Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Cockroach Ate My Book Report

In this past Sunday's blog I mentioned the book BRIAN PICCOLO : THE SHORT SEASON by Jeannie Morris.

I later remembered that, back when I was in school, this was the "go to" title for book report assignments.

I don't think many kids actually read Ms. Morris's book...but most of them had seen the TV movie BRIAN'S SONG and that was usually enough to cobble together an acceptable report, providing they didn't slip and say something like, "My favorite part was when Billy Dee Williams visited James Caan in the hospital."

Of course that was a back in the seventies. Jeannie Morris's book is now out of print. The movie BRIAN'S SONG (despite being remade for TV within the past few years) is no longer a cultural touchstone for kids. And "book reports," as such, seem to have gone the way of the dodo, the dinosaur, and Fear Street paperbacks.

Oh, I'm sure they're still assigned in schools here and there, but progressive educators tell me that today's students more often keep reading journals -- or create dioramas, write fake newswpaper stories, and make Youtube videos based on the books they read.

So I guess that contemporary kids will never experience the fear and dread -- not to mention the malingering, procrastination, and downright CHEATING -- associated with the old-fashioned book report.

In addition to the well-worn BRIAN'S SONG ruse, I recall many incidents in which a larger-than-average number of students were absent on the day book reports were due. I remember oddball romances between male jocks and quiet, studious girls which began the day book reports were assigned, lasted only as long as it took the girl to read THE GOOD EARTH, and ended the moment she handed her "boyfriend" a freshly-typed copy of "his" book report. As for procrastination, I must plead guilty to that one myself. I was a good, willing reader, yet even I spent an endless Sunday night -- the house dark, the entire family already in bed -- using the hunt-and-peck method to summarize and critique AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY on my father's manual typewriter. (What kind of teacher assigns Dreiser to a junior high school student?)

Here are some fictional "book report" tales:

* One of the characters in C.S. Adler’s THAT HORSE WHISKEY “based her book reports on jacket flap copy alone.”

* In THE SCHWA WAS HERE by Neal Shusterman, the unnoticed protagonist has the handy ability to "slip a kid's late book report into a teacher's briefcase, right under the teacher's nose.

* Anyone remember the old episode of TV's LEAVE IT TO BEAVER in which the Beaver is assigned to read THE THREE MUSKETEERS and instead watches a slapstick movie version of the classic and writes his report based on that? (Next time try BRIAN'S SONG, Beav!)

* In his memoir ROCK THIS!, entertainer Chris Rock recalled, "I did a book report on O.J. Simpson in the third grade and every year I’d take that same book report, rewrite it, and hand it in for class."

* Then there's Lorraine's story about John's book report in Paul Zindel's THE PIGMAN: "One time last term Miss King asked him what happened to the book report he was supposed to hand in on JOHNNY TREMAIN, and he told her that he had spilled some coffee on it the night before, and when the coffee dried, there was still sugar on the paper and so cockroaches ate the book report. You might also be interested to know that the only part of JOHNNY TREMAIN that John did end up reading was page forty-three -- where the poor guy spills the molten metal on his hand and cripples it for life. That was the part he finally did book report on -- just page forty-three -- and he got a ninety on it! I only got eighty-five, and I read the whole thing."

* In Jeff Kinney's DIARY OF A WIMPY KID : RODRICK RULES, the protagonist shares his secret formula for scholastic success: "I'm kind of an expert at writing book reports. There are about twenty short stories in SAMMY SHERLOCK DOES IT AGAIN, but I just treat each story like it’s a whole book and the teacher never notices."

* Then there's the musical number from YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, in which several characters struggle over a book report on PETER RABBIT.

Linus takes the high road:

"In examining a book such as Peter Rabbit, it is important that
the superficial characteristics of its deceptively simple plot
should not be allowed to blind the reader to the more substancial
fabric of its deeper motivations. In this report I plan to discuss the
sociological implications of family pressures so
great as to drive an otherwise moral rabbit to
perform acts of thievery which he consciously knew were
against the law."

His sister Lucy worries about reaching the assignment's 100-word minimum:

"Peter Rabbit is this stupid book
About this stupid rabbit who steals
Vegetables from other peoples' gardens
[She stops to count the words.]
Hmm. 83 to go."

Schroeder is determined to write about another book he apparently preferred:

"It reminded me of 'Robin Hood'
And the part where Little John jumped from the rock
To the Sheriff of Nottingham's back.
And then Robin and everyone swung from the trees
In a sudden surprise attack."

Meanwhile, Charlie Brown is bemoaning the unfairness of it all:

"How do they expect us to
Write a book report
Of any quality
In just two days?

How can they
Conspire to
Make life so mis'rable
And so effectively
In so many ways?"

I imagine that many former book report writers will recognize themselves in one or another of those Peanut characters.

Do you have any memories of taking a sick day when book reports were due? Counting the words in your finished assigment? Or turning in a report on an unfinished novel? Did a cockroach ever eat your homework?


grrlpup said...

Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby, Age 8 has the book report scene in which Ramona is supposed to sell the book, TV-commercial style, and dresses in a cat mask to imitate the Meow Mix ad. A great example of the total disconnect between reading a book and doing a book report on it.

Jennifer said...

Can we count college? I have a bachelor's in English Lit - basically one, long, drawn-out book report. Ahem. I not only wrote papers without reading the books, I took tests on books I hadn't read - and aced them. I led discussions on stories I'd barely cracked the pages on. And whenever I was out of ideas for a paper, I just dug out one of my old high school papers, polished it a bit, and submitted it. No problem. Why yes, I was not thrilled with school, how can you tell? I did have a couple teachers I thought worth working for, but the rest of it...meh. I do get the occasional kid at the library doing a book report, usually being forcibly dragged to my desk by a parent. And then there's the kids whose greek myth unit project was to create a board game with mythical characters. Whatever.

Bybee said...

When he was a senior in high school, my brother read *one page* in the last chapter of The Painted Bird and got an A on his report. As I remember, that page had a lot of grisly action and description.

Anonymous said...

I never had a problem with book reports, but I do know someone who managed to write a lot of book reports on non-existent books both for his own homework and for the other kids. The teachers were always impressed but never got around to reading those books themselves, I guess.
He became a writer.
Jeanne K.