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State of Emergency
Honest, humourous .
Some Americanisms may need explained .
Would you read it again?
How does it compare to similar books?Excellent
How does it compare to other works by the same author?Very good
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Mouse is a boy with a plan. He and his friend Ezzie have developed a series of fail-safe strategies for any dangerous situations. Happen to have found yourself being approached by an unfriendly lion? Well, that's obviously Emergency Two, so you'd better thrust your arm into his mouth and choke him. The downside, of course, is that you end up shoulder-deep in lion. The upside is that you're not dead. Yet. If you're a fan of the Twilight films and you're concerned about being attacked by a werewolf, then consider the remedy to Emergency Eleven: draw a six pointed star and get in it.
The Eighteenth Emergency, though, is an altogether different proposition. It comes in the shape of Marv Hammerman: the biggest, meanest sixth grader in the school. And he's after Mouse. This is one emergency which Mouse and Ezzie aren't prepared for. Will Mouse manage to outwit Hammerman, or will he take the worst pounding since Viola Angotti (a girl who could have been the heavyweight champion of the world) socked him in the stomach at recess?
As a character, Mouse is immediately likeable, realistic and funny. He has a mother who never quite 'gets' how important some things are, and instead focuses on all the wrong issues, like what he may have done to provoke the bullies. He has a best friend, Ezzie, who tries to bolster him up with moral support, but can't always be there when he needs him. He has a father who's not around, and a neighbour who asks him to run errands. He also has the unfortunate habit of drawing arrows and labelling everything, which may have been what got him into trouble in the first place. In short, Mouse is instantly recognisable to all children. He doesn't have magic powers, he isn't a wizard, and he most definitely doesn't have a fairy godmother to rescue him. He's just an average kid, with an everyday problem.
What Betsy Byars does exceedingly well is to recognise and represent how children are. The sinking feeling of dread when you realise you're in the worst kind of trouble. The exasperation at parents who are more worried about how many lima beans you eat for dinner than the fact of your imminent death at the hands of the most notorious bully since Hitler. The knowledge that, no matter how good a best friend you have, you still can't tell him that you once got beaten up by a girl. The dawning realisation that there are some things in life you just can't get out of.
Betsy Byars is one of my favourite children's authors and I like her for many of the same reasons that I love another of the greats: Roald Dahl. Both recognised that children are, essentially, powerless. They have little say over their own destinies and this can cause immense frustration and resentment. They both also realised that much gets lost in translation between children and adults and the things that seem trivial to grown-ups take on immense importance for children. Most importantly, they both knew how to describe children and their lives in such a way that was at once accurate, humorous, and sympathetic.
Where this book triumphs is to take a character who represents all children and to put him in a situation that most children will recognise. Even though the audience are children, they are not patronised or pandered to and therefore they can all empathise with Mouse and his plight. Even though Mouse may have brought his troubles upon himself, you still find yourself rooting for him to succeed. And, in a funny kind of way, he does.
I've read this book hundreds of times to whole classes, small groups and individuals and it's never lost its appeal. I'd say that children from about 7 or 8 upwards will appreciate the overall tone of the book and should be able to read it independently, although they may not get all the jokes. There are quite a few Americanisms like garbage, sidewalk, flashlight etc. which may need explained.
The children I've read it to have always loved it for the wry humour and realistic themes. It's a good starting point from which to explore a bullying topic and it lends itself well to the idea that bullies may not always be entirely bad people and that situations are rarely black and white. Exchanges between Mouse and Ezzie/his mum/Hammerman have realistic dialogue and so are good to act out for small drama groups. In terms of written possibilities, I've had a lot of fun with classes over the years dreaming up new emergencies and solutions (my favourite being from a seven year old self-confessed Father Ted fan called William, 'Emergency 207 - getting stuck in the ladies' underwear department at Debenhams'*)
At 118 pages, it's a nice bridging length between story books and 'proper' novels and presents a challenge without being overwhelming. I think that everyone should read it; children to remind themselves that everyone has problems just like them, and adults to remember that childhood often isn't magical.
ISBN: 978-0-099-40867-3 £4.99
*Wondering what William's solution to Emergency 207 was? 'Find a couple of pairs of the massive pants like my granny wears and stick them together with chewing gum. Then parachute out of there into the toy department.'
**God bless Ciao and their ability to upload a picture which clearly has no relevance to this title. It's very much the 'f*ck it, it'll do' approach to website maintenance. But, I ask you, would you have them any other way? (If your answer is 'yes, I'd like a website that doesn't go mental all the time and has appropriate categories and pictures, please' then I fear you may be waiting a while. Embrace the eccentricity, I say!)
Pictures of The Eighteenth Emergency - Betsy Byars
Cover illustration by the mighty Quentin Blake.
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