Review: Guy’s Read: Other Worlds edited by Jon Scieszka

Guys Read: Other Worlds edited by Jon Scieszka (Walden Pond Press, September 2013)

This is Jon Scieszka’s fourth installment of the Guys Read anthologies  Like each anthology in this series, the target is middle grade male readers.  These anthologies make no bones about the fact that they are designed with boys in mind.  Each installment has taken a specific genre, or sub-genre as it’s theme and featured stories by some of the top authors writing for kids and young adults today centered around that theme.   This fourth collection tackles the genres of science fiction and fantasy . . . with very mixed results.

Okay, I admit it.  When it comes to anthologies, I can be exceedingly critical .   I’m going to be looking not just how good the stories are, but how well they meet the theme, what audience they’re intended for, and how the collection flows from story to story.  If you want the skinny on how I feel about anthologies see my post here.   So (cracking my knuckles and putting on my reviewer armor), let’s take a look at this collection.

It starts out with a foreword by the editor, Jon Scieszka that does it’s best to intrigue the audience, give hints at the stories in the anthology, discuss the power of science fiction and fantasy and pay a little honor to the late Ray Bradbury.  It’s a touching introduction to the entire anthology.  And it got to me–I remember when Ray Bradbury passed away (I was at Book Expo), and it was heartening to see that others valued his work and mourned the loss of one of the greats. The reader feels that the editor really gets it,  the love of the genre and the power of the stories.  It’s a good intro.

The Stories:

1. “Percy Jackson  and the Singer of Apollo” by Rick Riordan–For fans of Riordan’s Olympians series, they’ll be happy to see their favorite characters back in a funny and frantic adventure that takes Percy and Grover into Times Square  on a quest.  It’s a fine enough story to be entertaining, though I didn’t find it to be Riordan’s best work.  This is pure urban fantasy, which can be said to fit the theme.  It’s also definitely boy friendly and made for a middle grade audience.  I do have an issue with the fact that the title of this anthology is “other worlds” while this story pretty much is set in the heart of New York City.  It can be argued that it’s a different version of NYC than the one we all know . . . but still.

My bigger bone to pick is the placement of this story.  This is not Riordan’s best work by any means.  It’s meant for fans.  And honestly, fans will read this story if it’s at the front, middle or end of the book.  I can’t help but think it was misplaced by being the kickoff.  In my experience, you don’t lead with one of the big fan-base authors.  You put them somewhere in the middle, probably closer to the end.  Their story is your “ace” story.  Fans might just read through all the other short stories to get to the one by their favorite author.  But if it’s up front, the fan base is more likely to read the first story and ignore the rest of the anthology.  It’s also not a great kickoff story for non-fans of Riordan.  No matter how much explanation is put in, it’s very clear that this is a story set in a well established universe of characters that others have read about and that makes it less desirable as the kickoff piece to set the tone.

2″.Bouncing the Grinning Goat” by Shannon Hale--I confess I had to double check the book I was reading when I encountered this story.  It’s a nice female sword and sorcery piece about a young girl who runs away with her brother’s armor and takes on the position of bouncer at a tavern.   But it feels entirely out of place in this anthology.  While it’s not impossible that boys will enjoy a story with a female protagonist, when it’s an anthology expressly for boys, you kind of expect there to be a male protagonist.  Hale’s story would be just fine in an anthology on warriors, or young heroes and heroines, etc.  But as the second story in a Guys Read anthology?   I’m just baffled why it wasn’t possible to get a fantasy adventure tale with a boy as the main character.  And this is where theme gets in the way of a good story.  While this epic sword and sorcery fantasy story meets the “Other Worlds” criteria, it just doesn’t seem in keeping with the “guys read” theme or expected audience.

But if we ignore all that  and simply accept it as  very enjoyable fantasy story from a talented writer, it is still the second story,  which means it should be markedly different from the previous story in a way that starts to demonstrate the range of the anthology.   BUT  these first two stories are both fantasy tales– pretty much the only fantasy stories in the entire anthology.  Putting them back to back seems like a misstep.  Better to seed one of the fantasy pieces further into the mix.   Why not have the second lead in be a science fiction piece?

3. “The Scout” by D. J. MacHale — Here’s our first solid, thought-provoking science fiction piece.   One tough boy makes it through a round of struggles against nature and machine to discover some startling truths about where he is and what is happening .  It’s a serious piece that has a complex character and a determined ending.  Good science fiction, though I think the entire story went on a bit longer than it needed to.  That said, it’s not a bad addition to this anthology. It’s a fairly mature science fiction piece, but should be accessible to the sophisticated middle grade reader. It easily fits the Other Worlds theme.

The problem, again, is placement.  This is the longest story in the entire anthology other than the Ray Bradbury story at the end.  It’s over 50 pages long, which is a lot for any short story.   If the idea of anthology is to pull readers in, this is not the way to do it. Especially since this is the first science fiction piece in the collection.

4. “Rise of the Robo-Shoes” by  Tom Angleberger–Quite possibly my favorite funny piece of science fiction absurdity that I’ve read in quite a while.  I actually laughed out loud at the ending.  This is a “short-short” story.  At only a few pages long, the intent of the story is quick and mercilessly silly.  I’m happy to see this included here, not only because Angleberger has become very popular with kids lately, but because it’s nice to remind readers that science fiction doesn’t need to be profound or super complex.  Some times it can be super clever and funny. Theme and audience-wise this tale is perfectly fine.  Placement-wise I think putting this after the MacHale piece is a good counterpoint.

5. “The Dirt on Our Shoes” by Neal Shusterman–Okay . . . this one’s complicated.  It’s an excellent, if dark and somewhat disturbing, piece of science fiction.  Shusterman has been cropping up as a strong talent for science fiction novels for a few years now.  But those novels are all Young Adult. And this short story is very much a Young Adult story.  Fourteen year old Tanner Burgess feels like an outsider on the traveling generational space craft that is his home.  He knows that everyone is looking forward to their arrival on their new home planet, but somethings not quite right with the plan everyone believes in . . .

The story is a good one . . . but I feel like the target audience for this isn’t middle grade.  This is much better suited to a YA anthology.  I’d have reservations about handing this anthology to some of my fourth and fifth grade readers because of this story.     That’s not to say there isn’t a mature readership that can handle such a story, only that the fans who have come for Rick Riordan and Percy Jackson might not expect to be gut-punched by this story.  Placement-wise I have no complaints.  It’s well bracketed on either side by stories that differ considerably and is nicely set mid anthology.

6. “Plan B” by Rebecca Stead— A boy starts going through some very disturbing changes–and we’re not talking puberty here!  An “aliens among us” story told in first person POV, this is an intriguing science fiction tale that manages to be fascinating and entertaining–and I think would have made a decent second story in the anthology.   The story itself is firmly middle grade and fits comfortably with both themes of the story.  Truly I don’t have any complaints about this one . . . and I’ve always loved the tangling of cats and science fiction.

7. “A Day in the Life” by Shaun Tan--If you know this graphic artist, then you’ll be familiar with his tendency to tell stories through whimsical imagery.  His entire story offering here is a series of sketched images, 1 per page, with captions that show a very peculiar day  in the life of one boy.  It’s entirely different in form and delivery  from anything else.  It offers the reader a break from the  blocks of text and still delivers a fun and imaginative tour through one bizarre day.  Theme and audience are spot on for this story.  Placement works well to put space between the text stories.

8. “The Klack Bros. Museum” by Kenneth Oppel— A father-son trip across the country leads our characters to an odd little museum where they encounter a lonely ghost.  It’s a great story, well told by a skilled writer that gives you suspense, chills and a satisfying ending.  This ghost-story could be considered a fantasy piece (although it doesn’t really fit the “Other Worlds” theme too well.)  but it’s really more of a horror/thriller story.   To be honest, the story feels as though it would have been a much better fit for the Guys Read: Thriller.  I’m curious if it was originally intended for that collection of stories before ultimately being picked up and included here.

Looking past the fact that it doesn’t quite meet the theme as well as I’d like, I honestly would have preferred this as the anchor story preceding the Ray Bradbury piece.  It’s subject matter is vastly different, but Oppel as a writer has an elegance to his writing that would have worked suitably well bumping literary shoulders with Bradbury’s artistry.

9. “The Warlords of Recess” by Eric Nylund–A goofy romp of a story where some aliens decide to challenge a grade school team to a sports match for dominion of the planet.  It’s fun and funny and sure to appeal.  It’s on theme and perfectly middle grade.   But this is the last story in the anthology other than Ray Bradbury’s inclusion.  To be honest, I really would have dropped this story in towards the beginning of the anthology collection, because it’s not a good anchor piece, or even a good lead in to Bradbury’s work.  Something more thoughtful, or more elegant might have been a better choice here like Oppel’s story.

I’m not a particular fan of Nylund’s style, but the story would have been much more doable as a second or third story into the anthology.

10. “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury–And this is where I’m left slightly dazed and puzzled.  I’ve encountered this short story by Bradbury before.  It’s masterful, powerful, stirring and stunning.  But it is not a story for middle graders.  I’d be hard pressed to say this is a story for most young adults even.  It is profound, mature science fiction.

Why not choose one of the many pieces Bradbury has written that are appropriate for younger audiences?  He’s written some great ones.  I have to guess that this was one of the few stories the editor was able to obtain rights to at the time of the anthology.  But it’s just not a good fit.  Bradbury’s story is in another league, intended for an entirely different audience of readers–it seems unfair to include it next to any of these authors, none of whom are writing with adults as their target.

So there you have it.  There is some good stuff in here, but I’m very unsatisfied with the placement and puzzled by the inclusion of some items that do not fit the audience and theme.  Still, given the fact that there are few science fiction anthologies for kids being published at all these days, it could well be worth a look.

Publisher: Walden Pond Press

Publication Date: September 2013   

ISBN13:     9780061963803  

Recommended for grades 4 and up.


About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on October 4, 2013, in General Posts, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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