Gail Gauthier was kind enough to send me a review copy of her recently published novel, Happy Kid!. I found it to be a quick read, with realistic middle school interactions and experiences. At the same time, I found it to be a remarkable book, incorporating universal truths about self-help and relationships in a kid-friendly, non-preachy manner.
Happy Kid! is about Kyle Rideau, a pessimistic and inadvertently notorious boy about to start seventh grade. He's had a rough sixth grade year, feels separated from all of his friends (due to having been placed in some 'special' (advanced) classes, and he ended the year with a distressing incident. He's not looking forward to seventh grade. His psychologist mother buys him a self-help book called Happy Kid! A Young Person's Guide to Satisfying Relationships and a Happy and Meaning-Filled Life. He is naturally embarrassed by this, but she offers to pay him a dollar per chapter, and the chapters are very short. So, in a weak moment, he starts to read it. Kyle finds himself strangely compelled to follow the advice in the book, and experiences unintended consequences (unintended by Kyle, anyway) in response.
Kyle soon notices some curious facts about the book. First of all, the chapters that he reads bear an uncanny relevance to whatever is going on in his life. Second, until he acts on a piece of advice in some way, the book will only open to that page, and not allow him to move forward. At one point, a girl in his class reads from the book, and finds that it offers her completely different advice, specific to her needs. Although these are rather unexpected attributes to find in a book, Kyle takes it more or less in stride. And gradually, the book does help him to improve his life and relationships.
There's a lot of subtle humor to this book. I can relate to Kyle's wry, pessimistic voice. Here's a small example that struck me, from Chapter 5.
""So there I was, in these two 'special' classes, and the only I could get out of them would be to join two classes that weren't special but that I was a month behind in, so I'd have to work extra hard to catch up. What was the point? Work hard in one class or work hard in the other."
"Wow, talk about irony," Jared said, nodding his head in appreciation.
None of Lauren's other boyfriends ever used words like "irony." Jared definitely is a step up for our family."
I also like the character of Mr. Kowsz, a teacher who isn't entirely what he appears to be, and of the determined-to-do-the-right-thing Melissa Esposito, who sets out to right a wrong, under difficult circumstances. There's also Jake, a school rebel and bully who has decided that he wants to be friends with Kyle, much to Kyle's chagrin. All of these characters, and their interactions, make the book a fun, realistic window into middle school life.
However, it's the aptness and wisdom of the Happy Kid! advice that makes this book unique. I think that anyone could benefit from some of the book-within-a-book chapters, such as: It All Begins with Hello ("Make a point every day to speak to the people around you. Before long, you'll be doing it without even thinking!"), Does Your Life Stink, or Is It YOU? ("Does your life actually stink, or do you just think it does?"), or Kick-Start Your Life with Something New! ("Being a different person can only be a good thing since whatever you were before wasn't working for you now, was it?"). A couple of them really resonated with me - I actually found myself repeating one of the pieces of advice to someone a couple of days after reading the book. Which is a lot more than I would generally expect from a novel written for children. I especially like the way the old-fashioned, peppy self-help speak (as above) is interlaced with Kyle's humorous, slightly sarcastic tone. I don't know why these two voices work so well together, but they do.
I recommend this book. I think that middle schoolers, and their parents, will enjoy it. And maybe they'll even find a little tidbit that resonates with them, and helps them to improve some relationships.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.