Sunday, June 3, 2012

Space Station Seventh Grade by Jerry Spinelli

  Once, riding my bike, I saw a dead crow in the street. I stopped and looked. Cars were going by. Each time a car tire whizzed real close, even though most of the crow was mashed into the street, the end of one wing would kind of flutter in the air.
   It's been really hot here. Everything is snaily.
   I see old ladies grinning. Especially in the supermarkets. And on sundays. After a while it got to me. I tried scowling at one right in her face, just to see what would happen. She just kept grinning away. Someday I'm going to find out what they're all grinning about. 

above: one time and editor politely asked me to send examples of covers I liked when they were working up a cover for my book. I sent this one. "Wow," he said. "That is one ugly cover." I love this kind of cover, though. I wonder what Spinelli thought of the title? I'll bet it wasn't his first choice.
I've been known to say that you can't really do a realistic middle grade book - realistic kids swear, talk about sex, and generally talk and think on a more advanced level than we can count on kids that age to read. Getting particularly literary in middle grade books is pretty rare, as well, especially in a first person book. How profound can you really have a normal thirteen year old be before they stop seeming like a 13 year old? Kids that age rarely speak in rich prose and stunning metaphors.

This is part of why Space Station Seventh Grade, Jerry Spinelli's first book, is so remarkable. I read and enjoyed it in seventh grade (though even a decade or so after it was published, it seemed to take place in a whole different world than the one I knew). I re-read it in college and felt like I'd been hit by lightning. This, more than any other book, drove home the notion that "YA" books could be just as literary as books from any other section.  It's not as well-known as Spinelli's bigger hits, like Maniac Magee or Star Girl, but I do run into others who feel the same way about this one. The book is a revelation. It's literary and occasionally profound, all coming from the mouth of a completely realistic snot-nosed kid. 

  The wood shop teacher gave us a little speech...."You are not boys anymore," he told us. "From now on you are on the road to adulthood. You left your childhood back in grade school. You can kiss it good-bye." He saluted out the window. "You are in Junior High School now. You are...young men."
  Hah! I was a young man for about half an hour in woodshop on Wednesday. Then I had to go to the bathroom. The door didn't say Young Men. It said Boys. As soon as I opened it, a ninth grader took a cigarette out his mouth and said "Watta ya looking at, faggot face?" I walked out. For the rest of wood shop I was sawing wood and having to pee. The more I had to pee, the faster I sawed. Young man, monkey dung. 

I still toss out the phrase "monkey dung" in conversation frequently. I don't think it ended up in any my books that have come out, but it's in a manuscript or two, at least.

With Space Station 7th Grade, which chronicles a year in the life of Jason Herkimer, a seventh grader from about 1979 (the book was published in the early 80s, but Jason doesn't seem to have seen Empire Strikes Back yet), Spinelli not only wrote a book just as "literary" as anything else that will be published this year (for my money), he also wrote perhaps the most realistic 7th grader I've ever read. There are plenty of books where the 7th grade narrator is identifiable or relatable, but Jason is a real kid occupying that age when he's starting to outgrow the things of a child, but still hanging on to a dream of being a major league baseball player. He's kind of a jerk. He still calls his sister "Cootyhead." And, though he has a remarkably diverse bunch of friends, he hasn't worked out a lot of things about race yet. It's the late 1970s, after all. Political correctness was not yet a thing.

For instance, there's the scene where he and his friend discuss pubic hair. They are of the opinion that Italians grow hair earlier than most people (hence their belief that McGuiness, a kid in their gym class, must be Italian). People from near the equator are sometimes born with it, and some Asians never grow any ("ever see a Korean with a beard?") Most of this information is presented as having come from his friend's mother.

Meanwhile, Jason's parents are divorced, and his dad is attempting to convert to Judaism. Jason thinks he's being polite when he asks his dad's Jewish girlfriend questions like "Do you know Marty Renberg?"

One line that particularly sticks in my mind is from after the night he spends with his father and his new girlfriend:

  Late that night, after Barbara Silverstein left, Cootyhead asks her usual question: "You gonna marry her, Daddy?"
  My father took off his shoes. It hit me for the first time since he moved away, his shoes weren't white. He was changing. "Probably," he said. What he didn't do was the usual stuff, like lift Cootyhead up to the ceiling and tickle her and say cutesy things like, "Now what would you do if I said yes?" No. He didn't even look up. He just kept pulling his shoes off and kind of nodded a little and said "Probably" about marrying Barbara Silverstein. Like he would say "baked" if a waitress asks him how he wanted his potato.

And there's no big, comic blow-up. Jason is never really taught the error of his ways (or, if he does, it's in an offhand way, not a big revelation). Because this isn't a book about race or religion - those topics just tend to come up in conversation in the book, just like they do in real life.

Jason is interested in science, dinosaurs, and science fiction, but unlike your average 7th grade-aged male protagonist, he's no geek. Not really. He may have discussions about cryonics and immortality, and dress up as Luke Skywalker for Halloween, but he's just as interested in sports and causing trouble. I probably wouldn't have gotten along with him in school, though we might have had a good time if we actually hung out. One of the great things about fiction is that it can be a window - a look into the life of someone who isn't quite like you. Not every narrator has to be your new best friends (personally, I find it more entertaining to write characters I disagree with). I call it the King of the Hill effect - the ability to make you care about and root for a person you may not be able to stand if you knew them in real life.

To the extent that there's an ongoing plot, the book is about Jason and his attempt to get Debbie Breen to go out with him as he adjusts to seventh grade (in a school system where Junior High runs from 7th grade to 9th).  Along the way he bakes ants into baked goods, pees in a parking lot, kills a raccoon, gets suspended, stinks up the track team, builds a model space station, and talks about life, death, and the universe with his friends. He doesn't have much of an "emotional journey" and doesn't learn many lessons. But the point is not the plot here; about the most profound revelation he has is that Marceline McAllister uses the word "farts." There's no real message, thank God. Just a hell of a "year in the life" story.

Girls are like God. You believe in them but you don't really have much to do with them. 

That Spinelli managed to make this book as literary as he did, while still making Jason's voice absolutely authentic, is nothing short of miraculous. Like a lot of books like this, I understand that Spinelli didn't intend to publish it as a "kids" book, but as an adult novel (not realizing, at the time, that any book with a 13 year old narrator will almost certainly be marketed as a kids book). I can't help but wonder if he hated the title (people didn't interview authors nearly as much back in 1982, so I can't find out).  You notice this a lot, really - you can often tell when someone was writing a "book for kids;" and this reads more like he was trying to write "the great American novel." There's nothing pretentious about that (can we in the YA world please, please stop referring to adult or literary books as "pretentious?") - the book is better for it.  It's also funny as hell.

The book is still in print today, on the strength of Spinelli's consistently great books, but it's hard to imagine it getting published as-is today.  With a seventh grade narrator, it would probably have to be marketed as middle grade, and the chapter entitled "hair" alone is too edgy for modern middle grade (these days, poop jokes are much more acceptable than they used to be, but references to sex are more taboo than they were thirty years ago).  His conversations about race and religion would probably have to go unless he had some big epiphany or his grandfather sat him down and corrected him or something. The language is fairly tame - you get the idea that Jason and his friends swear a lot, but you don't see them in action too much. Words like "turd" and "dick" are tossed off pretty casually here, and "shit" comes up a few times.

Jason Herkimer would be about 45 now. God.


  1. i read this one and its sequel when i was in seventh grade (so, 1990 or thereabouts), and they was mind-blowing, both as a window into The Minds Of Boys and as a promise that someday a boy might like me even though i was a weird skinny girl who played the trombone.

  2. I never thought before about how the "growing up" of YA books--the inclusion of more realistic material--may have had the opposite effect on MG books.

    I think today's MG books are also a reflection of how much MG culture has changed, though. When I was growing up (Generation X), an 8-year-old could play outside all day, unsupervised. A 13-year-old could babysit. A 10-year-old did her own homework. I walked a mile to school accompanied only by other kids the same age--no adults--when I was 7.

    Now, the expectation is that until they're around high-school age, kids don't do anything without adult supervision or involvement: not playing, not studying, not even walking a couple of blocks from the bus stop. Kids are much less independent. I have no idea why this happened.