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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Failure IS an Option; A Really Funny One

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Pearls Before Swine strip creator Stephan Pastis is a hilarious new title guaranteed to win big with fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dear Dumb Diary.

I read it with much amusement and delight, but thought that perhaps my own immaturity and snarkiness prevented me from qualifying as an unbiased judge of its greatness. I therefore turned to an expert on books of this type: my third grade daughter Mackenzie.

I decided Mackenzie could serve as an impartial judge due to the following qualifications:
  1. Timmy Failure is aimed at her demographic, 
  2. She's a voracious reader of this genre,
  3. She regularly discusses and swaps books with her third grade posse, and 
  4. She stole the advance review copy the day it arrived at our house before I even had the chance to open the cover.
I also felt I owed it to her after she scoured the shelves of our public library looking for Number Two in the series. I believe Mackenzie suffered intense emotional damage upon learning that the follow-up wouldn't be available for quite some time. Nonetheless, she graciously agreed to be interviewed.

Me:  So what's Timmy Failure all about?

Kenzie:  It's about this boy who's really bad in school that decides to open up a detective agency. The problem is, he's really bad at being a detective and he misses lots of obvious clues. And he owns a fifteen hundred pound polar bear named Total.

Me:  Is the polar bear real, or stuffed?

Kenzie:  It's real! (She shrugs her shoulders and lifts her hands up, palms to the ceiling  as if to say. "Duh!").

Me:  You're sure it's real?

Kenzie:  What does it matter?

Me:  Good point. So apart from this polar bear, does Timmy have any friends?

Kenzie:  He has one friend name Rollo, but Timmy thinks he's not that smart, which is crazy, because Rollo studies all the time and gets really good grades, and Timmy doesn't.

Me:  Any other friends?

Kenzie:  Well, he has an archenemy (speaking with increased enthusiasm now) and her name is Corinna Corinna, and what's funny is that at first he won't name her or even let you see her face. She has her own detective agency and Timmy thinks she's reeeeeally annoying.

Me:  Any favorite parts?

Kenzie:  I like when he tries to solve cases, because he always ignores really obvious clues. This one time a boy named Gunnar hires him to find out who ate all his candy. On Timmy's way out, he peeks in the room and sees Gabe, Gunnar's brother, his face all covered with chocolate, sitting on his bed surrounded by candy wrappers. You think he's solved the crime, but all Timmy does is write in his notebook, "Gabe: Not tidy."

Me:  Any other favorite parts?

Kenzie:  Well, I think it's funny that the librarian is really, really tough, and he has "Dewey" on a tattoo...

Me:  You mean like, the Dewey decimal system?

Kenzie:  Yeah. You don't really expect a librarian to look like that.

Me:  (picking up the book) I noticed some pretty hard words in here. Did you understand them all?

Kenzie: Yeah. If you read the book, you can tell what the words mean.

Me:  Really? All of them?

Kenzie:  Well, most of them. But you don't have to understand every word to get the story. Plus, I think that sometimes even Timmy doesn't know what the words mean. He names his detective agency Total Failure, Inc. because the polar bear's name is Total, but he doesn't even get why that's a really bad name for a company.

Me:  So who would enjoy this book?

Kenzie:  Anyone who likes funny stories. Every day I show funny parts to my friend, so she wants to borrow it next. And then her friend wants to borrow it... yeah. You might not get it back.

Me:  So is Timmy a failure?

Kenzie: Yes. Actually, no. He's not a failure. He's just clueless. Are we done yet?

# # #

There you have it: the insightful and thought provoking reflections of a third grader.

One point on which we both agree is the vocabulary. Stephan Pastis intersperses fantastic vocabulary throughout the book, purposefully heavier at times to indicate moments of importance. Check out how in the following short excerpt he combines specific vocabulary, repetition, sentence variety, and even sentence fragments, in a wonderful way:

But that greatness did not prepare me for what I would see at the Weber residence.

For today it is the scene of total devastation. All marred by the remnants of someone inhumane. Someone determined. Someone whose weapon of choice comes in packs of six, twelve, and twenty. If you are squeamish, look away.

Toilet paper. It is everywhere.

And this isn't one isolated and out-of-the-ordinary passage; this is how he writes the entire book. For that reason, I would definitely recommend this book for middle schoolers, and certainly reluctant and struggling readers. I could even see myself using several portions as mentor texts to teach sentence and paragraph structure, understatement, satire, and word choice.

So pick up a copy of Timmy Failure for yourself, or visit the official Timmy Failure site for fun extras such as wallpapers, interviews, and videos.


Susan Stephenson said...

I have this in my waiting-for-review pile. Now I think I might have to bump it higher!

Anonymous said...

This is so great! I was considering writing a review of this book myself, but after reading this I thought, "how can I top that?" so I just shared a link to your post instead! Your daughter is quite a skilled book reviewer!

Keith Schoch said...

Susan: You'll enjoy it, I think! Timmy is so clueless as to be hilarious...perhaps I see something of myself in him!

Keith Schoch said...

Katie: Thanks for the kind words. Now I'm waiting for my high schooler to give me an interview about a book I shared with her, but she's a bit less outspoken!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE this post! Hooray for poetry in the classroom anyway we can get it there!

Keith Schoch said...

Thanks, Laura. I think you meant this comment for the Poetry Post, but I'll take comments any way I can get them here!