Eighth Grade Bites: Heather Brewer
Children's Literacy Round-Up: August 13

Spud: John van de Ruit

Book: Spud
Author: John van de Ruit
Pages: 352
Age Range: 12 and up

Spud, by John van de Ruit, is one of those books that I would probably never have picked up on my own. But I'm glad that Razorbill sent it to me, because it is laugh-out-loud funny. Told in diary and letter format, Spud tells of John (Spud) Milton's first year at an elite boys' boarding school in 1990 South Africa. Spud comes from a family that edges beyond quirky into the realm of dysfunctional, though he himself is fairly normal.

Spud (so-called because of his lack of physical development) ends up in a dorm with several unusual boys. Together, he and his dorm-mates are called "The Crazy Eight" by the entire school. One boy, Spud's cubicle-mate Vern, is someone who should clearly have been institutionalized, instead of just sent away to school. Another boy, called Gecko, falls prey to every conceivable illness or mishap. Rounding out the dorm are boys named, or nicknamed, Simon, Fatty, Rambo, Mad Dog, and Boggo. The school is populated with eccentric teachers, sadistic prefects (older students who have authority over the new boys), and strict rules. But, over time, Spud finds his place at the school (especially in the choir and the theater, and especially after he has a girlfriend to talk about).

Spud is set as apartheid is crumbling, and Nelson Mandela is being released from prison, giving readers a window into a unique time in South African history. Spud himself is fairly liberal (he wants to be a freedom fighter), but his father is terrified about the way that the country is going. This backdrop adds depth to the story, but never feels heavy-handed, and is only a small part of the story of Spud's development. Here are a couple of examples:

"Our head of house is a black boy called P. J. Luthuli, who looks incredibly serious and is neatly dressed. He gives us important tips about the school like, "Don't run in the quad," and "Stay off the grass." He then tells us to get ready for bed. I think this is the first time I've ever taken instructions from a black person." (January 17, first day of school)

"Crammed into the common room to watch the release of Nelson Mandela. The huge crowd outside the Victor Verster prison in Cape Town screamed as an old man with a gentle face and a huge smile walked free, holding the hand of his wife, Winnie. (Dad says Winnie is worse than Satan.) I felt all choked up with emotion -- I couldn't believe that this smiling old man was really a communist terrorist. Around me the white boys just stared blankly at the screen. Floods of tears were rolling down Luthuli's face." (February 9)

Spud has a largely episodic plot. The story rambles through Spud's first year of school, tracing his experiences with his dorm-mates, girlfriends, and crazy family. I don't normally care for episodic stories like this - I'm all about strong plot. But I was reeled in by the dry, throwaway humor of Spud's voice, and that kept me reading.I could give dozens of examples, but here are a few:

"My father is so busy pointing out a pair of mating dogs to my mother that he doesn't spot the speed bump that savages the underbelly of the car. Our station wagon limps up to the school and slides in between a Rolls Royce and a Mercedes-Benz. To announce it's grand arrival, our rust-infested jalopy vomits up a couple of gallons of oil onto the ancient cobblestone paving." (January 17)

"I called the Mermaid (girlfriend), and chatted for about 10 minutes. I ... told her the highlights of Fatty's extraordinary farting performance instead. Surprisingly, she wasn't that interested and seemed a bit distracted, so I said I would see her soon and hung up." (May 23)

"Wombat (grandmother), wearing a black eye patch like some debauched old pirate, was at her crazy best at the infamous Milton family barbecue. She has somehow convinced herself that Dad is trying to kill her with poison (not a totally absurd idea). She made me taste a piece of each item of food on her plate before wolfing it down herself. As you might imagine, nothing kills a friendly gathering of family faster than the belief that your son-in-law is trying to assassinate you." (August 26)

I would recommend Spud for upper middle school and high school kids, especially relatively advanced readers who will appreciate the dry humor. There are lots of references to books and reading (Spud is working his way through classics like the Lord of the Rings series), and the text is relatively dense. I don't think that it's a good choice for reluctant readers, despite the humor, because it's not a very quick read, and not a very linear plot. However, for older kids looking for humor, books set in boarding schools, or books about South Africa, Spud has a lot to offer. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to younger kids, even those who are good readers, because there are pretty blunt references to male body parts, and slightly more veiled references to homosexuality (not Spud himself, but a couple of prefects in the dorm). It's more a boy book than a girl book, with repeated references to farting, and an early teenage boy's views on fidelity. But the best recommendation that I can give is this: If, like me, you found the preceding three quotes laugh-out-loud funny, then this book is for you. A sequel is in the works.

Publisher: Razorbill
Publication Date: October 4, 2007
Source of Book: ARC from the publisher (quotes above are from the ARC, and may differ from the text of the final published book).

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.