Okay, so for this week's edition of the Saturday Smorgasbord, I will be doing a feature on either a book series, a comic book, or a magazine. And, since it has been a while since I featured a children's book in this space, I thought that there would be no time like the present to feature a book that was specifically targeted for the preteen market.
The problem was that I had difficulty narrowing down my choices. You see, I read so many books as a kid that I have a difficult time keeping track of all the ones that I remembered reading. There were so many times in which I probably read the same book dozens and dozens of times and not even realized it. But I didn't care. If the story was decent and had a good plot with a little bit of humour mixed in, I would happily read and re-read it.
Such is the case of today's book spotlight. We're going back to the year 1986 for this children's book, as that was the year it was first published, however my first experience with this book dates back well over twenty years ago.
The year was 1990. Or, was it 1991? I can't remember now. But I do know that it was during the fourth grade, as Mrs. Moore was the teacher at the time. And, I was in fourth grade during the 1990/1991 school year.
Elementary school was a rather interesting time for me. There were some moments that I could have done without. The embarrassing gym class memories, the nasty kids who used to beat me up in the schoolyard, math class...yeah, all those things I could do without.
But one fond memory I have of Mrs. Moore's fourth grade class was the breaks that we would have in between learning. You see, Mrs. Moore was the type of teacher who liked to read us stories, and she always had great taste in books. And she read the books with so much energy and passion that it kept the class captivated the whole time, and we were looking forward to the next chapter.
Believe me, that was very important to me. My first grade teacher had a really bad habit of killing every story that came into her contact with her lacklustre delivery. She even made Dr. Seuss books sound about as appealing as getting a tooth removed at the dentist.
Getting back to the topic at hand, I was introduced to this book by Mrs. Moore. It was already in her collection of books, and she decided to read us this story in between math and humanities classes to break up the routine a little bit. From the very beginning of this book, my entire class was hooked on the story, and I personally found the book very entertaining. I found it so entertaining that when it was offered in the Scholastic Book Club one year, I ordered it, and read it so much that the cover actually fell off.
Here's a tip for all of you out there. If you're ever in a used book store, don't dismiss those books that have dog eared pages and battered covers. They were probably previously owned by someone who really loved the book. In fact, the majority of the books that I absolutely loved as a kid ended up in terrible condition after reading and re-reading them several hundred times.
So, what book could possibly be so good that I had to read it over and over again?
It was this one.
Justin, Jay-Jay, and the Juvenile Dinkent.
And, yes, there's a reason why I italicized the word “dinkent”. A couple, actually.
First, the word “dinkent” is supposed to be the word “delinquent”. The reason why author Paul Kropp chose this word was because it was how one of the main characters pronounced the word delinquent (the character being kindergarten or grade one aged).
And, secondly, it is that word that prompted a title change for this book in the mid-1990s, as some parents felt that the word “dinkent” was inappropriate for young children. Because as we all know, the “Helen Lovejoys” of the world know exactly what's best for young children.
Needless to say, the book can also be found under the less threatening title Fast Times With Fred. But, just for the sake of argument, we're going to use the original title. I find it more fun.
So, here's the story.
The setting is typical suburbia America, and in the middle of the neighbourhood, we have a typical middle-class family. There's a mother, a father, and their two children. There's Justin, a kindergarten/grade one aged kid (I used to know what their ages were, but it's been a while since I last read the book), who is about as optimistic as they come. He finds joy in anything and everything, is very adventurous, and always says what is on his mind...regardless of whether the word is pronounced correctly or not. And, there's Jason, who is approximately five years older than Justin, and is a lot more “mature” than Justin. He saves his money, does his chores, and always talks down to people who he thinks don't measure up to him on a level of intelligence.
Truth be told, Jason kind of annoyed me in the book.
One last thing I should note. Jason is referred to in the book as Jay-Jay, as Justin can't say the word Jason yet.
The book begins with Justin and Jason's parents struggling to find a regular babysitter for the two boys. Despite Jason's assertions that he is old enough to look after Justin and make sure that he doesn't end up dead by the end of the night, his parents won't have any of that. The problem is that the father's idea of who they should hire doesn't exactly sit well with the mother. The father teaches at a high school where one of his students is a sixteen-year-old boy named Fred, who has gotten involved with the wrong crowd, and has gotten into trouble. Justin and Jason's father thinks that by giving Fred a chance to look after the boys, it may give him some much needed responsibility and maturity needed to get out of trouble and stay out of trouble.
Despite the mom's objections, Fred becomes the babysitter of Justin and Jason for a trial period. And, after taking one look at Fred with his oversized clothing, gawky appearance, and unkempt style, Jason was appalled, Justin was thrilled, and Jason and Justin's mother wanted to run upstairs and lock the door, fearing that Fred was going to come and rob the place.
Nevertheless, Justin and Jason's father is still willing to give Fred a chance, so the adventures of Justin, Jay-Jay, and the Juvenile “Dinkent” begin.
And, boy oh boy, do Justin and Jason get thrown into Fred's world in a big way.
It all starts with Fred's truck, which Justin happily points out “smells like poo”. Apparently Fred holds down a job of transporting manure in the back of his truck, which has seeped out of the bags and onto the truck's cab. Justin didn't care too much, but Jason looked like he wanted to be sick.
Then Justin gets hungry and wants to have french fries from McDonald's and a Ronald McDonald vacuum cleaner thrown in for good measure. Fred is totally against going to McDonald's, claiming that Ronald McDonald is demented, but Justin didn't care how “dented” Ronald McDonald was. He wanted food. Jason meanwhile was very frustrated, as he had to finance the trip to McDonald's. Of course, that trip to McDonald's ended up being a disaster as an old face from Fred's past comes back to haunt him, and Fred, Justin, and Jason are forced to flee the fast food joint in fear...AFTER Jason already paid for the meal.
Their second attempt to grab a bite to eat didn't end much better, with Fred pretending to pass out at the restaurant in an effort to avoid paying for the meal (hmmm...maybe Mother was right about Fred after all).
Finally, Fred decided to take Justin and Jason to his house, where Fred promised to put his culinary skills to good use by making them homemade french fries and onion rings. And, it's here that we learn just how bad a hand Fred was dealt. He lives in a house that appeared as if a gentle breeze could knock it down, and Fred talked about having to live with his older brother, who really didn't have much love for him. The scenes at Fred's house certainly made Jason learn a little more compassion, and he actually began to understand why Fred was the way he was, and he started to treat Fred with a little more respect – in spite of the fact that “Fred's Fries” tasted like onions, and Fred's hatred of the Brady Bunch.
However, an incident happens to Fred that causes him to re-evaluate everything he ever believed about himself. It involves a razor, Fred's eyebrows, and the mysterious man from Fred's past that Fred was terrified of at McDonald's. And, by the end of the book, there's one final confrontation between Fred and this man...and poor Justin and Jason happen to bear witness to the whole thing.
But don't worry...the ending of the book is quite satisfying. Fred realizes that he can't live the way he is living anymore, and makes changes to help him get out of the hole that he initially dug himself into. But I think that Justin and Jason learned a little bit about themselves just based on spending so much time with Fred.
At any rate, it's a great story that I recommend to people. It's got a great message, some humour, and really showcases the changes that the characters all go through. And, considering that there were two additional books created that feature Justin, Jay-Jay, and the Juvenile “Dinkent”, I would say that Fred ended up doing quite well for himself.
(Well, I can only make that assumption, since I haven't read the sequel books.)