Imagine a weird kid. Shouldn’t be too difficult. They’re everywhere.
This one lives in the mid-1980s. He’s in fifth grade, weighs about twelve pounds, and wears those classic three-stripe socks up to the knee.
Dapper is the word you’re looking for.
His adolescent brain is already pretty strange. The few short stories he has under his belt all end with the gruesome death of every character. The Dark Crystal plays on heavy rotation in his home. He spends a significant amount of time building “traps” in the forest for whoever might come along (usually his brother). The Peanut Butter Solution was a thing that was seen and could not be unseen.
This boy’s name? Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr.
Just kidding. But he really wanted to be called Dr. Jones.
Now imagine his 5th-grade language arts teacher. A wonderful teacher, incredibly caring, everything you would hope for. That was Mrs. Kirkland.
She read to his class twice a week from a book of her choosing.
There were plenty of normal options open to her at the time. Charlotte’s Web was popular. Treasure Island. Where the Red Fern Grows. The Secret Garden, Red Badge of Courage, etc.
So what did she choose to read?
Bless that woman.
The book follows the adventures of Tycho, a boy who finds a small time-travel device in his backyard. He takes short trips into the past for selfish reasons like taking revenge on bullies. But with each trip into the future, he discovers a progressively more twisted and cruel version of himself. Despite the negative effects, he seems unable to give up the power of time travel.
Above all, it’s weird. Not quite David Lynch-weird, but maybe the 5th-grade equivalent. And it doesn’t softball anything for the young audience. Green Futures pushed hard sci-fi concepts, alternate realities, body horror, and a young protagonist who transforms into a nightmare.
After this, Ms. Kirkland read us Sleator’s Singularity. In that novel, a boy deliberately ages himself inside a singularity so he can be older and bigger than his twin brother.
I read more Sleator on my own after that, working my way through Interstellar Pig and Into the Dream. Both were wonderfully insane, perfect grist for the mill of weirdness inside my skull. Sleator specialized in vivid depictions of alternate realities, insanity, and warped or shared consciousness. His characters played in dystopias long before they were the YA setting du jour.
I have a lot of love for Sleator, his books, and the influence they had on me. It was wonderful to find such strangeness at that age.
But it’s the finding that this post is really about, and that means a giant “thank you” to Mrs. Kirkland. Even now, several centuries after the fact, I’m grateful that she chose the weirdest of options.
I haven’t re-read a Sleator novel since middle school. I can’t say how they hold up against contemporary middle-grades genre lit. But he was a big deal at the time, and I hope kids still find their way to his work.
If you have or teach kids that age, do a wonderful thing and toss them a book that will shatter their fragile minds forever.