Review of the Week–Shenanigans at South

It’s been a while since I actually talked about a book for my Review of the Week, mostly because it takes me such a long time to get around to reading or actually finish any book outside of my own writing these days. But for your consideration today I’ve got a pretty quick, fun, and more kid-friendly read that I’m happy to say one of my own friends published!

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The big selling point of Shenanigans at South is really that, as the book’s profile on Amazon points out, it was written and developed with extensive input and help from actual young students–something that clearly shows through both with the tone of the piece and choice of subject matter. It draws direct comparisons to compilations of short children’s stories with a slight central theme like Loius Sachar’s immortal Sideways Stories from Wayside School, a book that I loved in my childhood and really influenced my own writing style and tastes in humor. The book follows the adventures of a particular fictional class of youngsters and the zany antics of both their classmates and the so-called “adults” in the room in a somewhat surrealistic school where doors can run away it you don’t watch them, children can switch bodies, and cats want to take over by hypnotizing everyone.

The comparison is a very apt and well-earned one, too. I laughed almost as often reading Shenanigans at South as I did on the old Wayside School series, although maybe a bit less because I’m older now than I was back then. The style is a dead-on match, where the ludicrous and bizarre things that happen are all played with a completely straight faced deadpan approach, aside from the occasional wink to the reader. While it’s tough to step out of the shadow of such an established children’s author as Sachar, this book really does a good job of setting up its own distinct universe and characters, who all have their own quirks and are quite well-formed. It’s one of those stories where the kids clearly have more common sense than the adults, and it’s often humorous how the children are the only ones who seem to question the strange things that happen around them while their teachers just accept them as normal. I guess it’s a pretty good metaphor for growing up, really.

Some of my favorite stories included “The Magic Principal”, in which the title character magically vanishes and reappears somewhere else every time a student says his name–wreaking havoc with his schedule–“Door Monitor”, where the classroom title of door monitor is revealed to be vital as doors can run away if you don’t watch them carefully, and “It’s the Thought That Counts”, where the ambiguous and contradictory nature of the title phrase is on full display. Some are far more kid-focused than others–“The Booger Cycle”, for example, is something I think little children would find hilarious, but did admittedly turn my stomach a bit–and some are more high-concept and lofty, like “Multiplication” and “Two Hour Delay”, which really capture a good deal of the surrealist tendencies of the story, but I think it all combines to strike a pretty good balance.

Again, it really does show that kids had a big hand in helping to write this, although as a consequence at times–either due to inside jokes between the writer and his students or other elements we’re not privy to as an audience–a couple stories like “The Class Swallower” just left me scratching my head because I’m not sure I got it. In addition, a few of the stories stretch out over two and even three chapters in a row. I’m all for making short stories longer, but in this case I worry that the transition could confuse some readers, especially the younger ones. That said, the quality of the stories themselves certainly didn’t suffer for it–the ones that were longer deserved to be so because they probably couldn’t be boiled down into a few pages like the others. All in all, it was a very good mix of styles and stories that made for a light and fun read even as a so-called adult. And I very much admire the efforts of the author to get ideas from students about what they would want to read at their age and include it in as coherent a way as possible. It faltered a couple of times, but more often than not was wildly successful in entertaining me.

My Rating: 9/10

If you’ve got young kids–especially ones who’ve loved the Wayside School books–Shenanigans at South was basically tailor-made for them, and maybe for you as well. If you enjoy surreal humor in the style of Monty Python, Louis Sachar, or cartoons like Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy, you’ll probably love this book. It’s a quick, great, fun read for people of all ages that was developed in a truly unique way I think is deserving of a lot of praise and recognition. A fine job by everyone involved! Is it too much to ask for a graphic novel?

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