Monthly Archives: April 2017

Massive Fail

I clearly remember reading Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine. The basic story is that Danny really doesn’t want to do his homework. He and his mom live with Professor Bullfinch who is building a computer for NASA. As I recall after the Professor explains the machine to Danny, he gets together with his friends Joe and Irene and they decide to use the computer to do their homework. Do I remember all the ins and outs of the story? No. I remember that once it was found out, Danny and his friends were in trouble. There were consequences. However, I clearly remember the Professor suggesting that actually there was no harm, no foul. Why? Because in order to program the computer to do their homework, Danny et al had to learn the material and then figure out how to input and make it come out right. The lesson that I took away was that there was NO easy WAY to get around doing homework. Like it or not. Do well at it or not. It was a necessary evil of the education system and someday I would see a benefit.

The story was written in the late 50’s, I was twelve. I think I got it from the Scholastic Book Fair as it came through Villa Cabrini. I still have a number of the books I got. I was more a library person, because I went through books so quickly and I am not a re-reader. EVER.

Fast forward to today. Digital libraries allow me to read whatever whenever. I love it. Trawling through the NC Digital Library I came across Dan Gutman’s The Homework Machine  and I thought wow, how cool. But how would it be different? Because today computers are big and small and ubiquitous. And children, from my two year old grands on up, find nothing strange in pictures on a small 2 inch by four inch screen, and smile automatically when a phone is held up near their face. We Google everything when we are at a loss. We don’t use calculators. We do research in bytes. Yep, it’s different.

The story is written as an after-the-fact testimony of events leading up to the discovery of the ‘creation’, really programing and use of the homework machine in completing the homework assignment of four kids. Benton has programmed his computer to scan homework assignments [this is fifth grade] and then print the answers in a simulation of his own handwriting. Ergo, he never does homework, this allows him to work on projects more suited to his high intellect and interest. Reclusive tho he is, he does become friends with his seatmates and eventually tells them of his homework machine. Pretty soon they are all using it. They love it, they have more free time after school, they are getting good grades, they are and aren’t bonding as a group. But importantly, the adults think they are doing just fine and no one seems to question this about face for two of the most challenged students in this group of four, Sam and Kelsey.

Now all the time I’m reading this I’m trying to figure out what gives here, where does this story go?  The teacher is a new teacher, all unicorns and rainbows about how wonderful the students are, how great it is that her desire to have Benton have friends is actually working. How the whole class stands behind Sam when his Dad dies in the middle east. And even though there is some mention of her talking to the more seasoned teachers, when she follows the advice she is clumsy about following through.  SPOILER ALERT. In the end the kids get caught but at the end of the year! So this is a long, long time, the entire fifth grade.  The parents take some of the blame [we were happy Benton had friends]. The teacher takes some of the blame [I should have recognized sooner that something different was taking place]. The kids appear to know that they were cheating [at one point Judy, when she thinks they will be caught, talks about how this may be morally wrong]. They threw the computer into the Grand Canyon [their only real punishment was that they had to go to the bottom of the canyon and pick up all the pieces.] They lied to the principal. Additionally, they were watched by a man who wanted to exploit their intelligence and their talent, well, Benton’s. They opened a door to a total stranger and let him in the house.

Here is where I think this book is a massive fail, MASSIVE. Sam and Kelsey failed a comprehensive test at the end of the year after turning in perfect homework assignments all year long. Even Judy, the second brightest, gets a C.  There are no, NO, consequences–No talk of summer school. No talk of the fact that they just blew off fifth grade. No talk about what they DON’T KNOW!!!

Unlike the book of the 1950’s, this homework machine becomes an AI [so we are led to believe] and, according to the kids, must be destroyed, hence, the tossing in the Grand Canyon. Yes, the teacher was stupid–giving a really bad name to incoming teachers–and yes, the parents gave far too much latitude to the students–even in the 50s when we were allowed more freedom than today’s kids not sure we would have been able to pull off this stuff about school-school was important. The path to success. Teachers were believed way, way, way before the kid. These are not fifth graders [dating, holding hands, ‘lovey dove’???]  and if they are, we as a country are in far more trouble than I thought.  The end?

BRENTON DAMAGATCHI, GRADE 5 I opened the door. What else could I do? The man was just standing there.

JUDY DOUGLAS, GRADE 5 Basically, the guy wanted Brenton to help him trick kids. He wanted Brenton to spread the word that certain products were cool, so his clients could make more money. I didn’t think it was very nice and I told him so.

BRENTON DAMAGATCHI, GRADE 5 I thought it over. I told the guy I’d like to go into business with him. Judy was really mad. Then I told the guy I didn’t want to sell toothpasteand I didn’t want to sell clothes or CDs or video games. He says, “Well, what do you want to sell?” I told him I don’t want to sell some product to the kids of the world. I want to sell an idea. A really good idea that I’d been working on in my head.The guy was all excited. He asks, “What’s the idea? What’s the idea?” I looked around like it was a big secret that I didn’t want anyone else to hear. Then I whispered it in his ear: “Do your homework.” The guy left. I don’t think he’ll be bothering us anymore. 
Gutman, Dan (2009-10-27). The Homework Machine Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

So the answer in the book is ‘do your homework’?  Why? What for? If you don’t, then what?  If you invent a machine and are a bit smarter than these four kids and you can figure out a way to NOT get caught, then WooHoo?  Not that I want a moral tag. I may be exaggerating, but this book gives credence to the idea that the younger generation is NOT smarter, just able to access information faster. And, there are so many things here that I, as a parent seeing my kid read this book, would want to have long discussions about. Lying. Cheating. Opening the door to strangers. Just as starters.

Sad. Could have been a cool book. A story that hard work can pay off. But no. Not here!


Radio. No, 1930-1950’s radio. Old Time Radio, well they call it Radio Classics, hosted by the nicest person, Greg Bell, who responds wonderfully quickly to email. As I said, nice man.

What does this have to do with structure? Tom and I travel a lot in our car. It’s easier to car ride to Baltimore than to fly. Fly, ha! it’s an hour south to the airport, be there two hours early, go through TSA, wait, board, wait, fly, deplane, wait or pick up car. And by the time you are done, you have saved maybe an hour or two and you are frazzled, have spent more money than you planned and, well, yuck!  So back to travel. We listen to XM radio or Sirrus, whichever, now they are one. While it’s interesting to keep up on the news, sometimes that overwhelms you, you can only hear about one story told four different ways for so long.

On Radio Classics they have Bob Hope, Jack Benny for laughs–not quite vaudeville, not quite tv either. Then you have the shows! Richard Diamond, Johnny Dollar And The Action Packed Expense Report. Not to mention, the Shadow and the Dimension X series. So, variety shows, detective stories, murder, fantasy, science fiction….all done in twenty minute blocks, THE WHOLE STORY. Radio Classics fascinates me because the stories have a beginning, middle and end…they are complete. Listening to one show back several years I could not get it out of my head. I’ve tried several ways to figure out how to write this story, because, well, I need it to be longer than twenty minutes and I want the hero to be a kid. Enter Greg Bell who not only sent me the mp3 recording of the show, but the transcript!

I’ve vacillated between a girl or a boy. It could be either. I finally chose a girl because the end of the story is one where I want a hard choice, not an easy one, and one where not everyone lives. And I’d like to see a girl make that choice.  But the structure of the story has alway eluded me. How, just how do I get from introducing the characters to the end where the reader <hopefully> is sympathetic enough to the main character to see her ending as not sacrifice, but simply ‘the right thing to do’.

And last night, while researching how I was going to get the main characters from point A to point B so that the denouement is believable, I got it. I had, a while back,  decided that to put them on a plane would be a quick way to get them where they need to go, but there was no way to have the story unfold. So I put them on a train. Last night I really started to research the trains. From California to Chicago is the California Zephyr. and then from Chicago to upstate New York is the Lake Shore Limited. And all the stops along the way. A little research of the stops and some interesting tidbits for the story line emerge.

So I got two things out of making this one decision to have the story revolve around a train ride. One I found the structure for the story, basically about four days, maybe more, but along a train route. Have not factored in train changing time, etc. yet, but that’s not a deal breaker.  And two, I can add a dimension to my character by having her interested, engaged and sometimes overwhelmed by each of the stops as well as the story itself.

Very cool! Lol, now to work.


Who is a hero? The one who saves the day, right? <BTW, what is with the capes? Glory Be! Like having something around your neck is not an invitation to a villain to grab it and strangle you with it? And, d’uh, why don’t they, the villains I mean?>  But I digress. Again, who is a hero? Is it enough to save the day? Today it seems like they have to save the world, no the Galaxy.  And then do what? Retire? Are all the criminals and the villains gone? I get that a story, be it a movie or series, must end. We need to know <although there is the ending to The Giver (Lowery)and the ending in Peachtree Road (Siddons)>  we are at the end of the story.

Grimm’s last show was THE END. They were honest. Give them points for that. But they tricked us. <spoiler>  Everyone dies and then everyone comes back because we have this cool magical object that says we can do that. But they went a step further–sort of like JK with Harry. They showed the next generation of Grimm’s fighting the Wessen. So, they saved the planet, well, all humans, but no one is ever really saved. So there was a smidgeon of truth.

We don’t even suspend disbelief anymore. We know there will be something to bring them back. Ironic. In the 21st century, when we say that science is fact, we all believe in magic.

There was a book I read a long time ago, [can’t remember the title]  back in the 1970s, a sci-fi/fantasy book. It was about good triumphing over evil. Evil was powerful, huge armies, lots of people participating. Good was small, a boy, if I remember correctly. And maybe an old man and not much else. The upshot is <was> that good will always triumph even with the full force of evil against it. But like with Grimm, the battle is never over. Maybe the major one is one and done, but there will always be brushfires.

I am a child of the post-war. Not the war to end all wars. That was a silly way to identify it, because the treaty of Versailles only exacerbated the problem and set the world up for a second war. I am a baby boomer. The stories I read were of the men and women who resisted the evils of totalitarianism, oppression, genocide, and communism. Primary text, I think they are called. These individuals did what they could to limit the devastation, to eliminate the threat of an over-class rule. They were common people; maybe bankers, housewives, farmers, shopkeepers, or they were not, perhaps they were earls, counts, government officials. They did not think of their lives as forfeit, but in many cases they were. There was no coming back. There was no magic.

What I read in the 50s were the original memories, the heroic stories of their realization that no one else would stand. They knew literally they had no choice. Today we say we always have a choice. What we mean is you can say yes, or you can say no. Everything we read and see brings this mixed message. The truth is no, no you can’t say no. You can’t.

At an SCBWI conference one of the speakers, Tony Horowitz, I think, said that if nothing else we should be truthful to our children, we should terrify them with the truth. And so, we are back to heroes; those who recognize there is no choice, that saying yes is the only thing, and that doing what you must, even though you are terrified is the right thing.

I call that bravery.