Saturday, April 28, 2007

How to Get Suspended and Influence People -- a review

I meant to get to this much earlier today, but hubby & I went out and somehow, hours and hours passed, and I'm only just now home and able to do it. Hopefully you folks will all see it anyhow, before Monday's interview of the author, Adam Selzer.



How to Get Suspended and Influence People is Adam's first novel. When I tell you that it is laugh-out-loud funny, you will doubt me. You will think I'm exaggerating or outright telling an untruth, because that is what I think when I read reviews that make such a claim. But I am kidding you not here.

The main character of How to Get Suspended is Leon Noside Harris. According to his wacky parents, his middle name is "a responsibility" -- it's "Edison" spelled backwards, and it's meant as an affront to Thomas Edison, even if he is long dead.

Things we learn early in the book:
1. Leon is in the 8th grade.
2. Leon's parents are embarrassing. His dad is a full-time accountant and part-time failed inventor. His mother has a penchant for cooking truly awful food -- on purpose -- and won't allow Leon to ride the bus to school because there are blow jobs on the bus, and she doesn't want him exposed to such a thing.
3. Leon is in the talented and gifted pool at school.
4. Leon has a huge thing for his friend Anna, but is too chicken to act on it.
5. Leon's friends in the gifted pool are quirky, good fun.

Shortly after school starts, Leon and the rest of the gifted kids in advanced studies (including Anna, a pervy kid named Dustin, a pyromaniac named Brian and his anarchist girlfriend, Edie, and James -- a French-speaking pot smoker) are assigned to make educational videos for the sixth and seventh graders. The list of possible subjects included eating disorders, drugs and alcohol, smoking and, to Leon's surprise, sex education.



Leon chooses sex ed, and, inspired by noted filmmaker Federico Fellini (and later, Salvador Dalì), decides to make an avant-garde film called La Dolce Pubert using film footage of nudes from the art world. As his knowledge of avant-garde film improves, he incorporates other elements, including some of the foods from his mother's collection of kitschy cookbooks, develops a soundtrack, and gets a friend to help him write an "appropriate" voice-over -- one that will let kids know that not only the changes to their bodies, but also masturbation, are perfectly normal. Only when the self-righteous advisor to the gifted pool, Mrs. Smollet, catches wind of it, she brands Leon a "smut peddlar" and gets the school principal to suspend him.

As I've already mentioned, this is a very funny book. But it tackles some pretty serious subjects. Not just letting kids know that the changes to their bodies and masturbation are perfectly normal, but also letting them know that everybody thinks their own parents are weird and/or embarrassing. Some are just more obviously weird and embarrassing than others, and a lot of the time, you can't figure out why your friend thinks their parents are weird (and vice versa).

A more serious issue (as I see it) is the injustice of many school systems, which are quick to take action without getting full information, and which frequently don't listen to the students they ostensibly serve. In this book, Leon is suspended summarily, without being given much of a chance to explain himself. Only when concerned adults from the community and the school intervene is he given due process.

This is directly related to the most serious issue of all, that of censorship. Leon is suspended because his film is deemed smut by one person, and is told that he won't be allowed to complete the film or show it to the younger grades. The school principal's willingness to believe a single complaining adult and to confiscate the film and suspend Leon without anything resembling a hearing parallels the many school districts who have pulled books from their libraries and even from their curriculum because one parent got their knickers in a twist, without first undertaking any sort of investigation or according due process.

Leon ends up determined to complete his film and distribute it to the masses despite the disapproval of the school, not just because he's interested in filmmaking (which it turns out he is), or in nudity (ditto), or to impress Anna (ditto again), but because he really wants the sixth and seventh graders to get the message that change is normal and things will be all right for them. And his dedication to not only his art, but also the message to the masses, is what really carries this book through to the end. The believably quirky side characters in this book help make it an over-the-top funny (and satisfying) experience.

The writers among you will love this one for its voice, its humor, its believable characters (even the eccentric ones ring true), and its "rule-breaking." I point you to Brian Farrey's blog article on the book, "The Book That Made My Brain Explode" for a thorough description of what Adam Selzer did "wrong," resulting in a book that was oh-so-right.

The poets among you will love it for the poems it includes -- stop back Monday to see what I'm talking about.

In the meantime, if you get the chance, by all means read the book.

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