March 6, 2009
In January the American Library Association held its Midwinter Meeting in Denver. Teenagers were invited to talk about their favorite books that were nominated for YALSA’s “Best Books for Young Adults” list.
It was reported that one fan of The Order of Odd-Fish wore a three-foot-long red-and-white fish hat in its honor, declaring that the book was “incredibly, ridiculously funny. You just don’t see books like this very often.”
I was able to track down a photo of the gentleman. His name: Kevin Buckelew. I have written a factual account the incident below.
My name is James Kennedy—an aristocrat by birth; a dilettante, it has been said, by vocation; a saint, I trust, by merit. When I’m not flitting from piazza to piazza on my pink motor-scooter, or taking baths in boiling milk to keep my alabaster skin firm yet supple, I find time to bring LITERATURE to you, the common man.
Many of you youngsters know me as James Kennedy, benefactor. I daresay when you lay yourselves on your grimy mattresses at the end of a long day of eating Dippin’ Dots or updating your Webkinz profiles or whatever it is you people do, you keep me foremost in your simple prayers. I expect that; I also expect that you have all read and cherish every line of my acclaimed masterwork, The Order of Odd-Fish.
Which brings us to the American Library Association.
Oh, American Library Association.
You break the heart.
Let’s cut to the chase, ALA. You nominated The Order of Odd-Fish for one of your “Best Books for Young Adults” 2009 list. I don’t know why. Possibly you wanted to class up your squalid operation. Frankly I’m surprised I consented to be nominated.
One is naturally hesitant to associate with librarians. One may be as “tolerant” as one likes in the settled security of one’s own drawing-room, but as soon as one ventures into the street and comes face-to-face with an actual librarian—with their telltale supernumerary fingers, their unnaturally sharp teeth, the giggling shrieks they use to “communicate,” their chronic dishonesty, their inability to distinguish right from wrong, their conniving sidelong lope whenever they sense danger, the infuriatingly affected way they presume to wear human clothes, their unappetizing habit, wherever they go, of smelling public telephones—well, one finds one’s armchair liberalism rather strained.
Why do I consent to have my book in your libraries at all? God only knows. I have actually deigned to visit a library or two in my time, though I trust I shall not repeat that mistake again. The last one I entered, the Evanston Public Library, was a dim, smoky den stinking of cabbage and cheroot, overrun by scampering packs of hairless badgers—and apparently used merely as a midden-heap for gangs of indigent senior citizens who by and large ignored me, seemingly only interested in their own mindless vendettas and frankly preposterous mating rituals! Why do I bother! Why?
And yet—all this notwithstanding—for all my misgivings—I stooped to attend the ALA’s Midwinter Conference in Denver. I did not condescend to attend physically, of course; I found it quite sufficient to brood over the conference as a disembodied cloud of rhetoric. Some of you reading this post, I am sure, had in Denver stumbled unknowingly into my extrasomatic miasma—and were overcome by a mysterious ecstasy, followed by a crushing inadequacy in the presence of the sublime? That would be me.
(My physical body remained, as always, in the basement of my boyhood home in Troy, Michigan. “Momma!” I shrieked, ripping at my safety diaper. “I’m-a soiled myself again!” “What can I do for you, my darling boy?” fretted my mother, wringing her hands, plumping my pillows. “Get out of here! I hate you!” I screamed, then burst into tears—for I hadn’t had my nap! “I’m trying to listen to the Internet simulcast of the ALA awards, and as usual you’re ruining everything!” “Oh my beautiful baby boy, have I done anything to upset you?” quavered my mother. “STOP SHRIEKING AND CACKLING, YOU HARRIDAN, I’M TRYING TO LISTEN TO THE INTERNET oh my God you don’t CARE ABOUT ME AT ALL,” I moaned—and then astonished even myself, for in a triumphant spurt I unexpectedly made water in my freshly-changed nappies! “Oh wonderful, wonderful!” cooed my mother in delirious joy. “Look at what you can do!” “I did it,” I snapped back smugly, “All by myself!”)
Meanwhile, back in Denver, as I wafted my disembodied presence about the conference room, delicately maintaining altitude over the greasy heads and matted hair of howling librarians, I cautiously assessed my situation. Had I been reckless in coming? I need not tell you, I was in a dicey predicament. To venture unbidden into the librarians’ lair, even in this non-physical fashion, is to take one’s life into one’s hands. The notorious savagery of these obscene troglodytes when they gather for their dark rituals has never been documented for good reason: quick to sniff the infidel, relentless in their pursuit of the intruder, mercilessly creative in their punishments, librarians have jealously guarded the secrets of their unholy rites for centuries. The last investigator who foolhardily tried to penetrate the librarians’ inner sanctum was found in paste form, distributed throughout two dozen damp grocery bags at various interstate rest stops from Maine to Nevada.
Some librarians are more fearsome than others. I noticed that even the toughest of the other librarians distanced themselves from the grimy knot of scabbed goblins from the School Library Journal, who had marked out their “turf” by licking the carpet with their black, syphilitic tongues, hooting and beating the floor whenever any other librarians ventured near.
These stunted, inbred trolls (all positions at the School Library Journal are hereditary, and marriage outside their twisted clan is forbidden) have zero interest in either schools or libraries, and thus must outsource all their book reviews. Indeed, it’s been an open secret for years that the School Library Journal simply rounds up their reviewers from whomever happens to be milling about the public health clinic that day. Most of them can’t even read! Given a book, they are first baffled; then they invariably tear it to shreds, thinking it is a kind of rich man’s trick; they then either gobble the ripped pages, or attempt to make a kind of primitive “yurt” out of them. When the rains inevitably cause the yurt to moisten, sag, and collapse, they are too lazy even to re-erect the yurt, but merely sulk under the soaked paper, ululating piteously in their godforsaken language! Yes I am talking about you, Leah J. Sparks, formerly of the Bowie Public Library, MD!
Not even the bimonthly librarian’s journal VOYA has been immune from unqualified reviewers sneaking onto their pages. To select a review almost entirely at random, let us consider Lynne Farrell Stover’s review of The Order of Odd-Fish. “The imaginary Eldritch City is inconsistent in description and difficult to imagine,” writes Lynne Farrell Stover. “One should be able to imagine imaginary places.”
I agree. One should be able to imagine imaginary places. Indeed, it takes a special effort to imagine Lynne Farrell Stover.
For this woman, three names and all, lives inside my fingernails! This improbable parasite has been with me ever since an ill-fated family trip to Puerto Rico in third grade, when I ate an invalid taco. Little did I know the taco contained Lynne Farrell Stover! No amount of hand-washing, cuticle-scraping, or immersion in boiling water has succeeded in removing this troublesome woman from my fingernails, where she remains smugly lodged, flinging her bons mots. Ever since I was nine years old! Lynne Farrell Stover! Chattering away! Inside my hands! Snarkily undermining me in front of my friends; “accidentally” divulging embarrassing personal secrets at inopportune moments; and yet—does this make me inconsistent?—I wouldn’t have it any other way. Somehow my life would seem less colorful without Lynne Farrell Stover, a creature as fantastical as the centaur.
So much for the various unappetizing denizens of the ALA. I was startled out of my reverie by the unanimous guttural howl of the librarians as a great throne was carried into the room—a throne upon which sat what could have only been the chief of this scabbed, snuffling throng—a twenty-foot-tall, vulture-like, twelve-armed lizard, lolling on a writhing chair made of living librarians, their groaning, sweating bodies bound together with leather straps!
Loriene Roy: President of the ALA!
I hasten to clarify that what I beheld was not the popular “Loriene Roy” America has admired in photographs or fallen in love with on the hit series Librarians Ahoy! Thursday nights on NBC. That “Loriene Roy” is in fact the actress Kendra Bennison, whose winsome antics have made the ALA beloved the world over.
No, the actual Loriene Roy is a superannuated toad tricked out in stolen finery, a shriveled iguana draped in the kingly robes of better, stronger generations, now grown moth-eaten and dingy—but look closer—what are Loriene Roy’s royal garments made of?
For now I saw, to my horror, that Loriene Roy’s necklace was made of the twisted spine of Roald Dahl; the epaulettes of her uniform, fashioned out of the pancreas of John Bellairs; her sceptre, topped with E.B. White’s grinning skull! I reeled! There was no beloved children’s author whose earthly remains were not woven into her nightmarish vestments—a grotesque crown inlaid with Madeleine L’Engle’s gallstones; outlandish boots constructed of C.S. Lewis’ wrinkled skin and laced with the lustrous auburn hair of a young Beverly Cleary!
The room broke into a hideous cacophony of appreciative screeches and shrieks at the sight of this macabre garb, and a sickening intuition hit me—could it be that these royal decorations were not the honored relics of heroes past—but trophies of an unspeakable hunt?
Loriene Roy pounded the blood-spattered floor with her E.B. White sceptre, squawking for the ALA awards ceremony to commence. And I must confess, for a moment I was distracted from my gruesome speculations, for I did reasonably expect The Order of Odd-Fish to win every single award this year.
That said, I was not unduly upset when the Newbery Award went to Neil Gaiman. I’m happy that this obscure author, of whom nobody has ever heard, is finally getting some recognition. But really, what is Neil Gaiman going to do with the money? Purchase more of his precious bees?
Gaiman’s flatly obnoxious habit of “gentleman-beekeeping” has been the scandal of the fantasy world for years now, but as with so much about Gaiman, the scandal goes deeper. For here we come to the crux of the Neil Gaiman problem: the man has never written a single book! Not a one! They were all written by his insufferable bees!
True story: when Gaiman was a starving writer in 1980s London, living in a coldwater flat, he happened to discover a desiccated bee in his aspidistra. Gaiman painstakingly nursed the sickly bee back to health—not, mind you, out of any humanitarian motivation, but only because the diminuitive Gaiman (who stands, incredibly, only 2 millimeters tall) wished to fatten the insect up for its delicious bee-meat.
(This is not the first time Neil Gaiman has been inconvenienced by his improbable height. The nearly microscopic Gaiman was initially denied entrance into the United States because the customs official inadvertently breathed him. Gaiman spent an embarrassing three weeks wandering around the official’s labyrinthine bronchial tubes before shamefacedly climbing out of the indignant bureaucrat’s nose. The result? Gaiman was permitted to enter the United States, but only on condition he stayed confined to Minnesota, a state which is itself no larger than a postage stamp.)
When the wounded bee regained consciousness, it pleaded with Gaiman to spare its life. “Only let me live, and my children flourish,” it buzzed to the ravenous Gaiman, who had already tucked a miniscule napkin in his collar and was tremblingly clutching a tiny knife and a tiny fork, “and I shall make you great amongst men.” Gaiman had no chance to reply, for he had already passed out from malnutrition; but when he woke up, he found his entire flat slathered in honey swirled in curious patterns: patterns that spelled out the complete arc of his award-winning Sandman series! Gaiman, no fool, struck his devil’s bargain, and the rest is history. Pledged to serve the bees, enslaved to the queen’s whim, Gaiman has tirelessly expanded his hive to ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND BEES, all of them working on their own separate novels.
(This arrangement has not been without its inconveniences. Imagine Terry Pratchett’s surprise when, told he was going to “collaborate with Neil Gaiman” on their novel Good Omens, was unceremoniously flung into a darkened room that had nothing in it but tens of thousands of stinging insects! Pratchett emerged from the locked chamber a week later, half-dead and smeared head to toe with inedible honey—but Pratchett’s resourceful literary agent Colin Smythe discovered, as promised, all of Gaiman’s chapters of Good Omens ingeniously tattooed on Pratchett’s body by precision bee-stings. So it was confided to me, over a shared cigarette, after a Dublin drag race, by someone whose name you may have heard—Tori Amos!)
So much for Neil Gaiman and the Newbery. For at the very least, I presumed I would win the Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.
(Indeed, back in the basement of my boyhood home in Troy, Michigan, my mother had already blown up celebratory balloons in my favorite colors, baked three victory cakes, and hand-painted a banner that said “CONGRATULATIONS JAMIE! YOU’LL ALWAYS WIN MY ‘PRINCE’ AWARD.” “You stupid woman!” I shrieked. “It’s the PRINTZ award, P-R-I-N-T-Z, you can’t even get that right!” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” pleaded my mother. “Just get out, get out!” I wailed, tearing my pinafore in frustrated rage. “I just wish someone would care about their OWN SON enough to not be an idiot who doesn’t know how to spell!” “I know, I know, it’s my fault, my darling, darling baby boy, please don’t be angry with your nice mother!” “I’M NOT A BABY!” I squealed, bouncing up and down. “I’M A FULL-GROWN MAN!”)
But before the Printz award was to be announced, Loriene Roy had to announce the winners of the Best Books for Young Adults 2009 list. Now, The Order of Odd-Fish had been nominated for the BBYA 2009 list, and it goes without saying that I knew I’d make the final cut—but to tell the truth, the prospect did not thrill me. I mean, am I really expected to “share” an honor with eighty-odd other authors? Where is the American Library Association’s respect for my dignity? Or its sense of proportion?
To be sure I can’t understand why these tiresome people insist on writing their own books at all. Isn’t it enough for them to sit down, be quiet, and patiently wait for my next book? If they must write, why can’t they confine themselves to fan fiction for The Order of Odd-Fish? It’s almost as if they want to provoke me.
But then the unimaginable happened. I was stunned to realize, as Loriene Roy droned through her dispiriting list of BBYA winners (seriously, Skim by Mariko Tamaki? Who let this Japanese comic book in? I thought this was the American Library Association—doesn’t anyone remember WWII? These people are our enemies!) that The Order of Odd-Fish was mysteriously not on the BBYA 2009 list!
Typo? Clerical error? Deliberate malice? As far as I could tell, there was no rational explanation for the exclusion of The Order of Odd-Fish from the BBYA 2009 list—unless, I reflected, the ALA was saving Odd-Fish for the Printz award. Okay, so the ALA wants to spread their meager honors around—fine, fine. Frankly, I didn’t particularly care to be on a list with Suzanne Collins anyway. (Really, The Hunger Games? Why not save us all some time and call it by its more appropriate name: Battle Royale II: Fievel Goes West?)
So I was excluded from the BBYA list because the ALA is saving me for the Printz. Very well, clearly a case of lèse majesté; I’m willing to let it slide. But as I mull over this latest affront to my dignity, I notice that a monstrous librarian has led into the conference room a group of actual humans—teenagers, from the look of them. I wonder what Loriene Roy has planned for them. Usually whenever librarians get hold of teenagers, they simply feed them to the undead Robert Cormier they keep chained in the corner.
“And now, for the announcement of the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature,” gurgled Loriene Roy, her reptilian eyes fixed upon the teenagers with naked hunger. I was heartened, however, to observe that one of the teenagers, a boy (who was wearing a three-foot-long red-and-white fish hat) met Loriene Roy’s gaze boldly, and stared back with resolute fearlessness—until the twenty-foot-tall lizard-woman bashfully looked away!
I did not have time to ponder this audacious act, for Loriene Roy then cleared her throat, and declared, “The Printz goes to—Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta!”
I’m sure my head was not the only one that exploded. It was as though the very laws of physics had reversed, as though water were dry instead of wet, as though people walked on their heads and cake was not delicious, as though I had somehow not won an award!
Listen, people: I don’t crap out rainbows like The Order of Odd-Fish every day of the week! You think you can afford to slight one of my books—do you honestly believe you can afford to ignore even one sentence I write? YOU should be begging ME for the honor of giving me an award; you should pile up all your trophies and awards into a wheelbarrow and roll ‘em over to my house! This is ridiculous! I write an entire book and you don’t even give me an award? What do you want from me?
(In my mother’s basement I flew into a rage, beating her with my tiny ineffectual fists. “It’s your fault, mother! You’re the reason they didn’t give me the award! You must’ve told the ALA not to give me the Printz because you’re always trying to sabotage me!” “No, no, Jamie, please don’t say such things!” gasped my mother. “I would never do anything to hurt you!” “ARE YOU CONTRADICTING ME?” I exploded, emitting a series of furious poops. “Now I’ve gone and a-soiled myself again! Whose fault is that?” “It’s mine, it’s my fault, I’m so sorry my darling boy!” “I’m nobody’s darling anymore,” I screamed. “It looks like I’m going to have to walk this Earth alone from now on!” “Oh no, you’ll always have your devoted mother!” “I have no mother,” I wailed. “Unless someone fixes me a Stouffer’s French bread pepperoni pizza, Crystal Light lemonade, and cookies-and-cream ice cream right now . . . then I might have a mother.” “Anything for you!” wept my mother. “Then don’t just stand there, do it, you awful woman!”)
But that wasn’t the last unpleasant surprise. My consciousness snapped from my physical form in my mother’s basement back to my astral manifestation in Denver—and I discovered, to my horror, that it was wriggling in the gnarled clutches of Loriene Roy!
“Did you think you could fool us with your second-rate parlor tricks, James Kennedy?” growled Loriene Roy, tightening her grip over my extrasomatic miasma. “Did you not know that I, Loriene Roy, am the master of all seventy-seven astral dimensions? I entrap your gaseous form in this magic bladder constructed of Kenneth Grahame’s viscera—and yes, James Kennedy, I shall smoke you using this enchanted hookah made of the petrified lungs of Lloyd Alexander!”
No nightmare could be worse! For my spiritual substance to be absorbed into Loriene Roy’s alveoli—to be sucked into the noisome lungs of a reptilian superbeast! I writhed my phantasmic entity in helpless terror; Loriene Roy’s scabbed lips approached the cursed hookah! I was doomed!
(“Momma!” I bawled, thrashing about in my “big-boy” crib. “I’m-a gonna get smoked by the President of the ALA! Help me, Momma, help me!” “I’m trying my hardest, my darling son!” huffed my mother, as she repeatedly speed-dialed our congressman. No answer from Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)! So much for “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”!)
“Unhand that author,” boomed a deep, powerful voice.
Loriene Roy’s lips paused over her Lloyd Alexander hookah—then curled maliciously as her eyes swiveled around. “Who dares interfere with my smoking of a little-known YA author?”
“I do,” said Kevin Buckelew, the three-foot-long red-and-white fish hat bobbing ominously on his head. “You thought you were merely messing with a James Kennedy. Little did you know that you had tangled with the Kevin Buckelew!”
“Buckelew . . . ” Loriene Roy’s eyes went wide. “Not the Kevin Buckelew spoken of in the prophecies!”
“The same,” intoned Kevin Buckelew with maniacal gravitas. “And with my righteous fire I shall scorch clean this temple of baboons! For The Order of Odd-Fish is incredibly, ridiculously funny. You just don’t see books like this very often!”
“You speak with such insolence to me, Loriene Roy, who wears the very pelt of A. A. Milne!”
“I do,” roared Kevin Buckelew. “And this besides: for I shall defrock you of your ghastly relics, and free the imprisoned souls of all the beloved children’s authors you have wickedly caged! Tonight, Loriene Roy, you learn what it means to trifle with a Buckelew!”
“Scribes and prophets have foreordained my defeat by your hand,” mused Loriene Roy, “but I did not claw my way to supremacy by hearkening to impotent scribblers! Observe me, Kevin Buckelew, as I inhale your precious James Kennedy in my mystical hookah!”
(“Momma, momma!” I squeaked. “I’m gonna be saved by Kevin Buckelew! We don’t need Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) anymore!” “But my sweet baby, what if Kevin Buckelew doesn’t succeed? I’m going to keep dialing!” “That’s just like you,” I howled, “always waiting for a federal handout from Big Government! Stabenow, Stabenow! Always waiting for Debbie Stabenow! When are you going to learn how to pull yourself by your own bootstraps!” “I don’t know,” snuffled my mother piteously. “I try my best . . . ” “Shut up already and fix me some peaches-and-cream Quaker’s instant oatmeal,” I wailed. “And for the love of God let me watch this fight in peace!”)
But the battle was already over—for in a trice Kevin Buckelew had teleported himself to the front of the room and, with an acrobatic flip, vaulted himself over Loriene Roy, twisting off her head with an almost inaudible pop and snatching away the very hookah in which I was imprisoned!
“Go free, extrasomatic miasma of James Kennedy!” said Kevin Buckelew. But as my astral form steamed out of Lloyd Alexander’s fossilized lung-hookah, I was flabbergasted to see, up close, that this young man’s face was somehow familiar—that my rescuer was—in fact—
“M-M-Mother?” I stuttered.
“It is true, James Kennedy,” Kevin Buckelew avowed nobly. “I, Kevin Buckelew, am your mother.”
“But how can it be!” vibrated my gaseous form.
“Let us not probe too deeply into the mysteries of fate,” said Kevin Buckelew wisely. “And yet even now I cannot dally too long. For I must free my son from the bees who have imprisoned him.”
“Then that means you are—you are—”
“I am also Neil Gaiman’s father,” said Kevin Buckelew. “And right now young Neil is trapped in an underground hive bigger than the state of Nebraska, his very substance being converted to royal jelly for the queen.”
“But who could have hatched such a dastardly plan?” I exclaimed.
“Check your fingernails,” said Kevin Buckelew.
“Oh my God . . . she’s gone!” I gasped. “Lynne Farrell Stover has exited my fingernails in order to feed Neil Gaiman to the bees to whom he had pledged his soul in a devil’s bargain! And surely Leah J. Sparks, formerly of the Bowie Public Library, MD, is helping her in this devious scheme!”
“Your instincts serve you well,” said Kevin Buckelew. “It is all just as you say.”
“I knew it!” I said. “But, Momma Buckelew, how will you ever find Neil Gaiman in that vast honeycomb, when he is so comically small?”
“A daddy’s love will always find a way,” said Kevin Buckelew tenderly—“and a Momma’s, too . . . ”—and, stepping lightly over Loriene Roy’s steaming carcass, the remarkable Kevin Buckelew quite literally turned into a bee and buzzed away into the sky!
“Why . . . ” I stood trembling, overwhelmed by it all—then suddenly broke down crying! For I realized, all at once, the change that had come over me; and the last, most important gift Kevin Buckelew had bestowed upon me—
“Why, I’m all groweds up,” I wonderingly lisped to myself, astonished; then repeated it louder, louder, for the whole world to hear, as I ran towards the sunset, my ecstatic spittle jubilantly flying into the horizon!
“Momma . . . Momma! I’m all groweds up . . . I’m all groweds up!”