Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Murray Poppins

I don't think that I was alone in being curious about Christian Burch's The Manny Files when it was published in 2006. A nice, gay-positive and appropriate story for elementary school kids.  There aren't very many of these (although I just read another one that pushed its message a little too hard and thus wasn't as entertaining: My Mixed-up Berry Blue Summer by Jennifer Gennari); hence the curiosity. And since the story is more about the Manny's charges, in particular, a "sensitive" boy named Keats, there is certainly an audience for this novel. I think most kids won't care one way or the other about anyone's sexual orientation.

Keats is the only boy in the excitable and close Dalinger family.  Mom and Dad work (in interesting jobs), his grandmother is pretty freewheeling, his two older sisters each have strong personalities and his baby sister prefers to not wear clothes. Keats is lonely at school (with one very loyal friend), teased relentlessly by some other third-grade boys and often spends recess crying behind the dumpster. One day, his mother hires another in the long line of nannies, but this one is pretty different. The Manny -- who doesn't reveal his name until the end of the book -- changes Keats' life forever.

The Manny sends lunch off with affirmations: Be interesting! That affirmation just happen to be written on a coconut. He dresses up to meet the school bus. He organizes at-home opera performances. He spends a lot of time with Keats' Uncle Max. Oldest sister Lulu is mortified by the Manny's excesses and begins keeping track of his perceived transgressions in a notebook she calls "The Manny Files". Keats is sure that Lulu's list will mean that the Manny will be fired -- she's done it before -- and worries incessantly, even though the Manny tells him not to.

I liked the book, but the Dalingers are a really unusual family. A lot seemed just a bit over the head of the average third-grade reader, and the bullying without consequences I don't think will be a part of most kids' experience (will it?). The Manny talks about his next career -- but it's all related to pop culture that is so 2006. Keats keeps an off-and-on diary (I couldn't figure out what prompted a journal entry) where he concludes each entry with a short list of who was born on that day.  And the people he names aren't really on the radar of most elementary school students (although the book concludes with brief biographies of those mentioned):  Martha Graham, Olga Korbut, Ross Perot to name but three.  The Manny Files almost seems like a book where the idea was better than the execution. Or one that is trying too hard.  Still, would it be a good book to hand to the parent who asks for books for her sensitive boy?

An actor who I remember from the 80s TV series, Lou Grant, Daryl Anderson (yikes! that's a trip down memory lane), reads the novel.  He definitely sounds like an adult, but he reads with a calm that seems designed to provide confidence to the listener. Yes, things look bad for Keats, but with the help of this dependable adult (the Manny, the reader) he's going to be all right. Anderson's gentle reading sounded just like a close adult reading this story aloud to a boy like Keats. Keats' fears and anxieties are clear in the reading without Anderson adopting a boyish delivery. He does similar work with Lulu's character -- the personality shines through dialogue that doesn't attempt to sound like a teenaged girl. It's a subtle reading, but it worked for me.

I have to ask, though: Why does the Manny have to be gay?  I mean, it's OK that he's gay, but why is any male who works in a role traditionally filled by women automatically assumed to be gay?  (OK, perhaps not any male.)  If the book is attempting to make us think a little differently, can't the manny be manly?  (And yes, I completely believe that manliness has nothing to do with sexuality ... you know what I mean.)  Actually, it's utterly unfair of me to ask that of this book. This book is doing something else and on some levels, it succeeds.  Alas, it is not Mary Poppins (no, not that Mary Poppins), nor even the delightfully anarchic Nanny Piggins, It's just another kid's book from the aughts that is unlikely to stand the test of time.

[The image above is an 1819 portrait by Charles Brown of Keats' namesake, the Romantic poet.]

The Manny Files by Christian Burch
Narrated by Daryl Anderson
Listening Library, 2009.  6:09

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