(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.)
Just 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. ]