Thursday, September 17, 2009

Heck, Johnny, Johnny

Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go
by Dale E. Basye
Recommended Ages: 9+

Milton Fauster is a good little boy, but his sister Marlo is bad seed. Because of her, he spends his last moments on earth as an unwitting accomplice to petty theft. Their standoff in the food court of the Grizzly Mall in Generica, Kansas, ends tragicomically, thanks to an unlucky combination of "the state's second-largest bear-themed marshmallow statue" and a stick of dynamite. Don't ask. The point is, before Milton has time to make peace with his maker, he and Marlo find themselves eternally darned. Darned to Heck.

Welcome to the under-18 section of the afterlife, where every aspect of childhood that makes (or made) you long to be a grown-up is boosted to the gazillionth power and prolonged endlessly. It's basically a crummy school, ruled by the Principal of Darkness, Bea "Elsa" Bubb, and her three-headed Pekingese named Cerberus. The hallways are patrolled by demons wielding giant sporks. The cafeteria serves only gross food like overcooked Brussels sprouts and undercooked liver. The Kinderscare facility is run by big, green, hairy Boogeypeople, and the classes include ethics (taught by Richard Nixon), home ec (with Lizzie Borden), and physical education (with Blackbeard the pirate). It's a place where time is meaningless, and the kids are stuck there until the end of time or until they turn 18 - whichever comes first.

Naturally, Milton and Marlo begin to plan their escape. It will be tricky. Parts of it will involve a pet ferret who isn't all that he seems, a fat kid named Virgil, a dog-headed god, and a tunnel that drains all the sewers in the real world. You might want to take notes. There can't be very many holes in the security system of Purgatory and Limbo.

It's a (heh, heh) spirited romp through the afterlife, full of impish humor and under-the-potty gross-outitude. There's even a bit of redemptive love in it. But if you find that the end seems not quite finished, fear not. The sequel, titled Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck, has already come out. Who knows? The series might go on... eternally...

Johnny Tremain
by Esther Forbes
Recommended Ages: 10+

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Paul Revere and the World He Lived In revisited that world in this book, which won the Newbery Medal in 1944. It views the early stages of America's struggle for independence from the British Empire through the eyes of a young silversmith's apprentice.

Jonathan Lyte Tremain is his full name. The "Lyte" bit means that he is related to one of Boston's richest, most prominent Tory families; that is to say, pro-England. The Lytes aren't particularly pro-Johnny, however. When everything goes bruisingly, heartbreakingly wrong for Johnny, he crawls to the Lytes for help and gets kicked in the face for it. To be more precise, he gets arrested and tried for a crime he didn't commit.

This sort of treatment is bound to make a Whig out of Johnny; that is to say, pro-independence. He falls in with a group of dreamers and plotters who are waiting for a chance to light the fuse under an increasingly unstable colony. Tensions build as King George's heavyhanded policies drive the city of Boston closer to open revolt. Milestone events from the Boston Tea Party to the battles of Lexington and Concord play out before us in vivid detail, revealing both the complex issues and the everyday people involved.

As Johnny grows from a cocksure, smart-mouthed apprentice to a brave, self-possessed young patriot, the reader will grow to love him. One shares his likes and hates, his hopes and dreads, his agony and crushing despair. One trembles as Johnny flirts with danger, sighs as he flirts with pretty Cilla, and marvels with him at the real, earthy, imperfect, yet heroic men who spurred on our nation's first steps toward independence.

This book inspired a 1957 Disney film that you may want to see, if you haven't done so already. It's been a while since either America's film industry or its schools bore such a clear and positive witness to our nation's early history. Esther Forbes Hoskins also wrote a classic novel on the New England witch trials, titled A Mirror for Witches.

Only You Can Save Mankind
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 8+

In an introduction to the first book of his Johnny Maxwell trilogy, Discworld author Terry Pratchett apologizes for having written the book during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. This may help to explain the primitive state of computer games, corded telephones, and the slang bantered around by British schoolkids in this book. It isn't strange to me; I lived through those years. All this could have happened to me, if I had been a mild, miserable, yet highly imaginative English lad named Johnny Maxwell.

Only You Can Save Mankind is the title of the latest computer game pirated by Johnny's fat hacker pal Wobbler. It's only a step or so beyond Space Invaders (Remember? Anybody?), where the player has to blow up alien spaceships from one-seater fighters to the huge mothership. Johnny is doing quite well at it until, just before he fires the kill-shot at the alien mothership, a message comes on his screen: WE WANT TO TALK.

There's nothing about that in the manual.

At a point in history where real-world wars were starting to look like video games, a video game has turned out to be a real war. How? Where? It's not easy to explain. Maybe not in our universe, as such. But not just in Johnny's imagination, either. In some realm of existence best described as "game space," the ScreeWee armada is just trying to get to the border of their space. If players like Johnny keep blowing up their ships, none of them will ever get there.

So now, instead of shooting at aliens, Johnny has to protect them. Now that they've surrendered to him, he owes them safe conduct to their border. But it's no picnic, when other human players keep popping up, rayguns blazing. Each of them may be a "hero with a thousand extra lives," but the ScreeWee only get to die once. Keeping that from happening is now Johnny's responsibility.

It's a lot of responsibility for a kid who ordinarily doesn't fight back. When a girl with a type-A personality - the kind of girl who wins at everything she tries - goes gunning for the ScreeWee, Johnny has a tough enemy on his hands. Or maybe a friend. But it's got to be a strange friendship, when she recalls him among his circle of friends not as the skinhead (Bigmac), or the fat one (Wobbler), or the uncool black one (Yo-less), but as the other one nobody ever notices.

He's the quintessentially English hero. He's a weird kid. Weird things happen to him, and he rolls with them. You'll enjoy this adventure in "game space," proving that video games don't need high-resolution graphics to fire the imagination. Complete with bizarre aliens, suspense, action, and the goofy patter of Johnny's misfit friends, it's a quirky fantasy that will draw young readers into its special world. Then be sure to read the sequels, Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb.

Johnny and the Dead
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 8+

Of all the people in Blackbury, U.K., who could have suddenly developed the ability to see ghosts, it would just have to be Johnny Maxwell. Next to his friends - Yo-less the uncool black kid, fat Wobbler, and a delinquent skinhead named Bigmac - he doesn't stand out in any way. He isn't strong, clever, good-looking, or full of personality. He just quietly takes what life hands him, which isn't much. Yet the weird stuff always happens to him. And what makes him weird is that he's always open to it.

So it happens that, just when the city fathers of Blackbury are planning to let a big corporation build a high-rise office building over the historic town cemetery, Johnny starts seeing dead people. Walking around like regular people. And he isn't scared one bit.

Inspired by Johnny, the ghosts go on a round-the-world spiritual bender. Meanwhile Johnny, the past master of sitting in the back of the room and doing nothing to get noticed, stands up in a public meeting and starts firing tough questions at the aldermen.

Why should the city care about those buried in its graveyard? No one really famous lies there. There's the alderman whose major accomplishment was installing a horse trough in the High Street, just in time for the town's first automobile to crash into it. There's the political activist who would have been Karl Marx if Karl Marx hadn't been Karl Marx, and whose epitaph reads "WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNIT" because there wasn't enough money to carve the final E. There's an inventor, a suffragette, an Einstein, and an escape artist who pulled off his most death-defying act "almost once," but there's no one whose name alone can save the graveyard. Johnny argues that the living folks of Blackbury need the graveyard for themselves.

It's a thought-provoking story. The ghosts are simultaneously wistful and hilarious. Johnny and his friends make a charming combination of characters with an entertaining patter between them. Though this second installment in the Johnny Maxwell trilogy isn't quite up to the level of the other two, it's a solid piece of fantasy entertainment. It even has a character whose mother would probably consider Harry Potter satanic, and it responds to that kind of judgment without becoming judgmental itself. To know Johnny Maxwell is to love him and his friends. So, though it's less spooky than you might wish, Johnny and the Dead is not to be missed.

Johnny and the Bomb
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 8+

In Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny Maxwell crossed the border between reality and "game space," where the aliens in shoot-em-up computer games are just people who want to go home in peace. In Johnny and the Dead, Johnny learned to see beyond the boundary between life and death, chatting up the dead in Blackbury's town cemetery and helping them save their home. Now, in the third installment of the Johnny Maxwell trilogy, Johnny adds a new skill: time travel.

At first, his interest in the World War II bombing of a street in his town only extends as far as a school project. Then he gets mixed up with a mad lady named Mrs. Tachyon, who has been around since his grandfather was a boy. This mysterious woman has a shopping cart, a vicious cat named Guilty, and a way of turning up suddenly and slamming into the small of one's back. She also claims to have "bags of time." Which may be nonsense, coming from someone who also says things like "Millennium hand and shrimp." But maybe there's something to it.

Johnny follows this maybe, together with his interest in the bombing of Paradise Street, back to 1941. His friends wouldn't believe him, except that he brings them along. This causes a bit of trouble, as his swastika-wearing, skinhead friend Bigmac gets mistaken for a German spy and shot at, while poor fat, wheezing Wobbler manages to erase himself from history. The worst that happens to Johnny's friends Kirsty and Yo-less is that they experience the way people treated girls and black people 1941.

But Johnny - poor, sad-sack, not-too-bright Johnny, who is constantly shutting off and experiencing vivid flights of imagination - has to change history. Or rather, he has to move himself and his friends from one leg in the "trousers of time" to another. If he doesn't, people will die who should have been saved. If he doesn't, one of his friends will never get home. If he doesn't, history will stay the same... but it will be rubbish.

In this brilliant children's novel - without doubt the best of the trilogy - Discworld author Terry Pratchett takes on a lot of misconceptions about time travel that plague popular fiction. He issues a compelling challenge, at least. But this is only one ingredient in a brew that blends strange magic, melancholy mystery, throbbing suspense, thrilling action, and a non-stop comic patter between Johnny and his friends. It's a touching, funny, exciting, mind-blowing little book dating from the mid-1990s, when I was too old to enjoy it. Now I'm young enough again, and I'm glad to have found it.

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