This can't be happening to Gordon Korman (again), Dec. 7, 2002
Saturday Post in the National Post,
by Matt Beam

   Primary school kids in the late 1970s -- much like those of today -- went bananas over shrewdly marketed ephemeral products. At one moment, they were comparing photo albums dotted with Scratch 'n' Sniff stickers, and then suddenly, as if the stickers had never existed, they were sending neon yo-yos "around the world."
Playground debate centred around this consumerism, from the fatal consequences of simultaneously ingesting Pop Rocks and Coke, to the moral implications of simply eating the Lick-a-Stick and using your index finger to scoop up the flavoured crystals.
In 1978, when Montreal-born 14-year-old whiz kid Gordon Korman came out with his humourous young adult novel, This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, the same sort of frenzy occurred. For a while, every kid in class was reading and talking about Korman's book, which featured the mischievous boarding school duo, Bruno and Boots. The novel immediately topped the bestseller charts, selling 22,000 copies within the first two months. In the next two years, Korman followed up with two more Bruno and Boots books, Go Jump in the Pool and Beware the Fish.
Then, like Shaun Cassidy or the Cabbage Patch Kids, Korman suddenly fell out of favour. As they got older, his fans' attention switched to Boy George, acid-wash jeans and, under the force of the curriculum, F. Scott Fitzgerald. As far as those fickle fans were concerned, Korman had disappeared.
Now, that generation has grown up. Many of his former readers are parents with expendable incomes. Primed to take part in the economy of nostalgia, these thirtysomethings are rekindling their interest in Korman. "I actually had my first 10-year-old come up to me and say, 'This was my dad's favourite book when he was a kid,' " says Korman, now the father of two. Over the last six or seven years, interest seems to be really swelling, Korman says, as that generation gets older and stops being embarrassed to admit that they are fans. "They have kids, are teachers, or have positions in the media to influence what kids read." This spring, Korman is making appearances at libraries and schools in 16 provinces and states.
In 2000, Korman, who now lives on Long Island, N.Y., appeared on TSN's argue-the-issues program, Off the Record. He was on a panel that included a WWF wrestler. While they were waiting to go on air, the producer approached Korman, saying "I'm really, really glad to meet you. I was a really big fan. Who didn't read This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall when he was in Grade 5?" recalls Korman. "And this voice, this very deep voice in the corner of the room goes, 'I read that book.' It was the wrestler. It blew my mind. I can't believe a wrestler read my book."
Of course, Korman never really went away. He spent most of the '80s and '90s writing more Bruno and Boots books, six in all, as well as numerous other books for teens, with such titillating young adult titles as Who's Bugs Potter?, The Toilet Paper Tigers, and The Sixth Grade Nickname Game. In all, his 40-odd books have sold more than nine million copies.
But This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall remains Korman's tour de force. That book alone sold more than 900,000 copies worldwide and it's been translated into five different languages. Korman wrote the manuscript longhand, he says, as a year-long assignment for his Grade 7 track coach-cum-English teacher in Thornhill, Ont. He then brazenly sent the story to the address on an Arrow Book Club order form. Scholastic Canada immediately scooped up the manuscript and the editors went to work.
One of the most significant decisions they made was to omit the age of the protagonists, Bruno and Boots. While Korman had pegged the pair for car-driving high-school students, it turned out that two-wheeling pre-teens were relating to the story. Twenty-five years later, the book, with its precocious language and sense of humour, still has broad appeal.
The Bruno and Boots books are now recognized as trademark Korman: a devilish mix of mischief, irony and serendipity. Korman says it was from John D. Fitzgerald's The Great Brain series, a childhood favourite, that he acquired a penchant for coincidence and intricate schemes.
He also cites Charles Shultz's Peanuts as an early influence, where he learned "highfalutin words like philosophize." As Korman explains it, his approach is simple: "At the end of the day, you have to go with what tickles you."
Six years ago, Korman shelved his smirk, opting for a more serious tone with The Monday Night Football Club, a fantastical football series, and, in 1999, the wildly successful Island Adventure trilogy, which sold 850,000 copies within the first six months.
Now, with a second adventure trilogy, Everest, under his belt, it appears Korman is returning -- at least partly -- to his erstwhile comedic ways. Last fall, Hyperion released Son of the Mob, Korman's implausible take on Romeo and Juliet, in which 17-year-old Vince, the son of gangster Honest Abe Luca, falls in love with Kendra, a schoolmate and daughter of an FBI agent. And though he's currently working on another adventure trilogy, Dive, the release, next June, of Maxx Comedy, The Funniest Kid in America, makes it official: The Korman of comedy is back.
And as Korman and his fans come full circle, the publishers have taken notice. Capitalizing on the renewed interest, next month, for its 25th anniversary, Scholastic will rerelease the Bruno and Boots series.
With this rerelease and the prospect of even more young fans being won over, This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall is certain to hit the one-million mark for books sold.
But Korman takes it all in stride. Not everyone, he points out, is ready to jump back on the Korman bandwagon. A couple of years ago, he says, he was eavesdropping on some guests at a dinner function. "Gordon Korman?" one of them said incredulously. "That guy's still alive?"

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