Thursday, December 22, 2005

BOOKS: Me and My Little Brain

When I was younger, my favourite characters in books were resourceful, precocious, entrepreneurial kids.* This is not terribly surprising, as I was something of a resourceful, precocious, entrepreneurial kid myself. To wit:
  • The lemonade concession I ran on our front lawn for an entire weekend when I was six. I suspect that I could've sold more than the two glasses my mom bought if our farm hadn't been on a dead-end road. The experts are right: location IS everything.
  • The insect festival I planned when I was eight. It was going to be huge. Exotic bugs would be featured -- WHILE STILL ALIVE -- in elaborate terrariums that simulated their natural habitats. I would provide informative tours through the exhibit. There would be insect-themed games and novelties for the kids. People would come from miles around. Notwithstanding the fact that our road had not yet managed to become a throughway, my plans were curtailed when the only insects I could source were a Monarch butterfly and a ladybug. (There were spiders aplenty, but I don't like spiders.)
  • The Junior Mafia I was going to organize when I was around 10 or 12. I'm fuzzy on the origins of this idea, but I believe it had something to do with schoolyard retribution for wrongs committed against my younger sister. Most people would've just told off the wrong-doer, but I really felt the need to have organized power behind me to protect the family honour. If I recall correctly, my empire was going to be founded on counterfeiting. I'm not sure when I was planning to add drugs and prostitutes to the mix. Maybe junior high.
Don't even get me started on my failed attempts to set up a laboratory in an empty annex of our cow barn. (A simple Tesla coil... is that too much to hope for?) Or my home-made robots, which never quite lived up to my plans. (Probably for the best. My plans were not in the public's best interest.)

When I wasn't labouring under extremely powerful delusions, I was devouring novels about kids who took on ambitious projects and succeeded where I, perhaps, had not. These were my Dale Carnegies and my Donald Trumps.

Harriet of Harriet the Spy was, of course, my idol. Not only was she precocious and resourceful, she also lived in New York. You just can't compete with that. Harriet is still cooler than I'll ever hope to be. She was also a spy, which inspired me to start my own spy route. Problem: Harriet's world had a dense population and neat things like fire escapes and dumbwaiters. Mine had cows and hay elevators.

Another enterprising New Yorker was Claudia of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. After one too many familial slights, Claudia convinces her brother Jamie to run away from home with her. They hatch a plan, pool their resources, and camp out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the week. (If this plot sounds familiar but you know you've never read this book, it's because Wes Anderson lifted it for The Royal Tenenbaums.)

I ran away from home once. Unfortunately, my timing was bad. I left right after lunch, and since my mom never expected to see us between lunch and dinner, no one noticed I was gone. Then it started to rain. Returning home from running away without anyone ever knowing you were gone is one of the most deflating human experiences imaginable.

Despite the fact that he's a boy, I also liked Henry Reed of Henry Reed, Inc., possibly because he faced the same challenges that I did in having to hatch all his schemes from his grandparents' home in the country. Training a dog to hunt for truffles, dousing for oil... Henry was a confident big thinker, and I have a lot of respect for that.

I also adored E. Nesbit's Bastable clan, whose antics are narrated by young Oswald Bastable in novels like The Wouldbegoods. Not only are they brave, resourceful, and charming, they're also generous (to a fault). Most of their misadventures centre around their attempts to help others. Remember the Homer Simpson quote, "What this scheme needs is an even zanier scheme"? That pretty much applies to the Bastables.

So when my friend N.C., knowing of my fondness for kids' books about smart go-getters, mentioned that I must have loved The Great Brain books, my flabber was more than a little gasted. I had never even heard of this Great Brain. Such is my arrogance as it pertains to children's literature, I was half-convinced that N.C. was wrong: such books never existed. Fortunately (for me), I kept my big smartypants mouth shut until after I did some searching (if you take "did some searching" to mean "went to Amazon and typed 'Great Brain' in the search field").

The Great Brain, More Adventures of the Great Brain and Me and My Little Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (#48)
The great brain in question belongs to Tom D. Fitzgerald, who is, by his own reckoning, smarter than every kid -- and almost every grown-up -- in town. Tom's escapades are told to us by his admiring younger brother, John (which is also the author's name, so I'm assuming this is a sort of quasi-fictional memoir).

As Homer Simpson would also say, Tom is S-M-R-T. Whether he's tracking down lost kids in a mine shaft, teaching the new kid in town how to fight to prove his mettle, or getting his father and brothers un-lost during a camping trip, Tom's smartitude is matched only by his bravery.

But I suspect that, as a kid, I would have hated him. Not because he's cocky and sure of his own intelligence. So were Harriet and Claudia and Henry. As I understood it, a solid appreciation for one's own abilities was a useful thing to have; humility just slowed you down. So I would've been cool even with the fact that it's Tom who nicknames himself The Great Brain.

No, the problem with Tom is that he's tricksy. If he uses his great brain to help you out, you'd better have one hand on your wallet. Actually, you'd best just keep your hand on your wallet at all times, because Tom has what I'd call a fluid conception of the principles of ownership. Not only is he amenable to tricking you out of your material goods, he's also not above blackmail.

Harriet and Claudia and Henry would be scandalized. And the honourable Oswald would have been outraged.

Coming to The Great Brain as an adult, I was somewhat less prone to moral outrage. Fitzgerald's storytelling is wonderful, and he breathes life and colour into turn-of-the-century Salt Lake City, where the stories take place.

These stories also have heart. In the third book, Me and My Little Brain, John finds himself an only child after Tom goes to boarding school. He initially attempts to fill Tom's scheming shoes with his own not-unclever machinations, but is swiftly caught and given the smackdown by his parents. When an interloper enters John's world in the form of a diabolical four-year-old orphan, John is initially plagued by the satanic youngster, but the plot twists and turns (I'm not going to tell you how), requiring John to use his own "little brain" to save the day in an extremely satisfying resolution that actually made me a little teary.

*But I loathe precocious children in movies. Don't ask me why. I've dubbed this irrational condition McCulkin Syndrome.


Anonymous said...

All through the first half of this entry, I was waiting for the mention of The Great Brain. I can't believe you'd never read him before! They're so fun.

Anonymous said...

I love the Great Brain! But the only one I have is the Great Brain at the Academy -- a great one, but I need to get the others from the library soon -- it's been too long!

Anonymous said...

I read almost all of these books and LOVED them! I had a similar difficulty when trying to follow in Harriet's footsteps - living in the middle of a cornfield in Central Illinois is just not conducive to good spying. :)

If you like these (yes, I’m a librarian and can not help but push books!), you might like the Alvin Fernald series by Clifford B. Hicks. Alvin is sort of a super-genius inventor, and solves mysteries with his best friend, Shoey, while his younger sister interferes. I think they may all be out of print, but a library might have them still. I read these books for hours and hours, over and over, when I was a kid!

Also, the Henry Reed books sound very similar to the series about Homer Price. I’m fuzzy on the details at this late date, but I believe he also lived with his grandparents in a small town (long ago) and did wonderful things (I remember him fixing the doughnut machine, and then being overwhelmed by doughnuts). I know I have seen these in libraries still, not sure if they are in print. Another great series!

Thanks for all your reading inspiration this year!


landismom said...

I believe that we must have been separated at birth. Here's my evidence:

...Mixed Up Files... is my favorite book of all time. I bought it for my daughter while she was still in utero. By the time she was five, I had already read it to her twice.

When I was 8, I was convinced that I was going to build a radio in my basement. I think the major ingredients included a Barbie purse. I even took my 'radio' to school for show and tell.

Finally, one of my brothers and I once ran away from home together. Unfortunately, there was no train from my New Jersey hometown into Manhattan, otherwise I would surely have convinced him to cough up his allowance. As it was, we hunkered down in a ditch with all our worldly possessions until we got hungry.

Great, great post

White Trasherati said...

What a post! From the first paragraph I was thinking "Ah, the Mixed Up Files of favorite book EVER as a kid. And its what set off my NY obsession as well.
Didn't run away as a child because I had license to roam freely, but I did construct a small home out of cardboard boxes in a side yard. The elaborate plans included a sink fed from a garden hose from the main house. I even planned for windowboxes!
And Doppelganger, I actually formed a small mafia in 6th grade. We stood for truth, justice, and geeky bibliophiles and we ROCKED. Never engaged in a single fight, and won over several with our witty repartee. Good times - but I just realized to my horror that I no longer have a copy of The Mixed-Up Files - am off to the bookstore NOW as that must be remedied. Thanks for the awesome post! I think you, landismom, and I are triplets separated at birth...

Anonymous said...

I remember the horrible "Great Brain" TV show, starring Jimmy Osmond.


He was doughy and pasty and couldn't act, so it was more like "The Apprentice, Junior: The Trumpening".

But Harriet and Claudia are wonderful, as are Henry Reed and Midge Glass. Don't forget Midge!

Anonymous said...

What about The Westing Game?

Anonymous said...

I loved the Great Brain when I was younger! I went through all the books in the school library because I was so amused. I always felt bad for poor John, though, so I liked it when he was finally able to get things done.

KT said...

Oh yes, you can't forget The Westing Game! Not only is it a great mystery, and has Turtle, who fits right in with the other precocious kids you mentioned, but said precocious kid shows up all the greedy adults in the book. There was a huge waiting list for that book in our school library.

Online Degree said...

Another one that I believe deserves mention is good old "Encyclopedia Brown." I used to love reading that series as well as many of the others mentioned in this post.

Tammy said...

White Trasherati! landismom! My long-lost triplets! (Question: what do triplets refer to each other as? Twins would say, "This is my twin, SoAndSo." What would a triplet say?)

WT, I'm so jealous of your junior mafia. Where were cool kids like you when I was growing up?

Mary, I have a vague memory of reading the Homer Price books when I was a kid, but I've never heard of Alvin Fernald. I must find him!

And clearly I have to get a copy of The Westing Game, as well. Thanks for the recommendation!

DegreeMe, yeah, I thought of Encyclopedia Brown, too, but mainly in the context of thinking of Tom Fitzgerald as being like Encyclopedia's evil doppelganger. Heh.

It's so great to meet people who don't think that reading kids' books is goofy. I love children's literature. It's peopled with nerdy protagonists who always come out on top. That's a formula I can get behind.