday, so be sure to come back for that, as well as on Thursday, when we'll have the man himself, Mr. Dan Gutman, right here at this very blog.
While I'm pointing out things about the beginning of the book, let me also share this opening quote with you:
“Do stupid stuff, and even stupider stuff will happen to you.”
--Nobody said this. But somebody should have.
I don't actually have a point to make about this quote, it just cracked me up and I wanted to share it with you. I also want to share with you the first page as it's just a bang-up opening and you know how much I love great openings that hook the reader from the start. Especially when they are followed up with an exciting and engaging novel that is very funny. Read the next paragraph and just try not to get hooked (Go ahead. I'll wait):
There were ten items on Coke McDonald’s to-do list on June 17, but JUMP OFF A CLIFF was not one of them.
CLEAN OUT MY LOCKER was on the list.
PICK UP MY YEARBOOk was on the list.
GET BIRTHDAY PRESENT FOR PEP was on the list.
PACK FOR SUMMER VACATION was on the list.
But nothing about jumping off a cliff.
And yet, oddly enough, jumping off a cliff was the one thing that Coke McDonald was actually going To Do on June 17.
Not only was he going to jump off a cliff, but first he was going to push his twin sister, Pepsi.
Now, before we get to the cliff-jumping part of the story, maybe I’d better explain something. Why would anyone in their right mind name their children Coke and Pepsi?
How sweet an opening is that? Obviously, starting a story with your characters about to jump off a cliff is exciting stuff. The only way to make it more exciting is to put a river of alligators beneath the cliff and/or bamboo spikes:)
What’s interesting here is that Gutman isn’t actually showing us his characters jumping off a cliff just yet. He will, of course, as not to would be like offering us a bowl of candy and then withdrawing it when we reached for some. But what directly follows the passage you just read is five pages of exposition. Coke and Pepsi don’t actually jump off the cliff until the last page of the second chapter.
Now don’t get me wrong. The exposition is well written and funny and combined with the opening lines, it sets the tone for the very humorous, tongue-and-cheek story that we’re about to read. One passage is so entertaining, I’m going to share it with you in a moment. And characters’ being named Coke and Pepsi McDonald does require a little explanation.
But exposition is exposition and the promise of a cliff jump is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. The pages fly by as the reader rushes to get to the bit about the cliff. Although, as I've said, these pages are by no means something the reader wouldn't enjoy without the hook, they’re certainly made better for it.
And to be fair, the first eleven pages of chapter two are catching us up on what’s happened to force the McDonald twins to jump off a cliff. Their jumping off a cliff means nothing to us until we know just a little bit about them to care that they might die and the bare minimum explanation as to why they would want to jump off a cliff. If these kids are just a couple of reckless cliff jumpers, who cares. But if they are being chased by men who want to kill them and then by a woman carrying an exploding Frisbee who gives them wing suits with which to glide off the cliff like squirrels, that’s a quite a different matter.
Chapter three has the twins gliding through the air and fortunately I recently viewed Transformers 3 and so could picture this quite clearly in my mind (there are wing suits as well as robots in Michael Bay’s cinematic triumph, worth noting for any Academy members reading this). Actually, for better or for worse, I’m betting a fair amount of readers will be thinking of Transformers 3, which is simply a matter of serendipitous release dates. But even if readers aren't thinking of the silver screen, Gutman has written a high octane opening that gives the reader enough of what they want that they’ll be satisfied for a few more chapters of plot and character until a school is burned down.
And by now, Esteemed Reader, you know just what sort of book you’re getting into. Someone is trying to kill Coke and Pepsi McDonald because, wait for it, they scored extremely well on standardized tests and have therefore been selected for a top secret government program known as The Genius Files.
After witnessing the destruction of the pentagon on September 11, 2001, Dr. Herman Warsaw has decided that the only answer to the world’s problems is to enlist the genius children across the United States and to send them on top secret missions that not even their parents can know about. But could the inventor of such a crazy scheme be, in fact, crazy himself? Dum, dum, dum! But I’ve said too much.
What alarmed me just a little was that there is a lengthy description of the events of September 11th, 2001, in Chapter 5, even going so far as to counter the popular conspiracy theory that a plane did not actually crash into the pentagon. Doesn't everyone already know all that stuff? I don’t want to spend much time on this subject as it’s just a detail of the overarching plot, but it occurred to me that it’s coming up on ten years and therefore there are children who will be reading this book who won’t remember that day, but who may have seen YouTube conspiracy videos and who will need these details spelled out for them.
There’s nothing profound here beyond the Ninja’s realization that he’s getting older, time is passing, and a new generation is scheming to rise up and replace him one day. Still, it’s a testament to Gutman’s knowing his reader that he accepts they may need to be caught up to follow the story.
Okay, back on track. The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable is a good start for what promises to be a fun and exciting series (there’s an excerpt from Book 2 at the end, but don’t read it before hand as it totally spoils Book 1). I’m looking forward to more adventures with Coke and Pepsi and I’ll bet you will too. It’s just a good set-up. What kid wouldn’t like to have a secret double life as a government operative? And Gutman is funny while he keeps the thrills coming, ensuring a good time lies ahead.
And now I have three points I want to make about craft and some lengthy passages to share and we’ll call it a review. My first point I’m going to let Gutman make for me:
Ordinarily in a story, this is where the author tells the readers what the main character—or, in this case, characters—look like. The author might on for page after page, painting a glorious word picture of Coke’s and Pep’s hair, their faces, the way they walk and talk, the way they dress, and so on.
But you know what? Who cares? Do you really care what Coke and Pep look like? Does it really matter to you. It’s boring. By the time you get to Chapter Three, you will have forgotten the description you read back in Chapter One, anyway. Coke and Pep are twelve-year-old twins, about to turn thirteen in a week. Okay? Nuff said. That’s all you need to know right now.
You really want to know what they look like? Look at the cover of this book. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Okay, now that we got that out of the way, let’s move on to the good part—the part where Coke and Pep go over the cliff.
What he said. I don’t really have anything to add.
The second thing I want to draw your attention to is that The Genius Files is a series being written for today’s kids. It’s anyone’s guess as to which books will end up being new classics and which won’t and much of it is beyond the author’s control. After all, Bridge to Terabithia is very much a story of its time and yet it remains popular today. Too many writers avoid specifically nailing their book to the time in which it is written in hopes of giving the novel longevity. Even the Ninja was advised to cut President Obama from his hopefully soon-to-be-published manuscript for this very reason.
But adult writers don’t do this. Under the Dome by Stephen King (reading it again because it ruled) makes use of Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper, whom readers twenty or thirty years from now might not know, and James Patterson opens many of his Alex Cross novels with a review of movies or books that just came out (somebody get Patterson a blog). The Genius Files never states a date, but Gutman does provide links to webpage’s for readers to verify information. How long those links will be good is anyone’s guess. But in the meantime, it’s an innovative way to further involve young readers and to make a book a part of their overall interactive media experience.
The McDonalds are on a trip across America and Gutman explains to young readers how they can go online to Google Maps and chart their journey. It’s a good idea and a way to create an interactive, multimedia experience without investing in a website or other online campaign. The Genius Files may go on to become a classic, it may not. There’s no way to know. For all we know, Harry Potter may yet fizzle out and future readers will have never heard of him. They may not, and this is truly frightening, even know who Batman is (I could never live in such a world). After all, it’s a comic book, not The Odyssey (Superman, on the other hand…). Although, for the record, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is an American epic I hope will linger after our empire has collapsed.
Gutman isn’t particularly worried what readers one hundred years from now will think about The Genius Files. He wants to hook today’s readers and he’s written a book for them. Should a classics edition be released in one hundred years with updated links, gravy, and there’s nothing preventing future generations from doing it. But Gutman isn’t sacrificing today’s readership in the hopes of being discovered after his death, which seems to be the strange strategy of a number of writers.
My third and final point is that Gutman slips in a bit of editorial now and again, but he does it without interrupting the story. No one wants to read a writer’s manifesto. We don’t really care what the writer’s political beliefs may be. We just want a good story. Writers who include entire chapters of idealogical diatribes will likely lose readers (we’re looking for fiction, not Bill Maher’s New Rules). But a writer who gives us a good story well told can get away with slipping a few quick shots in now and again, so long as he does so sparingly and without halting the narrative.
For example, the twins themselves are named Coke and Pepsi McDonald in “an ironic statement about how corporations control people’s lives.” After all, they have to be named something, and Gutman knows as well as you and I do that sooner or later we are going to have to fight back against big business to avoid being shills and slaves, so why not fan the flames of revolution just a little? Heck, as a writer of a great adventure, you've got the attention of young readers, which is what you wanted in the first place, so why not tell them a little of what you want to say? So long as you keep it in the story and pick your moments, that’s a writer’s privilege.
And having Pep respond in conversation with her father: “But wasn’t Manifest Destiny just an excuse to steal the land and kill the Indians who were living in North America long before we did?” asked Pep. “Wasn’t it almost like genocide?” doesn’t alter the tone of the story, nor does it interrupt it. There’s a line and the closer you come to crossing it, the more readers you risk alienating. Still, Gutman delivers on an exciting adventure and therefore earns a few asides. And why not provoke the thoughts of young readers with an alternate version of Manifest Destiny than the official story they may have read so long as you’re quick about it? Isn’t provoking young minds the whole point?
And that’s where we’ll leave it. Come on back on Thursday to see Dan Gutman face the 7 Questions and again on Saturday when literary agent Liza Voges will be here to do the same. As always, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite excerpts from The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable:
Chances are you’ve never fallen off a cliff. If you had, you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now. Because you would be dead.
But have you ever jumped off a high diving board? Have you ever dropped into a steep water slide or a half pipe? Have you ever been on a really high roller coaster?
Well, forget it. Falling off a cliff is nothing like any of those experiences. You still have no idea what the McDonald twins were going through.
Coke had a theory to explain grown-ups, as he did for most things in life. In his view, babies are born with a specific number of brain cells, which waste away and die off as people get older. So by the time they reach thirty—and certainly by the time they reach forty—most of their brain cells are gone. This explains why grown-ups do and say the things they do.
To back up his theory, in third grade Coke did a school research project involving music. He made a list of the greatest composers in history, from Beethoven to the Beatles. Then he tracked when they wrote their best music.
Irving Berlin wrote his first hit song—“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”—when he was just twenty-three years old. The Beatles made Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their most innovative album, when John Lennon was twenty-seven and Paul McCartney was twenty-five. Beethoven started going deaf at thirty-one. Mozart was composing minuets at age five and was dead at thirty-five.
Almost as a rule, composers created their finest work in their twenties. There was a severe drop after the age of thirty. This, to Coke, was proof that the human brain deteriorates by the time people become parents. Which explains why parents are so weird. They’re essentially operating with an empty skull filled with dead brain cells.
And if his family wanted him to drive hours out of his way to Minnesota to see another @#$%^** ball of twine, he decided, then, @#$%^**, he would drive them there. That's the kind of a man he was.
Please excuse the language. This is just what was going through Dr. McDonald's mind.
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.