Fuse #8

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Review of the Day: The Manny Files

Okey-doke, kids. Pencils at the ready. I need you all to name as many out-and-out gay characters found in children’s chapter books as you can possibly think of starting... NOW! *ding* Pencils down. How many did you come up with? Don’t be shy, I want to see your full list. Oooooh. Couldn’t think of all that many, eh? Okay, new quiz. This one’s easier. List all the children’s chapter book characters that are kids and that someday might turn out to be gay when they grow up... GO! *ding* Pencils down. Let me see... ah... Harriet the Spy? Come on. You can do better than that. You know what, let’s just forget the whole thing. After all, I have the answer to your prayers right here. It’s called, “The Manny Files”, and I can guaran-damn-tee you’ve never come across anything like it before. It deeply amusing, genuinely touching, and like nothing you've ever experienced before.

Life has not been easy for Keats. Living with three sisters, two older and one younger, he’s had to endure a steady stream of female nannies for years now. His older sisters always bond with them, leaving Keats feeling a bit out of sorts. Fortunately there’s a solution at hand and it comes in the form of not a “nanny” but a “manny”. The manny is hip, is male, and is fabulous. He’s the kind of guy that's just as comfortable sending the kids to school with coconuts that read, “Be interesting”, as he is blasting bad eighties music from the family van and dressing up to act out opera arias with the children's grandmother. Keats has finally found someone to bond with on his own, but his older sister Lulu is having none of it. The new manny’s extravagance is getting to her and she’s keeping a well-documented folder entitled The Manny Files to record every time the manny, to her mind, steps out of line. Now Keats is going to have to fight to keep the manny in the family, even when he also has to deal with his sick grandmother, camping trips, jumping off the high dive, and a whole host of different challenges and concerns. But sometimes fighting for your manny is the only thing to do.

Basically this book is ideal reading for those kids who already have a manny and would like to read something that comes as familiar to them. I say that, but maybe I’m limiting the scope of this book. After all, a quick perusal of Amazon.com reviews shows that kids have embraced the manny without any hesitation. Now, the character of Keats is a great one. He doesn’t come across as a realistic kid most of the time (his favorite book is one of feng shui) but this is not to say that such a child doesn’t exist. They do. There are small Keats-like children all over the world and as far as I can ascertain, no children’s book has ever been written about one about them with the same amount of humor, aplomb, and sheer guts as “The Manny Files”. The kids who are gay from birth onwards don’t have a whole lot of books about kids like themselves. Not really. So in his own way, Burch is filling a void in bookshelves everywhere. Of course, the book requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Are we to assume that there are actual third graders out there that want to grow up to be concierges at the Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons? Or who hope to see Andy Warhol (even though he’s dead) and Liza Minnelli walk through a restaurant door someday? Or who spend all their money on red cashmere socks when they get a chance? You might convince me that a sixth grader would hope and know these things, but someone in the third grade? Really? Really really? And there are a LOT of jokes in this book that kids, and even some teens, will not get. At one point someone says that Keats looks like Ralph Lauren. The statement is quickly followed up by, “India told me that Ralph Lauren was a polo player”. And I mean, was I the only one freaked out by the title, “Skeet, Skeet, Skeet!”? You guys don’t even know what that can mean, do you? Also, the book was published in 2006 and doesn’t seem to be a period piece, yet characters are able to meet their parents in the airport at the arrival gate.

But you know what? It’s funny. I mean really snort-in-your-coffee-while-you’re-trying-to-maintain-some-sense-of-decorum funny. At one point Keats talks about how a former nanny used to dress his sisters up in frilly outfits. His dad said they looked like piñatas, to which Keats replies, “Did it make you want to hit them with sticks?”. My kind of humor! Or howzabout describing a scream of frustration as, “like the ‘Aaargh!’ that Charlie Brown screams every time Lucy pulls away the football in the 'Peanuts' comic strip”. Each entry in Keats’s journal includes a listing of three famous people born on that day. These tend to be more than a little eclectic, as with August 11th’s entry: “Born on this day: Hulk Hogan, Alex Haley, Jerry Falwell”.

I guess it should come as no surprise that when you see a picture of author Christian Burch he looks exactly like the manny he’s described in the book. Bald head? Check. Thick black frames on his glasses? Check. Gay? No idea, but I think it’s fair to guess yes. Former manny? Oh, you betcha. You know, I did find it more than a little odd that the word “gay” doesn’t appear once in this book. For a story that is all about gay men in their many forms, the book seems oddly squeamish over its own subject matter. Some of the references to gay life are so oblique that even adult readers may pass them by. But I suppose Burch wanted this book to be written in the voice of a totally oblivious kid. I don’t know how oblivious a child who knows and loves his feng shui can be, but Keats is supposed to never even question his manny’s preference in mates. Odder still that his nasty older sister wouldn't bring it up either.

By the way, could someone please come over to my computer and inform it that the word “manny” should not be turned into the word “many” whenever my spell-check feels like exerting its powers? Thank you.

Not too long ago I was hanging out with a bunch of librarians who had read this book. As a chorus of one, the crew of them proclaimed in harmony, “I WANT A MANNY!”. It would be fun to catalog the number of events in this book that actually happened to real-life manny Christian Burch too. Since the dedication in this books seems to have been written to eight different children (some with the names found in this book like “India” and “Keats”), I’d say there’s more truth than fiction to “The Manny Files”. And though I take serious issue with the book’s statement that Scrappy Doo is, “the smaller, tougher version of Scooby Doo” (any book defending Scrappy has just given itself a serious deficiency), it’s well worth a read. Light-hearted, fun, and well worth the read.

Notes On the Cover: Making obvious references to “The Nanny Diaries”, Burch’s cover actually comes across as a classier act. The silhouettes, black on a light blue background, display the three most important characters perfectly. Then you have the colorful letters and the manny’s bald head and goofy stance all simultaneously reminiscent of Marry Poppins, albeit a man. It’s great. Colorful but classy.


At 12:34 PM , Blogger Saints and Spinners said...

Regarding "skeet," I had to look it up. Okay, so I always thought it was in reference to the legendary skeet-hunting parties.

Do you know Self Portrait: Trina Schart Hyman? It's a children's biography, not a chapter book, but still... when I was in 5th grade, all of the clues that Hyman was a lesbian completely went over my head. Years later, I read it again, and thought "Oh yeah, of course."

At 5:44 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Oh sure. Kids can be totally oblivious. I just thought that this particular kid might take an interest in his manny's preferences. Being, as they were, so similar (on a kid-like scale) to his own.

At 12:05 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

curious... since were talking about sexual identity, is it really a surprise that chapter books don't contain many gay characters? are readers at this age really looking for clues to sexual behavior? i've got chapter-book readers in the house who look away at kissing scenes in adult movies and go "ew", though within a few years they'll be studying those same scenes for clues.

i know teens are hungry for gay and gay-allied characters in their reading, i guess i never really knew younger readers were just as eager for the scoop on the world.

btw, it was only 20 years after the fact that i realized that my very erudite 5th grade teacher was gay. and if i'd known then i don't think i would have cared.

At 10:15 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

True enough. Kids, by and large, don't care. But what about those kids with gay parents? Or gay siblings? It just seems odd to me that there's an entire section of our population that fails to show up in our children's literature. Plus there's always the fact that even if kids aren't looking for diversity in their literature, we should provide it anyway. When I was a kid I never thought about seeking out characters in books that were black, Asian, or Native American. But that doesn't mean there shouldn't have been books with such characters out for me to find anyway.

At 11:00 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just writing in to say thank you for all the nice things that you said about The Manny Files. As the author, I want to assure you I had no idea that skeet could be used that way until I looked it up. It did make me laugh though. Also, I didn't use the word gay or talk about it because I didn't want it to be a "gay" book. I wanted it to be a "real life" book where gay people are just people in your lives, not there to teach the gay lesson, just to exist as straight people do in literature. AND MOST OF THESE THINGS HAPPENED AT SOME POINT. Thank you for your nice review. Christian Burch

At 8:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been reading lots of reviews of The Manny Files, and they usually mention the manny being gay, but hardly anyone talks about the possibility that Keats himself might be gay. So, thank you, Fuse #8 for talking about this. I wholeheartedly agree that there is an entire section of our population that fails to show up in kids books. It’s gay kids. What do I mean by gay kids? Well, kids may not care about sexuality, but think for a moment about all the kids who become gay later. They had lives before puberty. There isn’t any one magical moment when most kids ‘become’ heteroexual. Many straight kids have crushes and attractions of all sorts well before puberty, so it stands to reason that some kids who we’d call gay later in life would manifest same sex attractions, fantasies and even behavior earlier.

There is lots of anecdotal evidence for this from teens and adults looking back at their earlier lives. Gay kids often feel different way before they are aware of their sexuality per se. Gay celebrities and regular folks have talked about knowing they were gay or different from very early ages. I have quite a list of citations to writings about what it is like to be a gay kid that I am happy to share. Many ‘pre-gay’ kids also manifest gender atypical behavior (aka are sissies) and are teased mercilessly for this. Reading about Keats is a perfect way to feel less alone.

Please call if you'd like me to send you citations via email. Dee Michel, 413 303-0489


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