At Hazlitt, Nicholas Hune-Brown has written a piece about the magnificently funny, playful, brilliant children’s author Gordon Korman, whose specific aesthetic (incredibly lovable but never deep) and regional fame (which I only found out was regional while reading this) has somehow resulted in a low-key tragedy where he is not recognized universally as one of the best children’s writers of all time. Which he is.
The peg for the Hazlitt piece is a new TV-movie adaptation of Korman’s first book This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, published in the late ‘70s, which kicked off a series all set at the titular, fictional Canadian boys’ boarding school. (Macdonald Hall also came with a sister institution, a “finishing school” called Miss Scrimmage’s, at which the girls were arguably much more rowdy than their male counterparts.)
It’s a Canadian adaptation of “moderate budget,” produced by a fan, and marketed to an audience that’s likely never heard of the book on which it’s based. Hune-Brown writes, “The oddity of life as a kids’ author is that your audience changes every four years, a perpetual cycle that means you’re constantly forced to introduce yourself to a new generation of fans.” And anyway, Korman’s fame is very particular:
it is difficult to know the exact dimensions of Gordon Korman’s celebrity. He was born in Montreal but grew up in Thornhill, a suburb of Toronto, where he famously wrote his first novel, This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall, as a seventh-grade English assignment and then brazenly sent the manuscript to Scholastic. Published in 1978 when Korman was 14, it sold 200,000 copies in the first two weeks after its release. Before high school was over, he had cranked out five more hits, scribbling away during summer vacation while his friends worked at camp or hung out at the mall. For bookish ten-year-olds in my downtown Toronto elementary school, circa 1990, Korman was a hero—his novels constantly in demand at the library and always among the hottest sellers at the book fair.
Emphasis mine, and let’s hear it again for good measure: Gordon Korman wrote his first book as an English class assignment when he was in seventh grade, and then sent the manuscript to Scholastic, who published it!
I had forgotten that, but I certainly knew it when I was reading Gordon Korman in elementary school, a time at which “sending a seventh-grade class project to Scholastic and becoming a published author” hovered like a castle-in-the-air ambition, floating vaguely and tantalizingly in the future, like the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list for a brain addled not with fatigue and cynicism but with optimism and suburban sun.
As to the question of how localized Korman’s localized fame was, Hune-Brown is right that childhood makes the answer somewhat impossible to find. When you’re little, you have no sense of what’s important to people who aren’t you and maybe your two best friends. But: my parents moved us to Houston from Toronto when I was four, and although they didn’t once pick out books for me—they would drop me off at the library or the used bookstore and let me roam—I’m wondering now if they, being Canadians, primed me somehow to look for Korman’s name.
And if you liked Gordon Korman, you really fucking liked Gordon Korman. He was so prolific and so low-stakes inventive that his books seemed inexhaustible; they were internally attentive enough to reread over and over, and there were always more.
“I thought he was some kind of genius,” the Toronto novelist Sheila Heti told me recently. “I probably thought that No Coins, Please was one of the most popular kids’ books ever written.” Jeremy Keehn, an Edmonton-born Korman fan who is now an editor at the New Yorker, remembers his father, a school principal, bringing him to a Professional Development day at which Korman was giving a speech. “At the time I’m sure I thought, ‘Oh, he’s this super famous writer, I hope that we can get in,’” Keehn remembers. “We’re not talking a keynote address. It was fifty teachers in a room.”
In 2010, Justin Trudeau appeared on a TV series on called Great Canadian Books in which notable Canadians talk about their favourite works (this is an actual program on Book Television, an actual channel). Guests generally choose classics from the CanLit canon by authors such as Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Laurence, or W.O.Mitchell. The future prime minister picked This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall.
And why did he inspire such fanaticism? “There was no moralizing in Korman novels,” Hune-Brown writes. “There was simply the feeling of following a slightly older kid as he tried to create the funniest, most amusing world he could.” There were no Newbery Medal emotions, and as this piece points out, no Roald Dahl villains and none of the fine-tuned social exactitude you’d find in Judy Blume. Instead: “The pleasure in the books is in the creativity of the schemes, the quality of the gags, the evident love between the characters, and the streak of anti-authoritarianism that, to a ten-year-old, felt thrilling.”
As a crude example, let me present the Wikipedia plot summary for (possibly) my favorite Gordon Korman book, the SHOCKINGLY OUT-OF-PRINT GONZO MASTERPIECE No Coins, Please, published in 1984:
Juniortours is an outfit that tours children around America during the summer months. When Group Ambulance’s Artie Geller, a precocious 11-year-old con artist from Montreal signs on, Rob and Dennis find they have more than the usual summer job on their hands. From the streets of New York City to the casinos of Las Vegas, Artie proves as slippery as ever.
First Scheme - New York City, NY. Artie sells grape jelly for $10 a jar under the title “Attack Jelly”. Makes his first fortune.
Second Scheme - Washington, DC. Artie buys a toy race track and convinces senators, congressman and other government officials to place bets on the toy cars. One Senator ends up losing all his money in the process.
Third Scheme - Ogallala, NE. Artie convinces the other boys to help him run a “no-frills” milk store where he charges $1 a minute to milk a cow, usually resulting in less than a teaspoon of milk. Makes thousands of dollars.
Fourth Scheme - Denver, CO. Artie disappears for several days. During this time he transforms an abandoned pretzel factory into a world-class discothèque visited by many prominent celebrities, then shuts it all down and flees with over $60,000.
Fifth Scheme - Las Vegas, NV. Artie disguises himself as an old man and takes tens of thousands of dollars apiece from nine different casinos. The FBI catches him as he attempts to flee to Toronto with his winnings. They eventually agree to drop all criminal charges in exchange for payment of fines totaling $149,922.04
Final Scheme - Los Angeles, CA. Since Artie is now under FBI surveillance, he convinces the other boys to carry out his five previous schemes simultaneously.
ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? Just LOOK at that goddamn structure. I went to a “very respectable MFA program” and I should have just reread Gordon Korman and picked up plotting tips for three years. And naming tips, too: he had an incredible knack for building in fully formed jokes this way, c.f. “Group Ambulance” and “Attack Jelly” in No Coins Please, or—just the first example that comes to mind—this 1992 joint The Twinkie Squad, which features a kid with chronic nosebleeds who pretends he comes from the obscure country of “Pefkakia,” then subsequently dubs all the kids in his Breakfast Club-type situation “The Grand Knights of the Exalted Karpoozi,” and then wreaks havoc on the school in a plot that involves both the Surgeon General and a large garlic squid.
One more example, also from Wikipedia: another favorite of mine was Losing Joe’s Place, which featured a character named...
Rootbeer Racinette. A huge, hulking figure with a new hobby almost everyday, including (but not limited to) painting, model airplanes, money, stamps, balloon blowing, the kazoo and telescopes. He is also a believer in a special type of meditation that makes it look like the meditator is dead. He has been shown to make a large amount of money at various times by making outrageous bets, such as destroying a tire by biting it and fighting professional wrestlers for minimal money. He is Joe’s friend which is how he is able to move into their apartment, much to the dismay of everyone involved (except, of course, himself). Note the joke with his name. In French, Racinette means rootbeer, causing his name to be Rootbeer Rootbeer.
That is top-quality shit.
At the center of all Gordon Korman’s books was a strain of ecstatic dumb-boy freedom—a good-hearted heedlessness that still strikes me as essential to the way I want to live. This quality also became part of the creative DNA of the writers who loved him. Hune-Brown writes:
By the time I was devouring Korman’s books, I already had some sense that I wanted to do what he did. His example made the idea of becoming a writer less abstract. [...] When Sheila Heti was eight or nine, she sent Korman a letter telling him she wanted to be a writer. He sent her a two-page typed response offering warm advice and telling her his thoughts about the writing business.
What a man! (Korman’s only 52 now, still.) If you have a kid in elementary school, buy them No Coins, Please, please—and get a copy for yourself, too.
Image via Scholastic