Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Book Review: The MacDonald Hall series by Gordon Korman

Canadian children's author Gordon Korman has had a long career as the prolific writer of humorous, exciting, and easy-to-read novels geared toward grades 4 to 9. He started writing at age 12, when he wrote This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall! for a seventh grade English class. Over the course of nearly 20 years after the publication of this first MacDonald Hall book, Korman published a total of 7 titles about the boarding school exploits of best friends Bruno and Boots.This month, I read them all:

  • This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall! (1977)
  • Go Jump in the Pool! (1979)
  • Beware the Fish! (1980)
  • The War with Mr. Wizzle (1982)
  • The Zucchini Warriors (1988)
  • MacDonald Hall Goes Hollywood (1991)
  • Something Fishy at Macdonald Hall (1995)

The series stars best friends and roommates Bruno Walton and Melvin "Boots" O'Neal, who are known pranksters on the MacDonald Hall campus. Though the two boys often butt heads with their headmaster, the long-suffering yet fair-minded Mr. Sturgeon, whom they call "The Fish," they also have a fond affection for their school. The boys and their classmates also have many associations with students at Miss Scrimmage's Finishing School for Young Ladies, which is located across the road from MacDonald Hall, and whose high-strung Headmistress frequently overreacts to late-night visits from MacDonald Hall students by wildly wielding a shotgun. 

Each book of the series focuses on a different major scheme involving Bruno and Boots. Sometimes, they seek to make a particular improvement to their school, such as a pool or a recreation center. Other times, they go to war with a particular teacher who is making their lives difficult, or with an outside force that threatens to close the school. In the final two books, they even befriend a Hollywood celebrity and uncover a phantom prankster. 

What I love about these books is their sense of humor. Last spring, I attended a talk by two children's illustrators who insisted that the key to humor in children's books is underwear and toilet jokes. I found this to be a disappointing underestimation of what kids are capable of finding funny, but I was also hard-pressed to think of many examples of funny books, especially funny books targeted at boys, that could make kids laugh without resorting to crude humor. Thankfully, I have been reminded that this series fits that bill exactly. Perhaps because Korman started writing these when he was himself an adolescent, he completely understands what middle school boys find funny, and he delivers it in every single book. Pranks, schemes, disasters, explosions, science experiments, sporting events - these are the backdrops for Korman's jokes, and most of the time, they are clever, respectful and well-executed. Even when the characters disobey their teachers, they often do so in the name of a noble cause that helps their school or their friends.
Also refreshing is the complete lack of serious dating in these books. There are some storylines involving long-distance and unrequited crushes, but none of the preoccupation with having exclusive girlfriends and boyfriends that seems prevalent in more contemporary books. The girls of Miss Scrimmage's  (particularly Cathy and Diane) are not presented as potential romantic partners for Bruno, Boots, and their friends, but as partners in crime, good friends, and pranksters in their own right. All the female characters are actually very well-done, including Mrs. Sturgeon, the headmaster's wife, whose affection for Bruno and Boots often keeps her husband from acting rashly in his punishment of them. 

Are the MacDonald Hall books great literature? Probably not. But neither are they to be completely dismissed as "fluff" or 'twaddle." For boys who like funny books, but whose parents would prefer not to promote toilet humor (or worse, crude jokes with a sexual basis), they are the perfect escapist read. Interestingly, these books have also recently been turned into a series of films, which are all available to stream on Netflix. I watched half of the first one, Go Jump in the Pool!, and noted some differences, mainly in the age of the characters (MacDonald Hall seems to be a high school in the movie world) and in the character of Miss Scrimmage (who is now a peace-loving hippie and not an unhinged woman with a shotgun), but overall, I didn't think it was terrible. I would definitely recommend reading the books first, but fans of the series will probably enjoy the film adaptations. 

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