Tuesday, July 20, 2010

John Grisham Proves It: Writing for Kids is Hard, Yo.

I'll admit it, I was excited to read John Grisham's first foray into children's literature, Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer. I've read about 20 of his books and generally enjoyed them. (Especially The Firm. That book rocks.) So because I am cheap, I waited until the other men in their mid-thirties returned the two copies the library computers claimed to have and I snagged one a couple of days ago.

I read it. It sucked.

At first, I had a hard time believing Grisham actually wrote it. Then I thought, Well, okay, he wrote it but it couldn't have possibly been his idea. His marketing team must have talked him into doing it so he could branch out and ensnare a new generation of readers to replace all the old trial lawyers who're dropping like flies due to long hours and stress and amicus briefs.

I still hope this is true.

Because it was like Grisham forgot how to write. He's never been Hemingway or Faulkner or other authors known for their comparison usefulness, but Grisham knows how to tell a story. He keeps the tension high. The earnest young lawyer is constantly in trouble as he fights an enemy with both limitless power and sinisterness. His books move at breakneck pace. He cares not for fancy language and wastes no ink with metaphor or allusion or other such literary crap. John Grisham tells good stories simply.

In Theodore Boone, the story is awful. There is no tension. Worse, there are tension teasers which never develop into anything. It's almost like J.G. was afraid to put his young lawyer in any real danger because he thought he might scare his readers. In fact, most of the problems I have with the book derive from what quickly becomes abundantly clear: John Grisham has no clue how to write for kids.

First, the voice is third person omniscient and not even moderately appealing. It's stodgy, like the story is being told by a fifty-five year old former Southern lawyer. Grisham wastes little time writing scenes. Instead, he just tells the reader whatever it is he needs to know.

Theodore Boone was a good kid who didn't care about girls and never got into trouble and really really liked the law.*

Stuff like that. Also, Grisham commits that most heinous of kidlit sins. He uses his book to preach. His sermon: "LAWYERS ARE NOT ONLY USEFUL TO SOCIETY, THEY'RE INDISPENSABLE AND REALLY GOOD PEOPLE, TOO." I suppose he's trying to head off all the lawyer jokes that his innocent readers will be exposed to about the time they hit high school.

Theodore Boone himself is too good to be true; he is a character without flaws. His parents, both lawyers, work hard, care about Theo, and volunteer at a soup kitchen (I'm not making that up) when they're not working diligently (and honestly) for their clients, even though they really don't make as much money as you kids hear about on the television. And Theo, because he's such a law freak, is constantly helping his poor classmates (and even an adult here and there) with their legal problems. He provides advice on divorce, foreclosure, and a DUI, to name a few, and he does it all gratis because charging would be unethical (Theo's not a "real lawyer," after all.)

Another problem (not that preaching and a lack of conflict isn't enough) is the seemingly random sidebars (see what I did there?). In order to establish Theo as a legal expert, Grisham has him give the aforementioned advice to his classmates. But none of this, including what could have been an interesting bit about his best friend (a girl) going through her parents' divorce, ever has anything to do with the main storyline. I kept waiting for these bird walks to come back and matter and they never did.

I could go on. But I think it's interesting to note that John Grisham,who could sell a few hundred thousand copies of his grocery list, wrote such a horrific novel for kids. Why? I posit the following:

1. He just didn't give a damn.

2. He doesn't understand that kids want a great story just as much as adults.

3. He adopted a paternal stance and instead of writing to entertain, he wrote to guide and to educate. There are a number of places in the book that read like a primer on America's legal system. Grisham has young Theo tell his classmates all about how the start of a trial will work so that his readers can understand such terms as "prosecution" and "witness stand" and "jury box." It was as if Grisham didn't realize kids watch TV and movies and probably already know all this shit.

4. It's not easy to write a thriller for kids because you can't just hack up bodies to create suspense and intrigue. Grisham, to his credit, realized this and had the murder in the book be a tidy strangling. There were other moments where you could almost sense that Grisham wanted to have a bad guy do something naughty but couldn't quite pull the trigger. I guess he was protecting his readers. (See #3)

5. He hasn't read much middle grade and young adult fiction.

Anyway, I've gone on long enough. The book stunk and I think you should read it to revel in its stinkiness.

Not an actual line from the book, but trust me, it's close enough.


Anonymous said...

Yet it's a NYT bestseller. You have to love how dumb, in general, people are. Or actually, you don't. In fact, it drives me f*****g crazy how moronic the general populous is. People really would line up in droves to buy his grocery list, that's the sad part, that that's not even an exaggeration.

Anonymous said...

And I agree, I like his adult books, so I'm not trashing Grisham, just like you're not. I just think it's funny how easily branding works on idiot Americans. Like, John Grisham or Stephen King could eat a whole bunch of PF Changs and then shit into 100,000 little baggies and they would all sell out in under 15 minutes.

Unknown said...

If their leavings retain even a smidgen of PF Chang's delectable spices, that might not be a bad purchase.

Unknown said...

Pipe down, Anonymous. That's disgusting. But funny.

Grisham's adult books are good, great at times. I thought this book would suck, but I'll read it just to revel in his suckiness. Curious who the editor was on the book. Willing to bet it was someone who edits adult books.

Thanks for the review, Murph. Well done.

Ray Veen said...

I don't think I'll be one of the thirty-something guys lining up to read this book.