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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Bum custard and the weird kid

You don’t often see a middle-school author visit described in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” but this was Russell Brand, the British comedian, film star, Fox News lambaster, self-styled revolutionary, and now, okay, YA author. Brand’s retelling of the Pied Piper story was published last month, as the first in his new “Trickster Tale” series — and he told the magazine that this story, as he frames it, is about revolution.

In his tale’s German town of Hamelin, “the rodents form an ‘anarcho-egalitarian rat collective’ and the Piper bears an uncanny resemblance to Russell Brand,” the magazine reports. So, “wearing a biker jacket,” he took this new angle into an independent school in Greenwich Village, where the librarian handed him a copy of his book “with some pages paper-clipped closed to hide what she called ‘the scatalogical stuff.’”

Okay! Nice narrative tension here. What ensues, after Brand “downed an espresso and strode into the auditorium,” is hilarious and, let’s just say, far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced on my school visits. I am far too nice, I guess, or cooperative or something, because the kids loved it. They might have mostly been excited by Brand’s celebrity, but I think it was more. As "Talk of the Town" describes it, he read his story, “stopping when he got to a confusing subplot that, he apologized, ‘would make narrative sense if the book hadn’t been brutally censored by a librarian.’

“‘Selectively differentiated,’ the librarian offered. The kids giggled. Brand went on to read about the rats’ takeover of Hamelin, which they smear with ‘bum custard’ as they ‘machine-gun butt-pellets from their egg-holes.’

“Are you sure that those aren’t the paper-clipped parts?’ the librarian asked. ‘I think this N.S.A.-style attempt to control data has fallen apart,’ Brand replied.”

After more reading and some acting-out of the kids’ renditions of Beowulf, Brand left and “the kids swarmed him. He dispensed hugs, then burst into the hallway, trailed by screaming middle-schoolers. ‘Go to class. Go to class,’ the librarian instructed, to little avail.”

Well ... I dispense hugs. Sometimes. But really, this is inspiring — I think Brand is onto something. To some extent, kids are natural revolutionaries — they “know intuitively, instinctively, spontaneously where the joy is,” Brand observes — and the system of schooling does partly pound it out of them. Partly. I’ve been putting together a Common Core-linked classroom guide to my first book for primary schoolers, Treasure Town, which comes out this spring — and the number of standards inflicted on teachers in Language Arts alone, for second and third grades alone, is staggering. Stifling. Suffocating. Kids aren’t the only ones whom the school system grinds into grudging submission.

The larger truth, however, is that adolescence itself is the greatest force for conformity. Always has been. It can feel like life or death to the vast majority of seventh and eighth graders to fit in, not to be pointed out and laughed at, not to be the weird one today. But in so many kids I meet there is that glimmer, a small gleam usually, of hope that they can still somehow be their own real selves. A story that has revolutionary rats machine-gunning butt pellets from their egg-holes ... well, I guess it speaks to that.

Plus, it’s Russell Brand. Seems like everybody wants to bring out books for YA readers these days — famed adult authors, the James Patterson book-producing machine ... but if one of them wants to be a bum custard-spewing revolutionary, I say more power to him. Or her.

Brand was eager to congratulate himself. “I mean, the lessons you kids are learning today!” he enthused to the Greenwich Village kids. “You’re going to march out of here better citizens, ready to embrace a free America, and possibly overthrow your government on the way out, formulate your own anarcho-collective rat syndicates, and manage yourselves!”

Well ... possibly. I mean, it could happen. Long as nobody has to be the weird kid. Nobody else, anyway.

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