Monday, February 22, 2016

Mudshark by Gary Paulsen

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

Not too long ago, I thought of Gary Paulsen as the realistic and unflinching author of the Hatchet books. (Reviewed here and here.) But it turns out that he has been a prolific writer over the last 25 years, and his range is much greater than I had supposed. Apparently, he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Likewise, serious writing was not his only strength. He has a delightful sense of humor of just the right type to appeal to kids not easily grossed out. Like, say, my kids.

Over our Christmas trip, we enjoyed Masters of Disaster, so we decided to try Mudshark for our recent camping trip. 

Like Masters of Disaster, Mudshark is a relatively short book, clocking in at about two hours on audiobook. It was also a hit with the kids.

The basic premise is this: Lyle Williams, aka “Mudshark,” is a middle-schooler who got his nickname after a game of “Death Ball,” a local game which sounds quite a bit like the way soccer was once played. The author describes it as a cross between soccer, rugby, football, and a mud fight. The entire town takes it quite seriously, despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that the school has outlawed it. With lightning reflexes honed keeping his toddler triplet sisters out of harm’s way, he saves a goal faster than human vision can follow. Mudshark isn’t just athletic, though. He lives by his quick wits and his excellent memory. Can’t find something? Mudshark probably knows where it is. Need help solving a problem? Call Mudshark. In an interesting spin on real-life playground politics, it turns out the nerdy kid who doesn’t care about popularity ends up being cool.

Things start to go sideways, however, when the librarian gets a talking parrot, whose powers of observation prove to be serious competition for Mudshark. And then the erasers in every classroom start to go missing. This ends up being Mudshark’s toughest case yet.

A number of things brought snickers from my kids, from the little girls to the logarithmic multiplication of crawfish in the school’s ill-fated “animals in the classroom” experiment. And the escaped gerbil who seems intent on terrorizing the 8th Grade English teacher.

But the most popular, by unanimous vote (yes, I took a poll), was the introductions to each chapter. They all start the same way, with an announcement over the school’s PA system.

“Will the custodian please report to the faculty restroom with…”

And then follows an ever-escalating list of needed implements. Starting with “a plunger and a mop,” then “a plank” and eventually “a Geiger counter and a hazmat suit.” One is left to wonder exactly what was going on there, and how a bunch of teachers ended up getting the Department of Homeland Security and various environmental agencies called out to deal with a toilet emergency.  

Of course, this joke does work better if one has kids that actually know what one would do with a Geiger counter. In fact, though, one thing I do like about Paulsen’s writing is that he balances the need to write at the level of his intended readers with an ability to do so without dumbing stuff down. He assumes kids are intelligent and educated even as he stretches their scientific knowledge.

Mudshark isn’t intended to be deep literature or anything, but it is an entertaining tale, and one that subtly pushes Paulsen’s view that there is nothing shameful or uncool about learning and reading and paying attention. I’d say Paulsen writes about boys really well, and it is true, but girls too will find his humorous books enjoyable as well.

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