April 07, 2016
(+++) KNOWING YOUR AUDIENCE
Flashback Four #1: The Lincoln Project. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $16.99.
My Weirdest School #4: Mrs. Meyer Is on Fire! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $4.99.
Baseball Card Adventures #12: Willie and Me. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $5.99.
The Genius Files #5: License to Thrill. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $6.99.
Johnny Hangtime. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $5.99.
Dan Gutman thinks like a seven-year-old. And that is a very good thing, because it is the consistency of his thinking at the level of the audience for which he writes that makes his many, many books for preteens so consistently appealing (the books are officially for ages 8-12, but are written so simply as to be fine for kids as young as six or so). It is not just the books’ sensibility that hits the target again and again – it is the formulaic nature of the plots, the intricate-but-not-too-intricate stories, the strong similarities among the heroic protagonists, the completely clueless and inevitably dull parents, the entirely one-dimensional characters (protagonists included) who are defined by what they do rather than by any attempt to give them an inner life of any sort. These are books that kids in the target age range can read quickly and easily; they are styleless by intent, fast-paced by design, surface-level by plan, and entertaining by definition.
Gutman (born 1955) occasionally writes standalone books, but his style, his entire creative formula, invites churn-them-out series, and he produces those prolifically. His newest is Flashback Four, whose title obviously recalls the Fantastic Four of Marvel Comics fame and whose plot uses the time-worn time-travel trope in a manner reminiscent of the Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborne. The first Flashback Four book, The Lincoln Project, of course has to set the scene for the series, which it does in typically brisk Gutman manner. There is a mysterious billionaire, a woman named Chris Zandergoth, who is obsessed with photographs and happens to have at hand technology that makes time travel possible. So she recruits four 12-year-old kids (why should this make any sense?) to travel through time and get photos, including, in the first book, one of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. Gutman is honest enough with himself and his readers to point out that “it shouldn’t be that difficult” to keep track of which of the four kids is which, and of course it isn’t: there are two girls and two boys; one boy is African-American; one girl comes from an upper-crust family and one does not but is “bookish” and “serious.” No need to know much more about them, and in fact there isn’t much more to know about them except that they exist to try to get as many young readers as possible involved in the story: there is someone to identify with based on your gender, your skin color, your interest or lack of it in school, your family’s wealth, and other superficial characteristics. In truth, there is no photo in existence of Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address, so the four protagonists’ journey through time has to fail – Gutman tosses in bits of history in many of his books, but keeps things real enough so they do not seem like alternative-world stories in which (in this case) there would be a photo of Lincoln speaking at Gettysburg. The point of The Lincoln Project is how the kids eventually fail, and what they learn about the Civil War and Lincoln himself during their expedition. Gutman makes up some things: for example, he places both Lincoln’s son Tad and assassin John Wilkes Booth at Gettysburg, although neither was actually there. But historical reality matters little in this book, as in others by Gutman. What counts is keeping the story fast-paced, the protagonists in trouble or one step ahead of it until the end, and the plotting arranged so that the group members develop a bond during their adventure that will stand them in good stead for the next book. On those bases, The Lincoln Project works quite well.
Gutman has also produced numerous books in the My Weird School series and its successors. He is currently up to the fourth volume of My Weirdest School, which has typically silly Jim Paillot illustrations and a typically exclamatory title: Mrs. Meyer Is on Fire! This entry has to do with learning about fire safety, which involves being taught by a representative of the local fire department who, the kids think, likes fire just a little too much. So the kids decide to investigate, and they find out something surprising about Mrs. Meyer, and that results in a for-real fire, but nobody gets hurt, and everything is just fine at the end – and the Gutman/Paillot team is on track for whatever series entry comes next. Similarly, Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventures series continues to produce reliable stories in its vein. The twelfth, originally published last year and now available in paperback, features Joe Stoshack (“Stosh”) traveling back in time to 1951 to investigate possible cheating in the National League pennant race. Yes, this is another time-travel tale, its story made possible by Stosh’s baseball cards (again, as with Flashback Four, why should this make any sense?). The highlight of this adventure is not Stosh’s investigation itself – it is no more likely to turn up previously unknown information than the kids in The Lincoln Project are to get their photo of Lincoln. What matters here, as the book’s title indicates, is Stosh’s chance to meet Willie Mays, although it is only when Stosh returns to the present that he fully understands who Mays was. This series is, of course, for dyed-in-the-wool preteen baseball fans.
Flashback Four, My Weird School and its successors, and Baseball Card Adventures are open-ended series that Gutman can keep going as long as he wishes (which means as long as kids and their parents continue buying the books). But some Gutman series do come to an end, such as The Genius Files. This five-book sequence concluded last year with License to Thrill, which is now available in paperback. It is all about twin protagonists (a boy named Coke and a girl named Pepsi, mercifully shortened to Pep much of the time) being subjected to torment after torment and mystery after mystery during an extended road trip. The family here is even dimmer than usual in Gutman’s books. The parents of Coke and Pep spend most of their time being beyond oblivious and all the way into brain-dead, although at the very end they finally say, “We thought you were just putting us on. …You know, the way teenagers do.” And this leads the twins to recite, for readers who may have forgotten, all the things they endured on the cross-country trek, during which they were “almost frozen to death, boiled in oil, pushed into a sand pit…thrown into a vat of Spam, kidnapped, blasted with loud music…swarmed by bats, abducted by aliens, sprayed with poison gas, [and] had stuff dropped on our heads.” You get the idea. So do the twins’ parents, very belatedly indeed. It is the over-the-top humor that is most attractive in this series, including its final book. Gutman uses suitably juvenile humor frequently in his work, but here there is more of it than is his custom, often couched in comments to the reader: “At this point, you’re probably starting to feel a little angry that Coke hasn’t been thrown into a volcano yet. I mean, I promised back in chapter 1 that Coke was going to get thrown into a volcano. And here we are in chapter 11, and the twins are nowhere near a volcano.” But Gutman does deliver what he promises, although not quite in the way readers likely expect, and he shows here that he is as capable of wrapping up a series as he is of extending one ad infinitum.
He is also capable, as noted, of producing occasional standalone books, such as Johnny Hangtime, originally published back in 2000. Kids or parents unsure about whether Gutman’s work is for them or their families may want to pick up the new paperback of this short book, which churns out most of the trademark Gutman elements in a quick-setting package. Johnny Thyme (real name of the title character) is a stunt double for a stereotypically stuck-up, self-important Hollywood star; Johnny’s contract forbids him ever to reveal what he does and requires him to play it so safe that he cannot even stand up to a bully because he might get hurt and thus affect film production. Johnny is in the business as a kind of tribute to his father, a great stuntman who died – supposedly – in a super-dangerous “gag” (as stunts are called here, in a nod to real movie language) at Niagara Falls. Johnny is a little older than a typical Gutman protagonist – he is 13 – but he is otherwise just as superficial as other Gutman central characters. The attraction of this book lies in the outrageous, unbelievable stunts that Johnny has to do, for money but no credit – somehow in this Hollywood, there is no rumor-mongering and there are no leaks to the media about who really does the movies’ stunts, meaning Johnny is totally anonymous and everybody thinks the films’ star does the stunts himself. Yeah, right. But, as in other Gutman books, believability is not a strong suit and does not need to be. Toward the book’s end, Johnny’s allegedly dead father suddenly turns up alive, with a preposterous story about what happened to him and a determination to prevent Johnny from doing the stunt that almost killed him (the dad, that is). Gutman then suddenly produces a twist that gets both father and son off the hook – and it gets the film’s director off his hook, too, thus making possible the proverbial happy ending. What is really interesting about Johnny Hangtime is how close a couple of scenes come to revealing, perhaps unintentionally, what Gutman’s own writing is all about. In one discussion about a planned movie, the director says to Johnny’s mom, “‘The whole movie is superfluous! …Moviegoers don’t care about the relationship between two kids. They want to see somebody fall out of a plane and land on a horse. They want to see the plane explode in a huge fireball.’” Substitute “preteen readers” for “moviegoers” and see where that takes you. Or just go a few pages forward and accept, verbatim, what the director says directly to the stuntkid: “‘The story makes no sense at all, Johnny, but it’s great!’” OK – got it. Very clearly.