On the subject of funny kids books about boys, another favorite besides Gordon Korman is The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald. Based loosely on Fitzgerald’s childhood, the books are set in a small town in Utah in the 1890s. The Great Brain of the title is John’s older brother Tom, who has a brilliant intellect and a “money-loving heart.”
There are seven books in the series, each a string of vignettes. John narrates in first-person about the adventures of his brother Tom, who always has a scheme going to swindle someone–including John, who never seems to learn that it’s impossible to win a wager against Tom.
Tom is very clever, and it’s always fun to see what scheme he’ll come up with next. I’ve never been a big reader of mysteries but I like figuring things out, and guessing at what plot Tom is devising, or how he’ll solve some problem, always makes for good puzzles. Tom is a great character in that he never becomes TOO unlikable. He’s immensely proud of his Great Brain, and he loves to get money out of people. He doesn’t cheat, though–he finds ways to trick them, usually exploiting their own gullibility or greed. He also uses his Great Brain to help people, sometimes saving lives or dramatically changing lives for the better. He usually gets something for it too…but that’s always the question, of whether he’s acting from compassion or from greed! Usually I get the sense it’s a little of both. He’s also not above being humbled at times when greed or pride leads him into a serious mistake.
John is a good character, sweet-natured and modest. He often refers to his “little brain” in comparison to his brother’s Great Brain. John is rather eclipsed by Tom, but that aspect of the books seems to work–it’s John’s story about his brother, so it makes sense that he’s giving Tom the center stage. John’s obvious admiration and love for his brother (no matter how many times Tom swindles him!) also goes a long way to setting Tom up as a likable character.
The stories are mostly light and funny. They’re not the hilarity of Gordon Korman, but they are very entertaining. There are some serious ones mixed in too. Sometimes the situations kids get into have real peril, as when two boys get lost in a network of caves, or when one boy loses his leg to an infection and contemplates killing himself. The Great Brain series is another example of how deep children’s books can be, addressing very serious issues and subject matter, while being child-appropriate.
And fun, of course. Even though the stories are sometimes serious and Tom is out to swindle others to satisfy his money-loving heart, these still come across as sweet stories about family, set in a small town in a quieter time. Well-worth the read.