Books We Love: Jennifer Murdley’s Toad

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Books We Love: Jennifer Murdley’s Toad

(The post below is a rerun from my now in-stasis blog, As the World Stearns. But I wanted to begin an occasional series on Books We Love, and this seemed as good a launch pad as any. Full disclosure: I’ve edited books by Bruce Coville, so my love of this novel may be suspect. But I didn’t edit this one. This one I came to first as a reader.)

jennifer-murdleys-toadJust as everywhere else, there are injustices in the world of children’s books. One injustice is that many of the best writers are overlooked by awards committees. (Richard Peck gave a dauntingly long list of the overlooked in his Newbery acceptance speech a few years ago now, but I can’t find the damn thing online, else I’d quote from it.) Not because of malice on the part of committees—they are made up of good people, who do a great service—but more because writers are often pegged as a “type” early on, and though the writer quickly outgrows that initial impression, critics sometimes can’t see past their preconceptions.

Such may be the case with Bruce Coville, who to my mind is one of our greatest writers for young readers. He makes it look easy, and because of that, his work is too often overlooked, or not looked at very seriously. For some, he is inseparable from his paperback successes (most obviously My Teacher Is an Alien, which has sold millions and which children love). But he’s written many casually brilliant, laugh-out-loud funny, ultimately moving novels about heartbreaking subjects, none so masterfully and lightly pulled-off as Jennifer Murdley’s Toad. Most readers choose the second Magic Shop Book, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, as their favorite (Christopher Paolini gives it credit for inspiring Eragon), but my love for Jennifer is greater: There is sad and profound business going on in this novel, but it never feels heavy-handed because Coville’s hand is so light and sure.

Jennifer Murdley is a “girl in a plain brown wrapper.” She’s plain, unattractive, a loser in the good-looks lottery. Sadly for her, she’s a child in the image-obsessed United States, and her lack of outward beauty weighs heavily on her. No matter how many times people feed her bromides about “inner beauty,” it can’t counter the truth: She’s not a looker, and she deeply wishes she were beautiful.

But leading off by describing it that way makes this sound like one of those dreadful issue novels that typified juvenile literature for a good while there in the eighties. Ugh. Not at all.

Though it brims over with heart and serious concerns, Jennifer Murdley’s Toad is a comedy—the kind of book that actually could be described as “madcap,” if that word hadn’t been hollowed out and made hokey through overuse by bad Hollywood copywriters. Coville’s story barrels along from one wildly inventive bit to the next right up to its final pages, pausing here and there to remythologize a few fairy tales, to play havoc with gender stereotypes (the novel opens with Jennifer having to wear her brother’s underwear to school), to create a touching love story among some immortal vermin, and yes, to talk about our image-obsessed culture and all the “beauty victims” in the world.

The key to the comedy takes the form of—as it often does in Coville’s novels—a sidekick. Early on, Jennifer acquires an enchanted talking toad named Bufo, and he is the worst kind of smart ass imaginable. Meaning that he takes the role of comic foil to Jennifer’s straight man. He can do impersonations and throw his voice, but mostly Bufo allows Coville to cut loose on just about anything that comes under Bufo’s gaze. He’s a perfect bit of hilarious misdirection so that Coville’s theme never feels as leaden as I made it sound in summary a few paragraphs above. It was this book that showed me how well a sidekick can work in a novel, revealed to me that giving the protagonist a funny companion does more than just provide opportunities for jokes—it allows a writer to cast the main character’s dilemma into sharper relief, create more savage contrasts between How Things Are and How We Wish They Were. And it is in those sorts of gaps that comedy finds its best material.

Bufo is more than just a talking toad, however; he is also an agent of change. (If that sounds vaguely metaphorical, well, so be it: This is a novel that is packed full of by-the-way metaphor on every level.) When a person kisses Bufo, that person is transformed into a toad (an awesomely absurd reversal of a shopworn fairy tale trope). And when that toad-person kisses someone else, the person is returned to human form while the kissee is changed into a toad. It’s like kooties. As every kid knows, they can be passed on.

Coville is pitiless about putting his characters into the worst situations imaginable, and true to form, he doesn’t spare poor Jennifer. The climax of Jennifer Murdley’s Toad is a heartbreaker (I literally tear up every time I read it), mostly because we feel so much for her. We hope that she’ll someday understand that her looks don’t really matter. Even a toad becomes beautiful once we’ve come to love it, and we love Jennifer more than she loves herself.

[A few final NBs:

—The full-cast audiobook version is especially worth seeking out, as the actor playing Bufo is superb. He doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t misread a single line.

—Tragically, the first few editions of Jennifer Murdley’s Toad actually featured pretty girls on the cover. (Talk about missing the point.) Publishers are shy, especially when it comes to portraying less-than-immediately appealing characters on book jackets. Tony DiTerlizzi was kind enough to do the art for the Magic Shop reissues I put out at Harcourt, and it is that cover you see at the start of this post and that you will find on the current version of the paperback in bookstores. ]

  1. Now that I have a brand new niece in the world (Devyn Rae, born last Friday, not that I’m kvelling or anything), I will have the wonderful opportunity to rediscover the magical world of children’s books. I will add this to my ever-growing list. Thanks, Michael, for another brilliantly written post.

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  2. I love the magic shop books! As a child, I missed most of what the story was saying about looks and such, but Bruce Coville is one of those authors that I loved both as a child and as an adult. Looking back, his books deal with a lot of issues that could be very painful, but they’re bearable because of the humor. A lot like life.

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  3. My kids are huge fans of Bruce and his Full Cast Audio productions. We never take roadtrips without them.

    What’s more, Jennifer Murdley is a really excellent book for aspiring authors to study. I was struggling with plot last year and used JM’s Toad as a model. I wrote down everything that happened in that book, and put stuff into categories (impediment, progress, etc.), and studied the hell out of what he did, which is easier to do when the book isn’t huge.

    It made a big difference. I was able to outline a book with his example in mind, and I feel like I was spared a lot of my usual grief and hair-pulling. So anyway, I am a fan.

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  4. This book really meant the world to me when I was younger. Unfortunately, I never did acquire a magic toad, but the message about self-acceptance certainly helped me out.

    @ Martha — That’s a really good idea. I’ve been thinking about adding a bit more outlining to my process, so I may steal your idea to outline Jennifer Murdley as an example.

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  5. I love this book.

    I must include the one quote that made me fall in love with it even more: “Sensitive to neighborhood gossip that she was too busy with her career to be a good mother, Mrs. Murdley was always glad to have an outside witness to the fact that she actually did cook.”

    Ha! so good..

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  6. The cover on my paperback copy avoids Jennifer altogether and just has the toad leaning out a frame. Hmmm!
    I found the discussion on the purposes/uses/advantages of having a humorous sidekick very enlightening. Now I’m thinking about all the great sidekicks in stories I’ve enjoyed, Ron Weasly for starters…

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  7. “Many of the best writers are overlooked by awards committees”

    Couldn’t agree more. Coville is among the best who have been overlooked, and far better than some who haven’t.

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  8. Bruce is not just an incredible writer — he’s also an amazing, passionate speaker. If he’s attending a writers conference near you, go! I heard him at two conferences last year and I guarantee you will come away from his presentations inspired to put your heart and soul into your work.

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  9. As the editor of JMT, let me say that we had the scene where Jennifer, mostly turned from us, is gazing into the mirror that shows her as a cheerleader-type, but she is still the hulking presence on the cover.

    I agree–it is my favorite Coville, and I love a whole lot of them!

    And I also agree that he is overlooked by award committees. It’s not just that he began in the paperback/packager gulch. Some people (notably Jerry Spinelli) have overcome that. But Coville is laugh-out-loud funny and it’s hard for some committees to forgive that. Also there are frequent references to underpants and farts and. . .

    And his books are truly subversive. In the funniest sort of way.

    Jane

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  10. FYI, the full text of Peck’s Newbery speech was published in the July 2001 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Here’s the paragraph where he cited all those wonderful authors:

    “Many a better writer has accepted the Newbery Medal over these past eighty years. Many a better writer has been denied it. But no writer ever admired his writing colleagues more than I do, or learned more from them. They are names that should be on the lips of every American parent: Patricia Reilly Giff, Katherine Paterson, Paula Danziger, Will Hobbs, Walter Dean Myers, Lois Duncan, Sonya Sones, M. E. Kerr, Kate DiCamillo, Jerry Spinelli, Cynthia DeFelice, Chris Crutcher, Michael Cadnum, Graham Salisbury, Lois Lowry, Sharon Creech, Judy Blume, Marc Talbert, Jacqueline Woodson, Paul Zindel, Joan Bauer, Jack Gantos, and many, many more. Their work towers above the ruins of an educational system, public and private, in an era when literacy has become an elective and the librarian and the writer may be the only teachers in many young lives. Being a writer never improved anybody’s mental health, and so I’m grateful for the companionship and therapy of my colleagues.”

    Not sure if the link to the full speech will work, but here it is:

    http://find.galegroup.com.rosetta.epl.org/gtx/retrieve.do?contentSet=IAC-Documents&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&qrySerId=Locale%28en%2C%2C%29%3AFQE%3D%28KE%2CNone%2C12%29Richard+Peck%24&sgHitCountType=None&inPS=true&sort=DateDescend&searchType=BasicSearchForm&tabID=T003&prodId=GRGM&searchId=R6&currentPosition=280&userGroupName=evanston_main&docId=A76627327&docType=IAC

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  11. Bruce Coville is my first writer crush since Madeleine L’Engle (and that was when I was a child/teen and I used to go up and hang around by St. John the Divine — then in not such a great neighborhood — in the hopes of seeing her). I have been wondering why and I think it might be this: they both write books that seem light but aren’t. (Terry Pratchett does this too although he also inhabits an entire category all by himself). The sense that the writers are themselves having fun shines through.

    Bruce writes books that I want to gulp down. They’re fast, they’re fun, they’re intelligent. They never talk down to the reader. They never feel ‘worthy.’ (Save me from worthy books.) His books leave you with something besides cotton candy to chew on. They’re books I want to hand to my children because his books — like Bruce himself — respect children. And children don’t often get the respect they deserve.

    I did hear him speak — at the first ever SCBWI conference I ever attended, the conference that turned me from a dreamer into a do-er. (hence the crush).

    (I also have writer crushes on Geraldine McCoughrean and Diana Wynne Jones but that’s a whole other story.)

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  12. I MUCH prefer the cover at the top of the post, so I’m glad that’s the one used now. Is more quirky than the generic looking other one. I wish publishers would have some guts more often and go for the unique. Parents do a lot of the buying without asking kids what they want. We often look for interesting covers which might lead to interesting and thoughtful writing, versus fluff.

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  13. […] Finally, a super MG recommended by agent Michael Sterns in this post: […]

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