Random House recently reissued (with new covers and eBook editions) two middle grade novels about a twelve-year-old boy nicknamed Skinnybones. The Skinnybones books were originally published in the 1980s, but I found them to be nearly timeless, with only a very few anachronisms that modern-day kids might notice (like not being able to DVR a TV commercial, and it being unusual for one's home to be locked). I don't believe that I had ever read these as a kid - I would have been a bit old for them by the time they came out - but I thoroughly enjoyed reading them now.
Skinnybones introduces sixth grader Alex Frankovitch. Alex is an undersized kid who learned back in kindergarten that he could have an outsized impact by being funny. Sometimes his humor works, and sometimes, well, not so much. But his humor turns out to not be much compensation for his near total lack of effectiveness at playing baseball. When a new kids in school turns out to be an ace Little League pitcher, the central rivalry of Skinnybones emerges.
I love Alex's ironic, generally low-key parents. When he declares after a humiliation that he's never leaving his room again, they wait him out (though they conveniently do make some delicious-smelling fried chicken after a day or so). When his ego gets a little too large, they calmly bring him back to earth. Alex's relationship with his best friend, who never fails to laugh at Alex's misfortune, and mostly puts up with his garbage, is also enjoyable.
But the reason to read Skinnybones is that Alex's voice is both dead-on perfect and laugh-out-loud funny. Like this:
"In the summer, a school principal spends his time composing lists of all the kids in the school who hate each other. Then he makes sure they end up in the same class together." (Page 18)
"Every single year, I am always the smallest kids on the team. I mean it. For the first five years of my life, I thought I was a leprechaun.
I remember when I was in kindergarten, our teacher asked us to cut out magazine pictures of what we thought we would be when we grew up.
Most of the boys in my class brought in pictures of baseball or football players. A few others brought in pictures of policemen.
I brought in a picture of the Lucky Charms guy. I cut it off the front of the cereal box." (Page 27)
"Baseball caps are probably the greatest invention of all time. No matter what you look like, as soon as you put on a baseball cap you automatically look like a ballplayer. A real ballplayer, I mean." (Page 57)
The middle quote really did make me laugh out loud. The action n Skinnybones is a little over-the-top, but without skating into the territory of fantasy. I think that kids, especially those who play Little League, and fans of books like The Terrible Two and The Terrible Two Get Worse will love Skinnybones.
In the sequel, Almost Starring Skinnybones, Alex is a bit full of himself due to having won a contest, and been to New York to film a television commercial as a prize. Despite the humiliations that follow, and the damage to his relationship with his best friend, Alex continues to seek out the limelight. But in the end, he grows up a tiny, plausible bit. Just enough that we leave him knowing that he will probably turn out ok.
Almost Starring Skinnybones takes place during Alex's seventh grade year, as he transitions to middle school. Although this means that there are new characters, and that Alex has different teachers for different subjects, the story remains solidly middle grade. Alex's nemesis in this installment is female, but there are no love interests or the like. There is a school play, however, and young thespians will particularly enjoy this one.
Here's my favorite quote from this one:
"My mother just shook her head. I worry about my mother's head. She shakes it so much, one of these days it's going to get real loose, and she won't be able to hold it up anymore. It'll just roll around on her shoulders and become an embarrassment to the family." (Page 13)
But I do like this one, too:
"She screamed it so loud, our teacher, Mrs. Ballentine, stopped taking attendance and started glaring at me. Mrs. Ballentine has one of the deadliest glares in the business. There's a rumor going around that a few years ago she actually glared a hole in a kid's head." (Page 52)
If they were being originally published today, the Skinnybones books would most likely have pictures. They feel like literary antecedents of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, as well as Gary Paulsen's Liar, Liar series. As it is, they'll make great step-up books for kids weaned on Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones books who are ready for a slightly more challenging read. Bottom line: Skinnybones is hilarious. Recommended for readers 8 and up.
Publisher: Yearling Books (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: 1982 and 1988 originally, reissued with new covers 2016
Source of Book: Review copies from the publisher
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