What Can We Steal From Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Fried My Brains?
Title of Work and its Form: My Teacher Fried My Brains, novel
Author: Bruce Coville
Date of Work: 1991
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book can be found on Amazon, but why not visit Mr. Coville’s site and purchase the book from him directly if you don’t already have a copy?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Audience
Three months after proving that his teacher was an alien, Duncan Dougal discovers that seventh grade is not going to be any easier than sixth was. Duncan finds an alien glove in a dumpster that reminds him of the camouflage worn by Broxholm, the alien/teacher who escaped with his friend Peter. There are four new teachers at the school…Duncan must figure out which is the alien. Deduction is a little easier after one of the teachers “fries his brains” during what seems to be a demonstration of the effects of static electricity. The machine is actually increasing Duncan’s brainpower. I don’t want to ruin all of the twists and turns, but you are safe in assuming that there is an alien on faculty and that lots of weird and gross stuff happens.
It’s been quite some time (wow…more than two decades) since I read a book written at the fifth grade reading level. That’s my loss. As I’m always reminding my students, true joy comes from having wide-ranging interests and by consuming all kinds of creative works. I have very warm feelings for the My Teacher is an Alien series and for the work of Bruce Coville. I grew up in a suburb of Syracuse (where Mr. Coville makes his home) and I fondly recall him visiting my elementary school in a year so long ago that it began with “19.” I’ve always been a ham; I remember making some innocuous joke about my teacher and getting a laugh from Mr. Coville and others.
Writers would be wrong to dismiss children’s literature because, in some ways, craft is more important when writing for kids than for grown-ups. Children haven’t read hundreds of books and haven’t seen hundreds of movies. (Although many of them watch the same movie hundreds of times.) A child’s frame of reference is therefore much slimmer than that of an adult. How many people do they know? How much heartbreak have they experienced? Mr. Coville and other writers who produce works for children must adapt to the special needs of children while taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the audience.
On one hand, Mr. Coville makes an easy choice by setting My Teacher Fried My Brains in an elementary school and its suburban neighborhood. Young people “get” this setting because they live it every day. They understand that Duncan doesn’t necessarily like all of his teachers or classes. In this way, Mr. Coville gives his audience a handhold. On the other hand, Coville has an awful lot of freedom. I happily approached the book from as childlike a mindset as I could muster. Had I used my adult brain, I would not have much suspension of disbelief.
What? You can’t shoot waves into someone’s brain and make them smarter! Duncan admits he is something of a bully and pulls a fire alarm toward the beginning of the book. Shouldn’t the robotic cameras in all middle schools have identified him and shouldn’t he be in jail now for endangering the safety of all of the faculty and students and the Pope and the gold in Fort Knox? And the story is reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon and the mask the teacher wears reminds me of The Terminator and doesn’t Poot the shapeshifting alien goo pet owe a debt to the animal sidekicks that Disney loves so much?
Children and receptive adult readers don’t come to a book with as much baggage or with as much of an understanding of the science fiction genre. I’m not saying that it’s easier to write for children, but you can work a little more with character “type” without falling into cliché.
What do kids (or kids at heart) want to see when they pick up My Teacher Fried My Brains? They wanna see at least one brain fried. Mr. Coville delivers on the promise of the title and he includes lots of other elements that particularly appeal to his target audience. There’s a cute shapeshifting pet blob, Duncan finds out what the school is like in the middle of the night, Duncan tells the story of the alien teacher to a tabloid and gets attention… Most of all, the character of Duncan appeals to the reader because he is misunderstood and feels people don’t like him and wishes he could improve himself and doesn’t understand why he does everything he does. How many children does that describe? All of them! In the end, of course, his friends come through and Duncan is on for another adventure.
Mr. Coville’s narration also slips through time in an interesting way. The book’s story really doesn’t span that much time, though there is a three-month break during which Duncan is in stasis. Mr. Coville seems to be unafraid to zoom through the boring parts of life. Maybe it’s just me who gets bogged down in this way, but the story isn’t oppressed by its scenes. Mr. Coville wants to communicate that Duncan dislikes his brother? There’s a few lines, then boom—scene over. Toward the beginning of the book, Duncan needs to hide and climbs into a Dumpster. Mr. Coville goes into the extreme present tense and gives the reader all kinds of gross/awesome details:
What was terrifying was what I had spotted only six inches in front of me as I was going down.
It was a hand. A human hand, lying between a ball of aluminum foil and a leaky, half-eaten jelly sandwich.
The garbage muffled my scream. When my heart stopped beating so fast, I lifted my head and looked again. That was when I realized the thing I had seen was more like a glove than a hand. A skin glove. Maybe a better way to describe it is to say it was like a mask for someone’s hand.
The young audience both wants and needs gross and gory details, so Mr. Coville slowed down and zoomed in to provide them.
What Should We Steal?
- Respect your audience and put your full effort into genre work. It is clear that Mr. Coville did not think he was writing “just a kid’s book.” When you’re writing science fiction, you shouldn’t shrug your shoulders and try to pump something out because it’s “just a science fiction story.” Sure, kids might need a little more action and “weird” stuff to keep their attention. But that didn’t stop Mr. Coville from imbuing Duncan with real pathos. His family life isn’t the best and he doesn’t have all the friends he needs and he feels a little lost. Having his brain fried is merely the method by which he tries to improve his life, just as abandoning Cal is the method by which Rose tries to improve her life.
- Pretend your keyboard is a remote control. Fast-forward through the less-compelling parts of your narrative, just as you would zip through a boring movie that you know has something cool coming up. Slow down and zoom in when the BIG MOMENTS arrive.