On-task delinquency

August 31st, 2007

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but on Tuesday morning, it’s time for all you students to catch an ugly, yellow bus at the crack of dawn. It’s time for intimidating, empty planners mapping out the long months ahead. It’s time for teachers and administrators telling you how excited they are to see you (yeah, right).

Then there’s the neglected summer reading. You’ve got a few hours left to find a summary online (before the Internet, we actually had to track down the actual books to read the dust jacket and skim the ending).

Mandatory reading sucks out all the fun—the geniuses at my local board of education managed to turn me off to reading anything that wasn’t a comic. In college, a levelheaded professor assigned Philip Roth—and I picked up where I left off after “Batman Forever: The Movie Novelization” in middle school—reading for fun.


So this one’s for all you kids headed back to school (and all you adults wishing you were back in school).  Here are books to welcome you back to binders, bell schedules and bullies—by authors smart enough to know better.

“The Basic Eight” by Daniel Handler (Thomas Dunne Books, 1999) is not only my favorite book about high school, it’s also my favorite book. Handler writes for kids as “Lemony Snicket,” but there’s nothing childish here—Flannery Culp writes her memoirs from prison, recounting her senior year of absinthe abuse, supposed Satanism and murder. On one level it’s a satire of pretentious drama kids, but the real target is Oprah and feel-good journalism. Some of my friends take issue with the twist ending, but it works for me—it’s fantastically funny and you’ll want to read it again.

“Carrie” by Stephen King (Doubleday, 1974) might be seen differently after Columbine and Virginia Tech, but for my money, King’s first published novel about adolescence and alienation still stands by its own merit. I’ve never seen the Brian DePalma movie (it’s on my list), but King’s use of clippings and reports to tell a blood soaked-story so engrained into pop-culture keeps it fresh and exciting.

“Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies” by Tom Perrotta (Berkley Trade, 1997) is a series of vignettes from the protagonist, Buddy’s adolescence. Perotta is better known for the student government satire “Election,” but this one, his debut, is much more honest. Supporting characters come and go as Buddy grows up, plays football and goes to prom—less conventional in a novel, but realistic.

“10th Grade” by Joseph Weisberg (Random House, 2002) is written as a sophomore’s diary—punctuation and grammar errors in tact. A friend of mine couldn’t read it (he’s a middle school teacher—he’s got to read prose like this every day), but I couldn’t put it down. Jeremy Reskin’s time in school is fairly cliché (he’s neither a jock nor a nerd), but Weisberg keeps things fresh and funny, beyond the gimmicks. Case in point—the “secret” chapter, where Jeremy ducks off in the city to score some French pornography.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic, 2000) corresponds to what would have been Potter’s freshman year in an American school. You’ll probably want to start with the first Potter book, but in this volume Rowling captures everything that makes high school so terrifying—anxiousness about sports, nervousness around girls, the school dance, fall-outs with friends, eccentric teachers and the big men on campus. And that’s all before Harry finally meets Lord Voldemort.

“I Love You, Beth Cooper” by Larry Doyle (Ecco, 2007) is one of the most hyped books this year— but it delivers.  When uber-nerd Dennis Cooverman exclaims “I love you Beth Cooper” at his valedictory address toward the super-hot cheerleader, he sets into motion an utterly improbable chain of events—that only work with Doyle’s (a former Simpsons writer) sense of humor and fast-paced one-liners. Told in the course of one crazy graduation night, “Beth Cooper” is also aware of every teen comedy cliché—it may as well be the companion piece to “Superbad.”

“The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids” by Stanley Keisel (Dutton Juvenile, 1980) was a childhood favorite. I don’t remember too much from it, only that the climactic battle between the kids and their teachers involved something to the extent of a giant toilet. I do remember it being funny—the kind of book I’d hope my teachers would catch me reading during our 4th grade “Drop Everything and Read” period, the ultimate act of on-task delinquency.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072


(I also wanted to include Frank Portman’s hilarious “King Dork,” but ran out of column inches… so consider that one recommended as well).

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