The Virtues of Forgoing Universality: The Case of Justin Case

We (I) here at Dr. V dot com enterprises (my house) have thus far focused mainly on read-alouds for the preschool set for this blog, mostly because there are bazillions and bazillions of them and also you have to read them out loud so it seems worthwhile to keep a running tally of the standouts.

The problem of bazillions and bazillions is less of a thing with books for the older-but-only-so-much-older-than-preschool set, however. Call it the Mean of Eight category: books for those six- to ten-year-olds who have been reading for a while and are way too grown-up to have picture books read to them and yet are actually not very old as far as human beings go. There are still one bazillion, probably, in my very scientific guess, but….a lot of the aren’t very good.

You can’t go wrong turning to that renaissance we seemed to have in the 1960s and 1970s, with the likes of Cleary (I think Strider is underrated), Dahl, and Blume (ditto her weirdo story Freckle Juice). But, as relatable as they somehow remain, these books do present needlepoint as a common hobby and act like going to the corner store by oneself as a 7-year-old is normal; modern books as good as these classics can seem hard to come by.

But not impossible! and we’re going to start talking about more of them around here. Starting with:

The Justin Case books, by Rachel Vail. (Illust. by  Matthew Cordell). Feiwel and Friends (imprint of MacMillan), since 2010.justincase

Dr. V.’s take:

Justin Krzeszewski (he’s half-Jewish; everybody always messes up his name) is just about the nicest kid I’ve ever met. And yet he’s a great example of how being eight means that sometimes your good intentions aren’t quite in line with your social skills, and situations can kind of get away from you.

jc2_04Justin is precocious but also kind of strangely worrywart-y for a kid his age—-hence his nickname, Justin Case. He frets about the largeness of his friend’s head (turns out to be a nonissue, believe it or not), whether there will be sharks at the beach (shockingly, there aren’t), and he takes the liberty of searching the classifieds for new jobs for his parents in New Jersey so he can avoid starting a new school year in third grade (“no movement…, despite all my arguments”).

Justin’s uniqueness is one of my favorite things about him as a character, and Vail makes him totally believable. In my view, too many books aimed at kids this age try to create these Everyboy/Everygirl protagonists (and heaven forfend the ‘twain should meet); the medium-looking, medium-talented, medium kid, who accidentally does some shenanigans and along the way learns the True Meaning of Friendship or other family value.  It’s bland, and it’s also a bummer, because in order to work it relies on certain common ground with readers that may or may not actually exist (see, for example, the stuff I said about apartments in this post).

Justin, however, is his own person. And even though Justin’s natural nervousness might not be something everyone feels themselves, it makes him real. Real characters are always better than imitations of “universality,” which is imaginary; and interesting is always better than familiar. What’s more, Justin’s lack of “runny-aroundy”-ness, as he puts it, is kind of refreshing, considering how quickly people tend to assume that boys are always rambunctious.  And anyway, he has the most important thing in common with other eight-year-olds, which is the fact that he is a goober, and they are all without exception goobers. Though the hijinx in the Justin Case books are pretty tame, they’re paced well and recounted with humor.

These are the kinds of books I can read myself without being miserably bored; this is something I look for in books for my older kid, because it’s fun to be able to chat over chores about what “we’ve” been reading lately. It’s okay if we don’t directly identify with every facet of Justin’s personality—-the important thing is that he has one, and he’s learning how it meshes and doesn’t mesh with those of others. What’s more relatable than that? jc2_05

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