Monday, May 2, 2022

Not So Normal Norbert

Not So Normal Norbert
by James Patterson and Joey Green
Recommended Ages: 10+

Norbert lives in a dystopian future where everyone wears gray and lives in gray houses under a gray sky, and where the Loving Leader of the United State of Earth not only provides all TV programming (designed to promulgate "Truth" as he sees it) but also watches everyone through their Truth Screens. One day, in a fit of rebellion while his teacher is out of the room, Norbert stands on the teacher's desk and does a hilarious impression of Loving Leader – forgetting, of course, that He's Watching. And, it turns out, He Can't Take a Joke. Norbert is immediately arrested and exiled to a planet 1,347 light years away, called Zorquat 3.

Making the trip with him at super-duper-hyper-turbo-zippo-speed are Drew, the boy who laughed at his impression, and a girl named Sophie. It turns out they're all outcasts because they have imagination, and in Loving Leader's ideology, "imagination is insanity" and "different is dangerous." Drew is good at art, and Sophie loves music, and of course, Norbert has the soul of a comedian. When they arrive on Zorquat 3, they find a blue-skied world with green trees, majestic mountains, and a camp where differences are accepted and imagination is encouraged. To poor, brainwashed Norbert, that makes it an asylum for the dangerously insane. Worse, it also means he can't search for his missing parents, who were disappeared for having talents of their own that threatened Loving Leader. So, while Drew and Sophie embrace camp life, Norbert keeps trying to get sent back to Earth – even at the risk of being banished to a barren asteroid for refusing to participate.

As the other kids and the adults at the camp start noticing Norbert's gift of guffaws, he undergoes a terrible conflict – torn between enjoying improv comedy and wanting to prove he's not imaginative or different so he can go back to Earth and search for his parents. At the same time, he is increasingly tormented by worries and fears (that imagination again) about being imprisoned in the secretive Black Box at the edge of camp, which he visualizes being full of cosmic horrors. Also, he's convinced that a goofy kid named Sergeant Sergeant, who wears a uniform covered in medals and always seems to be spying on Norbert while fiddling with a handheld computer, is reporting his every move and, maybe, also knows where his parents are. Things come to a head when the other campers scrobble Norbert and take him to the Black Box, which turns out to be ... not what he imagined.

What happens from there is definitely spoiler territory. I'd definitely recommend this book to young readers as a fine, kid-friendly example of satire. It's loaded with funniness. It has quirky characters. And it poses some challenging questions that are perhaps uncomfortably relevant to right now – such as, What can go wrong if the government starts censoring entertainment and social media based on ideological correctness, or when it spies on its citizens through their electronic devices? What could happen in a totalitarian world where unimaginative sameness is enforced in the name of equality? What is so subversive about satire, and why is that healthy for society?

James Patterson is the author, or at least co-author, of 30 "Alex Cross" mystery-thrillers, 22 "Women's Murder Club" mysteries, 17 "Private" thrillers, 15 "Middle School" books, 14 "Michael Bennett" thrillers, nine "Maximum Ride" novels, eight "Treasure Hunters" books, seven "Dog Diaries" books, six "Daniel X" fantasy-thrillers, six "I, Funny" books, six "NYPD Red" novels, five "Witch and Wizard" novels, the "Confessions" quartet, the "Harriet Blue" quartet, the "Max Einstein" quartet, the golf-themed "Miracle" trilogy, the "House of Robots" trilogy, the "Instinct" trilogy, the "Little Geniuses" trilogy, the "Black Book Thriller" trilogy, three "Ali Cross" mystery-thrillers, two "When the Wind Blows" novels, two "Honeymoon" novels, two "Zoo" novels, two "Emmy Dockery" novels, two "Jacky Ha-Ha" books, two "Crazy House" books, two "Candies" books, two "Ruby Bozarth" books, two "Rory Yates" books, two "Out of Sight" books, two "Katt vs. Dogg" books, two "Hawk" books, a recent "Doc Savage" novel, and something on the order of 80 other books.

Despite the fact that I've seen him play himself in episodes of Castle, I frankly don't believe he exists. Intuition tells me he's more a brand name than an actual writer, especially when another author is credited; and I'm not going to list all his co-authors at this point. Joey Green, who I suspect deserves to have his name at least as big as Patterson's on the cover of this book, is a sometime National Lampoon contributing editor and founder of the Cornell Lunatic, a satirical campus paper that's still in circulation. The illustrations in this book are by Hatem Aly, also the artist for "The Unicorn Rescue Society" series.

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