Fuse #8

Friday, June 02, 2006

Review of the Day: The Homework Machine

Today is Friday, so we shall begin with a poem by Shel Silverstein. *ahem*

The Homework Machine
The Homework Machine, oh the Homework Machine,

Most perfect contraption that's ever been seen.
Just put in your homework, then drop in a dime,
Snap on the switch, and in ten seconds' time,
Your homework comes out, quick and clean as can be.
Here it is--"nine plus four?" and the answer is "three."
Three?
Oh me . . .
I guess it's not as perfect
As I thought it would be.

And now the review....

Yet another fun title from Dan, the man of Gut. Dan Gutman churns out children’s books at the rate that brings to mind that “I Love Lucy” sketch involving the chocolate assembly line. His books keep coming and coming and it’s anybody’s guess on what the quality is going to be from time to time. Add insult to injury the fact that I sometimes get Gutman mixed up with fellow prolific kiddie author Dan Greenburg and it shouldn’t be any wonder at all that I went into, “The Homework Machine” with a bit of trepidation. Still, I’d heard good things about this book. This is one of those titles that slowly but surely is gathering praise until someday you may not be able to say the word “Gutman” without the instantaneous image of a homework machine popping instantly to mind. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a fun book that kids will adore and that manages to be simultaneously silly and serious while unwinding a truly interesting story. Whatever the case, this is certainly one of the best books of jolly old 2006.

It’s all over now. What’s done is done. The only thing left is to interview the kids themselves and get their side of the story. There’s Sam Dawkins a.k.a Snikwad (“Dawkins” backwards) a.k.a Snik. He’d just started as the new kid in a fifth grade class at the Grand Canyon School. Snik’s a little high-strung and testy to begin with. Then he and three other students are put together into a little group. There’s Kelsey who doesn’t care too much about school. More on getting her hair dyed pink. Then there’s Judy. She’s already aiming for law school and nothing’s going to stop her now. And finally, and most importantly, there’s Brenton. Brenton was the whole reason all this started. Brenton was the genius. Brenton was the kid who came up with the homework machine. At first, these wholly different kids become good friends through a single invention. But when all four start using the machine for their own homework every day, things start to get out of hand. Suspicions are leveled. People are betrayed. A mysterious stranger is stalking them. And worst of all, it seems like the machine has taken on a life of its own.

Now when I first heard the phrase, “homework machine”, the first thing I thought of was that old Shel Silverstein poem. Do you remember it? It was featured in his collection, “A Light In the Attic”, and for certain members of my generation it’s near impossible to read the title of this book without hearing the words, “Just put in your homework, then drop in a dime / Snap on the switch, and it ten seconds time / Your homework comes out, quick and clean as can be / Here it is – “nine plus four?” and the answer is three”. Of course, when Silverstein envisioned HIS machine, it was seriously low-tech. Gutman’s the one who ironed out the tricky details like, “How do you fool a teacher into thinking it was written in your own handwriting?” or “Does it cost anything?”, or even, “Wouldn’t you just fail some tests and draw attention to yourself?”. A lot of what I loved about this book was how perfectly thought out everything was. The characters were well-drawn individuals who could believably become friends in the manner that this story suggested. There’s even a chess subplot that ties the whole thing together with a flourish.

One of the most remarkable things about this book, though, was its attitude towards our current war in Iraq. The book never says it’s Iraq exactly. It doesn’t have to. Ask any kid today about “the war” and they’ll know instantly which one you’re referring to. So when Snik’s father is sent overseas to serve, you know where he’s going. Two of the kids in this book are anti-war (Brenton has a nice speech about how supporting the troops is not the same thing as supporting the war that kills them). One kid is for it, partly because his father is serving in it. And finally there is Kelsey who summarizes her attitude beautifully after Snik’s father dies in combat. “He was a good guy. Now he was dead. And for what? It wasn’t like World War II, when America had to, like, save the world from Hitler. It was more like Vietnam. It was a war for nothing”. In case you don’t agree with the politics of this statement, please bear in mind that Snik himself is very pro-war. Heck, it gets him playing chess even. Of course, we never quite see what his attitude is towards war after his father’s death.

Sadly, some ideas in the book didn’t play out as well as I would have liked. The vaguely sci-fi twist near the end threatens to overbalance the otherwise realistic story. Plus these four fifth graders suddenly acquire a bit of puberty near the finish that caught me entirely off-guard. And why does the smart kid have to be Asian? I know he’s counterbalanced by Judy, who’s black and incredibly intelligent as well, but it still seemed a bit old-fashioned to make the resident genius of the Eastern persuasion.

That said, I’d like to tip my hat quite low to the good people at Simon & Schuster who gave this book’s hardcover bookcover the design they did. It looks infinitely appealing. If I were ten, I’d depart with this puppy off the nearest bookstore/library shelf, pronto. I hope that there will be plenty of kids out there doing that exact thing. This is a book worth keeping and enjoying. It’s smarter than you would expect it to be, and a heckuva fun puppy besides. Homework is dead! Long live Homework!

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