An Interview with James Howe
So what is The Misfits about?
The title says it: it's about people who don't fit in. In this case, it's about four best friends. Bobby Goodspeed (who tells the story), Joe Bunch, Addie Carle, and Skeezie Tookis?who are seventh graders at Paintbrush Falls Middle School in upstate New York.
Why seventh grade?
My daughter was in the seventh grade at the time I started working on the book. I was aware of all the problems she was having as someone who was different, of the terrible social pressures and rigid "rules" defining what is "in" and cool, as opposed to what's "out," nerdy, weird, "gay," whatever.
What do you think about the use of the word "gay" as meaning "weird"?
I hate it. It's such unconscious bigotry. I also hate that, to kids, "fag" and "faggot" are still considered the worst names you can call someone.
Does name-calling play a part in The Misfits?
Name-calling and the effort to stop it play a big part in the story.
Was that a major reason you wrote the book?
It didn't start out that way. It started out the way most books do, taking a group of characters who interested me and seeing what trouble I could get them into.
Tell us about the main characters. They're all twelve, yes?
Yes. Addie is tall and brainy, too brainy for her own good sometimes; Bobby is fat (his own way of describing himself) and the kid who never raises his hand in class for fear of being noticed and laughed at; Skeezie is something of a role-player, taking on the appearance of a 1950s "bad boy," even though he's really good at heart; and Joe is not only effeminate but openly gay.
Yes. He's not political about it, just comfortable in his own skin.
Was one of these characters more the impetus for writing this story than any of the others?
Definitely. Even though it is Bobby's story that is in the forefront, it was Joe who motivated me to write this book, Joe and my daughter's experiences in middle school.
How do you mean it was Joe who motivated you? Was there a real Joe?
In a way. I was drawing on my own life to some extent. I'm gay, and to a degree was like Joe as a boy, but unlike Joe, I couldn't deal with who I was in a healthy, self-accepting way. I was filled with the same homophobia that permeated the culture I grew up in. Thank goodness, the climate is changing, and though it is still a terrible struggle for many gay young people, many are also able to see themselves reflected in positive ways, not only in the real people who are out and visible but in fictional characters from popular culture?movies, TV shows, and books.
Do you want The Misfits, or Joe, to be one of these positive reflections?
Absolutely. I wrote Joe's character with a great deal of thought. I wanted him to be a kid who sees himself as cool, who sees nothing wrong with being attracted to the boy who sits next to him in art class as opposed to the girl on the other side of him. He understands, as do the other "misfits" in this story, that the problem isn't with himself, it's with the attitudes and ignorance of others. Joe likes himself, he isn't self-pitying in the least, but he still suffers from not knowing how to tell a boy he likes him and being called "faggot" on a regular basis.
Which brings us back to name-calling.
Right. As I said, I didn't set out for this to be a book about name-calling, and I never imagined it would take on quite the political tone it ended up having. For some reason (and I never totally understand how and why my characters take the directions they take), Addie, at the very beginning of the book, refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance because she does not believe there is liberty and justice for all in this country. This gets her into hot water with her homeroom teacher and the principal, the result of which is her deciding to create a third political party to run for student council, the Freedom Party. When that party isn't allowed, she and Bobby and Joe and Skeezie form a different party: one that is dedicated to ending name-calling in school.
So, is it fair to say the book is about politics and empowerment?
It's about that and a lot more. It's about becoming aware, of really seeing and not making assumptions. All the main characters in this book are forced to question the ways in which they see themselves and the world. Addie, for example, assumes that DuShawn Carter, one of the few black students in the school, will want to run for president on her Freedom Party ticket because he will understand the issues of oppression and outsider status. He points out to her that he is one of the most popular kids in school and has, in fact, never been called a name in his life.
So she learns a thing or two on her way to power.
Presumably. Addie is somewhat arrogant in her intelligence, so it takes time for things to sink in. But she does finally realize that she's made some false assumptions when it's come to DuShawn. She comes to learn, for instance, that the only reason he agreed to run for president is that he likes her. That's another thing the book is about: attraction, starting to date, love. And there's quite a bit about loss, too, a theme I can't seem to stay away from in much of my work.
Is Addie the only one to become empowered?
No. It is Bobby who grows the most into his own power. He's the one I give the "Rocky" moment to, the moment when he steps out of the shadows of his own making and meets the biggest challenge of his life.
It sounds like this book is loaded. Is it a dense read?
Not at all. There's a great deal of humor in it. If anything, I'd say it's a light, entertaining read. It's all told in Bobby's quirky voice. I loved writing this character. He's sweet and funny and smart and has a truly offbeat way of seeing things and expressing himself.
Any plans to write in his voice again?
I'm working on a sequel now, taking the same cast of characters into the eighth grade.
Is there any way you can sum up what you want the reader to get from this book?
That's a tall order, only because there's so much going on in it. But I hope the book will make the reader think beyond the limitations of her or his own assumptions about what's true. In so many ways, kids today are growing up too fast, exposed to too much at too young an age. They develop a false sense of what it means to be mature. But they are also being given an opportunity to mature into their humanity at a younger age. By seeing and reading and talking about issues that were avoided or dismissed or, worse, not even seen in times past, they have a chance to grow into more loving, accepting, fully conscious human beings. Perhaps even more important, they have a chance to grow into themselves in ways that are every bit as loving, accepting, and conscious.
For more information visit James Howe
ReviewsBunnicula Escapes: A Pop-Up Adventure
Illustrated by Alan Daniel and Lea Daniel
Howe's best-loved characters are the Monroe family animals, made famous in Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery. Howe's special brand of humor springs to life in this pop-up book. When the Monroes visit a county fair, Bunnicula escapes and Chester and Harold, the dogs, chase him through all kinds of pop-up adventures. The author's originality is matched by the creativity of the paper constructions, which are a blend of flaps, and slides and lot of other surprises! Reviewer: Susie Wilde
Bunnicula Strikes Again!
Illustrated by Alan Daniel
The sixth in Howe's novel treatment of the vampire rabbit continues with Chester the Cat's suspicion that Bunnicula is up to his old vampire tricks. But the listless rabbit has been pining for his mother and pursues her memory to the old theater in which he was discovered. However, the theater is slated for demolition, and Chester causes the rabbit to be nearly buried in rubble before his change of heart saves his poor foe. As usual, Howe, in the voice of Harold the Dog, makes plenty of allusions to literature and popular culture which will delight the savvy upper elementary school reader while going over the heads of those who are younger. A satisfying sequel in the ongoing saga of the Monroe family's stable of pets. 1999, Atheneum/Simon and Schuster, $15.00. Ages 8 to 12. Reviewer: Susan Hepler
Dew Drop Dead: A Sebastian Barth Mystery
If there's one thing Sebastian Barth likes, it's a good mystery. And when Sebastian and his friends, Corrie and David, find a body in an old abandoned restaurant called the Dew Drop Inn, a good mystery is exactly what they have. Especially when they lead the police to the Dew Drop, only to discover that the body has vanished. The cops speculate that the body was in fact a drunken derelict who spent the night at the inn and then went on his way. The kids become involved in an effort to feed and clothe homeless people in their town. Returning to the Dew Drop, they find the body again--this time in a nearby field. A resident of the shelter is implicated in murder, and Sebastian and his pals must deal with the harsh realities of poverty--and of death. This is part of the "Sebastian Barth Mystery" series. 2000 (orig. 1990), Aladdin Paperbacks/Simon & Schuster, $16.00 and $4.50. Ages 8 to 12. Reviewer: Christopher Moning
The Fright Before Christmas
Illustrated by Leslie Morrill
Harold, the canine narrator of Bunnicula and other tales by Howe, is back for a Yuletide adventure. Chester, the cat, has him convinced that there are Christmas ghosts ( la Charles Dickens) stalking the house on Christmas Eve. Howie, the dachshund puppy, is terrified of Santa. Of course, the pets raise a ruckus and wake up the entire household. No one seems too upset, especially because they discover that Santa has already visited and left presents. The story is a bit contrived and the target audience may miss part of the conclusion. This picture book will be read by children too young to appreciate Bunnicula, so they may not be familiar with the characters. Also, very young children may not be ready for stories that include vampires and ghosts, even though the ghouls don't exist outside of Chester's imagination. 1999 (orig. 1988), Mulberry/William Morrow, $16.00 and $5.95. Ages 4 to 7.Reviewer: Dr. Judy Rowen
Horace and Morris But Mostly Dolores
Illustrated by Amy Walrod
Horace, Morris and Dolores are fast friends, that is, they were until the day that Horace and Morris decided to join a "no girls allowed" club. Dolores reluctantly strikes out on her own and joins a girls-only club. The friends finally come to their senses (joined by new pals Chloris and Boris) and form an "everyone invited" club. The familiar theme of being left out will resonate with the target audience. The characters are anthropomorphic mice, entertainingly depicted in acrylic paints and collage, and the text contains plenty of appropriately cheese-y puns. 1999, Atheneum, $16.00. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewer: Dr. Judy Rowen
Read by Victor Garber
Tony Award nominee Victor Garber continues to narrate another chapter in James Howe's Bunnicula series. Garber renders delightful voices to the animal characters. Children will love Tom Newsom's art cover. Librarians should provide the audio for younger children. Young listeners with pets certainly will enjoy hearing the story. HOWLIDAY INN is a good recording to introduce new readers to mysteries. (Unabridged. 2 audiocassettes. 3 hrs. 21 mins.) 2000, Listening Library, $18.00. Grades 2 and up. Reviewer: Henry Jack Smith
When seventh-grader Addie decides to start a third party at school to prove that principles can win over popularity, she enlists the help of her friends Bobby, Joe and Skeezie. The foursome have dubbed themselves the "Gang of Five" (yes, five) because "Kids who get called the worst names oftentimes find each other." After the platform of fighting racial injustice is not accepted by the school's administrators, the group decides to focus on eradicating name-calling. When their black presidential candidate drops out because he feels this is not his issue, the Gang decides to run for election themselves, prompted by the realization that between the four of them they've been called 72 names over the years. Narrated in the witty, beyond-12 voice of Bobby, the "fat kid," and interspersed with dialogue from the group's many meetings at the Candy Kitchen, this probes a number of issues middle schoolers face3/4first love, peer acceptance, understanding adults around them, losing a parent and standing up to ideals. There is no perfect ending here, but much laughter and a lot of hope. 2001, Atheneum, Ages 11 to 13, $16.00. Reviewer: Cherri Jones
The New Nick Kramer, or My Life as a Baby-sitter
A bet between rivals sets the stage for this story. The bet prompts Nick to take a high school course to learn about babysitting. This leads him to new responsibilities and new realizations. It's fast paced with lots of laughs. 1995, Hyperion, $13.95 and $4.50. Ages 9 to 13. Reviewer: Mary Clayton Rowen
Read by Victor Garber
Victor Garber narrates another book in James Howe's Bunnicula series. Garber portrays delightful voices for the canine and feline characters. The weaker points of the audio book lie in Garber's poor hillbilly and Transylvanian accents. The recording will interest young listeners. The entertaining read-aloud book is suitable for library purchase. (Unabridged. 2 audiocassettes. 1 hrs. 49 mins.) 2000, Listening Library, $18.00. Grades 1 and up. Reviewer: Jack Smith
Pinky and Rex and the Bully
illustrated by Melissa Sweet
It is time for the big weekend camping adventure with their Dads, and Pinky and Rex are really excited. Those rain clouds in the sky look ominous, and soon it begins to rain. But the Dads are resourceful, and the great outdoor weekend becomes a great indoor weekend with a visit to a cavern, reptile museum, puppet maker's studio, train museum, indoor miniature golf course and even a "camp in." Best of all, Pinky and Rex agree, was spending time with their Dads. Others in the series include Pinky and Rex, Pinky and Rex and the Bully, Pinky and Rex and the Mean Old Witch, Pinky and Rex and the New Baby, Pinky and Rex and the Spelling Bee, Pinky and Rex Get Married, and Pinky and Rex Go to Camp. 1995, Atheneum, $14.00 and $3.99. Ages 5 to 8. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
Pinky and Rex and the Double-dad Weekend
illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Pinky is confused. He does like the color pink and his best friend is a girl. Does this make him a sissy? After repeated taunts by Kevin, the bully, Pinky decides that maybe he shouldn't like pink and maybe he should start going by the name Billy. With the help of his neighbor, Mrs. Morgan, he realizes it is difficult to be different. In the end he stands up to a bully and is true to himself. 1996, Aladdin, $15.00 and $3.99. Ages 5 to 8. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
Pinky and Rex and the New Neighbors
illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Mrs. Morgan is moving and Pinky and his friends Rex aren't very happy. She has been a good friend who offered lemonade, cookies and sound advice. Now that she is older, it is difficult to take care of her house, so she has decided to move into a retirement community. Once her house goes on the market, Pinky and Rex anxiously watch as potential neighbors come and go. It appears that obnoxious Ollie is going to move in, but things take a very different turn much to everyone's surprise and pleasure. 1997, Aladdin, $3.99 and $15.00. Ages 6 to 8. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
Illustrations by Alan Daniel
Bunnicula fans will recognize James Howe's cast of characters in this picture book. The great Karlovsky, magician extraordinaire, is coming to town, and Toby Monroe is extremely excited about it. The Monroe family pets--Chester the cat, Howie the dachshund, and Harold, a big shaggy dog, are worried. They are concerned that Bunnicala, the family's rabbit, is in on some plot with Karlovsky, to unleash loads of vampire rabbits on the town. Sound crazy? It is a rather zany plot, one with lots of twists and turns a bit beyond the ability of the usual picture book crowd to follow. There's some wry humor in the family dynamics that is brought out nicely in realistic watercolor/gouache illustrations of Toby, his brother Pete, and their very expressive pets. 1999 (orig. 1991), Mulberry Books/William Morrow, $15.00 and $5.95. Ages 6 to 8. Reviewer: Nancy Partridge
A young girl sits on the steps to the beach each day. She never goes down to the water. She never even touches the sand. She writes in her journal and watches the lifeguard and a cozy family group. Slowly she is noticed, and we are brought into the worlds of those being watched. Their lives are not as idyllic as the watcher fantasizes, but they're better than hers. The mood builds slowly to a to a traumatic, believable climax. This spare novel of an abused child, one stretched to the point of autism, is not what one would expect from the author of the humorous kiddie horror classic, Bunnicula, but it is very effective. 1997, Atheneum, $15.00. Ages 12 up. Reviewer: Kathleen Karr
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