April 19, 2007


Stuff: The Life of a Cool Demented Dude. By Jeremy Strong. HarperTeen. $15.99.

Replay. By Sharon Creech. HarperTrophy. $5.99.

      Sometimes it’s the way a story is presented, more than the story itself, that pushes a book into over-the-top success. Both Stuff and Replay – the former for teens, the latter for preteens – take familiar story lines and make them unfamiliar (and a great deal more entertaining) by presenting them exceptionally cleverly.

      Stuff is a typical broken-home, get-the-girl-of-your-dreams story: Simon, the hero (“Stuff” is his nickname), lives with his dad, whose new girlfriend is becoming irritating by her mere existence – and by moving into Simon’s home with her own daughter; and Simon has decided to break up with his girlfriend, Delfine, to pursue someone else – a gorgeous new student named Sky. Nothing special there, and nothing special in the complications that Jeremy Strong introduces, such as Delfine’s aggressive brother, who may beat Simon up if he initiates a breakup. But what pulls the book several notches above the ordinary is how Simon tells his story. First of all, he uses a lot of stories-within-the-story, all of them amusing: “My Frog Experience,” “My Running Away Story,” “A Short Note about Cuckoos.” Second and more important, Simon is a cartoonist for his school paper, and is about to get in trouble because some characters in his strip are based closely on real people at the school – portrayed less than flatteringly. From these threads emerges a graphic-novel-within-the-regular-novel called “Skysurfer,” with the idealized Sky as heroine and such characters as “La Trifle, a huge, jellified slob of a monster”; secret agents Trash and Grabbitt; Punykid and his father, Gormless; Drooling Dorkoids; and so on. Reflecting, commenting on and advancing the real-world story, “Skysurfer” appears within the narrative periodically, always bringing a breath of very fresh (and very funny) air to a story that certainly has its moments – but needs some comic-strip chaos to make it flat-out hilarious.

      Replay, originally published in 2005 and now available in paperback, also has a typical story: Leo feels like a nobody in his large family, so he imagines himself in various attention-getting roles, such as hero or tap dancer. He finally gets a chance to be the center of attention when the school decides to put on a play called “Rumpopo’s Porch,” but things don’t go quite the way Leo expects. Again, this is nothing special – just a tale of learning about yourself and fitting in. Sharon Creech elevates it above the usual, though, by arranging the whole book as a play, starting with a list of characters (“cast list”), presenting dialogue in script format, and actually including “Rumpopo’s Porch” as an appendix – artfully pulling the novel’s world and the real world closer together. The very short chapters – 38 of them in 180 pages – are structured as brief scenes, with such titles as “The Attic,” “Tapping,” “Tryouts,” “Goals,” “Agony” and “Worries.” The playlike structure means everything is in present tense: “All the way home, Leo can’t get that picture out of his mind.” “Leo is struggling through deep snow in dense woods. The bitterly cold winds howl around him, blowing snow into his face, obscuring the path.” Add to this some very humane treatment of some issues of genuine human warmth – notably the family’s reticence about one member who, after a quarrel about her “unacceptable” boyfriend, ran away – and you have a book that rises above its ordinary elements to provide a well-above-ordinary reading experience.

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