I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President
by Josh Lieb
Published by Razorbill, 2009
Ages: Middle School through YA
Sometimes you’re excited about books being adapted into movies – especially if your little heart swells to think of the royalties going to the author. Other times, other books, the idea of a film adaptation is, at best, cringe-worthy. This is one such book. It’s coming to the big screen sometime this year, and I just simply cannot imagine how they can take this hilarious gem of a book and effectively translate it to video.
I first picked up this book based on its deliciously verbose title and its endorsement from Jon Stewart (“If War and Peace had a baby with The Breakfast Club and then left the baby to be raised by wolves, this book would be the result. I loved it.”) When I discovered that its author was one of Stewart’s executive producers, and that it had come out in paperback, I could no longer resist its evil, evil charms.
I was quite wrong about it, though. I thought Genius was going to be more or less realistic fiction about an over-intelligent, misanthropic kid running for student body. As it turns out, I was a tiny bit wrong about that “realistic fiction” bit. The story’s protagonist is Oliver Watson, a thirteen-year-old kid who may be overweight but who is also the third wealthiest person in the world. An evil genius, he built his fortune from a single petty crime (stealing some money from his mother’s purse) and carved out an empire of subterranean tunnels accessible from his bedroom or a secret locker passageway. He’s a blimp-piloting, minion-smacking, evil gadget-inventing mastermind who, as a seventh grader, holds the strings of any number of puppet corporations and countries.
Oliver is determined not to divulge his crazily successful alter ego, and so he lives his life as a very convincing idiot. He’s got everyone fooled into thinking his shoe size exceeds his IQ – classmates, teachers, even his mother and, importantly, his father. It turns out that Oliver is motivated, not by greed, respect, or a desire to change the world, but by a consuming dislike for what he sees as his self-interested and small-minded father.
He’s also motivated by puppy love, but that’s another story.
As Oliver’s best intentions fall apart around him, he ends up in an amusingly messed-up race for student body president, gets cut down a size or two, and maybe even grows up a little bit. But that’s not why you should read it; you should read it for the footnotes.
I’d say that Genius would be what happened if a Daily Show writer re-wrote Catcher in the Rye as a superhero comic book, but since that’s basically what this is, I guess I’ll just say that it’s now available in paperback and as a $6 hardcover through Amazon. If you’re ready for a good, smart laugh, find yourself a copy and buckle your seatbelt.
Some of us have already been back to school for a couple of weeks now (where does the time go?) but it always seems like September truly heralds the start of the school year. To celebrate, Great Perhaps is going to read some books about school and the extraordinary – and sometimes awful – lives that are being lived within them.
Our tentative reading list, in arbitrary order, includes:
Columbine by Dave Cullen
I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb
Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar
The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga
King Dork by Frank Portman
and Stargirl and Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, because we are just now getting around to this charming story.
Feel free to join us this September as we read!
The Great Perhaps is going to take a brief-ish hiatus for the month of August to recover from summer courses, prepare for teaching, and deal with some family stuff. We’ll be “back to school” in September – check back soon!
In the meantime, check out some of the great links in the right sidebar, or log off and spend some quality time with your favorite bookstore or library. 🙂
Last year, I had a great time teaching satire, characterization, plot structure, and parody to my sophomores using The Princess Bride. Several of them listed it as their favorite book they’d yet read in school.
You could probably work in a nice mini-lesson about tone and context by using something like this Princess Bride re-cut movie trailer, which turns the relatively lighthearted fairy tale into a horror flick:
And I just loved this cartoon found on Twaggies, a website that takes funny Tweets and illustrates them. You’d have to decide whether it was appropriate for your specific group of kids and school, but still: hilarious.
I have to confess that I had my doubts about pursuing young adult LGBTQ literature for this project. I wavered, considering several less risky options. But in the end, I decided to take that last step off the high jump.
Since making that decision, I’ve encountered some exceptional and some less-than-exceptional writing. I’ve met some amazing characters and some who faded into the wallpaper (not including, of course, any wallflowers). I’ve stepped into some truly unforgettable fictional lives, and shared true secrets with some breathtakingly honest memoirists.
All of that could have happened, however, no matter what theme I’d chosen to pursue.
On top of all that… I’ve learned. I’ve learned how much I didn’t know, and how much I’d learned that was wrong, and I’ve begun filling those holes and rotten places in with reality. I’ve seen my own bias, and having seen it and confronted it with the knowledge I’d gained, I’ve scrubbed much of it away. (Homophobia, it turns out, isn’t just spewing hate speech and physically harming others – it’s all of the little misconceptions we harbor, all of the queasiness we try to hide, all of the awkwardness we feel.)
I’ve experienced a tiny taste of what it must be like, as an LGBTQ teen, to find books that apply to one’s life. I’ve gone to the bookstore and waded through the Disapproving Old Boys’ Club, all standing around flipping through military history books, to get to the out-of-the-way and tiny selection of LGBTQ literature; I’ve felt their stares and heard their little sounds of disgust as I sat down to browse. Another bookstore put their LGBTQ literature next to books on marriage and divorce; the two women browsing those shelves backed away from me and fled when I began digging through the gay/lesbian memoirs. I’ve spent hours browsing our local libraries’ online catalogues, collecting long lists of NO RECORD FOUND notices. We have a local bookstore chain that is (as local rumor has it) owned by the LDS church. It’s one of the best places in the community for teachers to buy books, due to their deep discount program, or to find high-quality used books. This bookstore chain is apparently exercising a silent boycott of YA authors who write about LGBTQ characters or issues – prolific, award-winning authors simply don’t exist on their shelves. Practically every store that did have a LGBTQ section squished it up against the Erotica shelves, as if to reinforce the idea that homosexuality is equivalent to over-the-top sexual expression.
Best of all, I’ve gotten mad.
These are people. These are my students. I have had and always will have LGBTQ students and students with LGBTQ family members and friends. Our schools go out of their way to represent and celebrate pretty much every other minority. I’m not saying we need to drop everything and have schoolwide Pride Months, but don’t our LGBTQ students deserve access to books with protagonists whose lives and problems resemble their own?
No teacher that I’ve ever known would stand by and allow students (or, heaven forbid, school staff/faculty) to say “nigger” or to tear down another student based on their ethnicity. I’d like to think that teachers wouldn’t permit aggressively sexist behavior or speech, either. Why then, do teachers turn a blind ear to the word “faggot”? Why do teachers allow kids to say “that’s so gay” – why do teachers say it, too?
This isn’t about politics. It isn’t about religion. It’s about kids. If nothing else, as a teacher I have a professional responsibility to differentiate, to know my students, and to help them. I have a professional responsibility to strive to provide a safe learning environment for all my students. It’s not necessary for a teacher to agree with something or like something in order to provide it to a student in need.
I’m not entirely certain how to fight this fight. The first step is easy: put these books on my classroom library shelves, not quarantined in their own little section but intermingled in with all the other stories for real teens. It’s what comes next that is unclear. I have the words, the statistics, and the anecdotes ready for the moment if when I am confronted by parents or fellow educators. What I don’t know is how to address something I experienced last year: the exaggerated sounds of disgust as a student reads the back cover flap, the moment when I realize that an easily offended, deeply conservative student has unwittingly picked up an LGBTQ book to take home with her, the nasty comments buzzing around the bookshelves. I have just under a month to come up with my battle plan, because I believe in this and am not going to walk away from it. I hope to find some of the tools I need from the Think B4 You Speak campaign and GLSEN’s Safe School Kit.
I’m ready to read something else, but I have really truly enjoyed this past month. If I can keep the momentum rolling during the school year, I’ll look forward to revisiting LGBTQ literature for teens next year – goodness knows I didn’t get through half of the books I collected this time!
If you’re interested, the packet I put together for my presentation on LGBTQ lit for teens is available here.