Monday, September 12, 2011

Dis not!

I'm late to The Misfits, but I'm glad I got around to it -- my timing was unusually good since I'd just heard a "Talk of the Nation" feature on bullying last week. The only other James Howe book I've read was the clever and funny Bunnicula, that perfect first "scary" story. The Misfits is very different, but contains the same liking for and respect for its young readers.

The Misfits are four seventh graders who just don't "fit in" at Paintbrush Falls Middle School in upstate New York. They actually refer to themselves as the Gang of Five (I can't remember why), making it through the meat grinder that is middle school through mutual support and friendship. Bobby Goodspeed, overweight and motherless, is the story's narrator. He's an introspective kid who tries to fly below the radar but can't seem to go a day without being called Fluff, Lardass or Pork Chop. Addie Carle (Nerdette), Joe Bunch (Faggot), and Skeezie Tookis (Greaser) round out the Gang.

Addie -- smart and not afraid to express her opinions -- decides that she is going to run for president of the student council as a third party candidate, and gets the Gang to join her. She initially creates the Freedom Party, representing minority students, but she's foiled when a teacher points out that only one of her candidates (an African American boy named DuShawn -- who really only gets involved because he has a crush on Addie) actually meets her criteria. After a particularly nasty name-calling incident, Bobby has a brainwave and the Gang forms the No-Name Party -- dedicated to the elimination of derogatory names at school altogether. A few more obstacles from school administrators stand in their way, but Bobby and the Gang eventually do get on the ticket and get to present their platform to the whole school. Some things change, and some don't, but all four kids feel good about themselves.

This description makes The Misfits sound like an afterschool special, and on one level it is. But there's a lot of humor here, the Gang themselves are quite appealing, and the outcome isn't happy-ever-after. I think it helped to listen to this and to listen in a full cast format because each member of the Gang really emerged as a real person -- not as a cardboard representative of the fat, nerdy, gay or "hood" (which is what we called the black-leather-clad smokers who made that first-floor bathroom impossible to use at my high school in the 1970s) constituencies.

Full Cast Audio's website provides a cast of characters, so I know that Spencer Murphy, Maggie Lane, Ryan Carlesco and Andrew Pollack play the Gang. Murphy does the major narrator duties, and he creates a completely believable character of a sad, shy boy. The other young readers also sound comfortable and natural in their performances. Carlesco, who plays the not-quite-out gay teen, sounded overly young to me and he relied a little too much on volume to express Joe's flamboyance. Full Cast Audio's handy links tell me that I heard Murphy in The Will of the Empress and Pollack in Fairest, but alas, saw no reason to mention them by name in those postings. I also enjoyed performances by David Baker (an FCA regular) as Bobby's sympathetic dad and Bill Molesky as a lonely haberdasher who inspires Bobby's creation of the No-Name Party.

I didn't begin listening to Full Cast stuff until after this audiobook was published in 2002, and I admit that I found some of the ones I first listened to were pretty amateurish. I think they've improved by leaps and bounds -- more nuanced and polished readings from the young narrators, confident and natural-sounding characterizations, and sophisticated sound effects and musical interludes. I was surprised that The Misfits had these qualities, I didn't hear a clunky interpretation, a shouter, or an emoter in the cast. Plus, my personal bane of these productions -- that upstate New York "tense short a" [scroll down to Buffalo] -- was perfectly in order for this story which takes place in a small town where people indeed do speak that way.

I read The Misfits because my book group is discussing Addie on the Inside and -- as you know -- I hate to come in in the middle. So, when I read the jacket flap for Totally Joe (Book 2 of The Misfits series), I learned that The Misfits inspired No-Name-Calling Week, which is January 23-27 (or 24-28 ... I hope they straighten that out), 2012. Here's the logo promoting next year's activities [retrieved from the website].

No Dissing ... yeah!

[I am relieved that a search of Wikimedia Commons for "faggot" did not turn up any hate materials ... at least as far as I searched. As a knitter, it was nice to see some faggoting, instead. The photograph was taken by Linda Spashott and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Misfits by James Howe
Narrated by Spencer Murphy and the Full Cast Family
Full Cast Audio, 2002. 5:00


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