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Low Stakes Forever

Gordon Korman wrote his first bestseller in seventh grade. Eighty-eight books (and counting) later, a movie adaptation revisits the early work of a man whose audience changes every graduation season.

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader’s Digest, The...

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During the great narrative revival of the mid 2010s, you can watch a movie in which Jack Black plays a kids’ horror writer named R.L. Stine who literally hunts down and pacifies creatures the real R.L. Stine created in the ‘90s. You can watch a thoroughly humiliated Macy Gray sing a duet from Dirty Dancing with a grown Stephanie Tanner, and see Jimmy Fallon ghoulishly recreate an episode of Saved by the Bell—cast members delivering ancient catch-phrases with heartbreaking enthusiasm, their faces spackled by overeager Tonight Show makeup artists to resemble macabre artifacts from some BuzzFeed-sponsored “11 Atrocities All ‘90s Babies Will Recognize” wax museum. You can, in theory, watch a feature-length version of Jem and the Holograms, though nobody has.

If you experienced children’s pop culture in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the nostalgia cycle has caught up with you, and the entertainment industry has accelerated the process of harvesting even your faintest memories, repackaging them in an astonishing array of flashy, new, inevitably disappointing containers. The sheer volume of revivals means that at some point a story small and forgotten enough to feel like a personal memory will be unearthed and dragged into the sunlight. The sudden reappearance of a once-loved TV show/book/slice of intellectual property forces you, the viewer, into an existential anxiety, wondering why, exactly, you had loved that thing in the first place, what the hell had changed, and—importantly—how that past self is in any way connected to the human being who is, today, begrudgingly tuning into an episode of the Muppet Show in which a puppet makes a dick joke.

To merely be the target of this deluge of content is a weird sensation. To be one of the creators—dusting off past work, bringing old versions of yourself into a new world and hoping to find the public’s affection—must be infinitely more bewildering.

It was in the midst of this run of revivals late last August—around the point my partner and I realized our friends were all having babies and time seemed to be lurching forward with an alarming sense of purpose—that I visited the set of a moderately budgeted made-for-TV movie based on the work of my childhood hero, the wunderkind of 1980s Canadian kid-lit, Gordon Korman.

***

In an auditorium at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, a crowd of teen actors in white aprons and chef’s hats chattered and flirted, ignoring the increasingly distraught calls from the first assistant director. The first AD, a skinny man in a headset, clapped his hands together fruitlessly. “Guys, please!” he yelled. Slowly the kids came together, standing still long enough for the makeup artist to brush at them with foundation before taking their places in front of the cameras. The first AD walked away, grumbling. “When they ask me, ‘Hey Charlie, do you want to work on another kids’ movie?’ I’ll run away,” he muttered. “How many kids? Too many.”

The teens took a selfie out on the lawn, in front of a “Macdonald Hall” sign, and then crowded around the phone. “Everyone looks so cute here!” said one of the girls, and when I checked on Instagram later it was true: everyone looked cute.

Bruno & Boots: Go Jump in the Pool is a production for YTV, the Canadian kids’ channel. It is the first in what producers hope will be a long series of movies that follows the students of Macdonald Hall, the fictional boarding school created by the author Gordon Korman in books that were bestsellers from the late ‘70s to the mid ‘90s, but are unknown to just about all of the nine-year-olds that producers hope will tune in when the movie airs April 1.

I was there for the final day of shooting, and the set had a last-day-of-summer-camp vibe. The teen actors grouped in clumps, trying to figure out when they would see each other next. Everyone hugged everyone. The teens took a selfie out on the lawn, in front of a “Macdonald Hall” sign, and then crowded around the phone. “Everyone looks so cute here!” said one of the girls, and when I checked on Instagram later it was true: everyone looked cute.

At lunch, I sat with producer Anthony Leo, an oxford-shirt-wearing thirty-nine-year-old who has been the driving force behind the Korman movie. We picked at steamed salmon and chocolate cake while Leo looked at his notes for the thank-you speeches to the cast and crew he had prepared.

He was sad to see the shoot end. Growing up in southern Ontario, he had been an enormous Korman fan. He’d even sent the author a short story of his own and had received an encouraging letter back. Now, bringing those novels to television, Leo was anxious to make sure he did right by them. He’d sent Korman the script and had been relieved to get his approval. Still, taking a precious childhood book and converting it into a movie had been surprisingly nerve-wracking. “It’s been like putting together our own personal Harry Potter,” said Leo. “Every step of the way, it’s been like, ‘Oh my god, if we mess this up…’”

***

One of the many things kids don’t comprehend is the concept of regional fame. Growing up in Toronto, it was impossible to understand that Raffi was an international star while his contemporary, Fred Penner, who had the same aging hippie vibe and a very similar beard, remained a local celebrity. Conversely, one of the great shocks of my adult life was learning that “Informer,” a song by the white reggae artist Snow, was somehow known to people beyond the Greater Toronto Area.

So: it is difficult to know the exact dimensions of Gordon Korman’s celebrity. He was born in Montreal but grew up in Thornhill, a suburb of Toronto, where he famously wrote his first novel, This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall, as a seventh-grade English assignment and then brazenly sent the manuscript to Scholastic. Published in 1978 when Korman was 14, it sold 200,000 copies in the first two weeks after its release. Before high school was over, he had cranked out five more hits, scribbling away during summer vacation while his friends worked at camp or hung out at the mall. For bookish ten-year-olds in my downtown Toronto elementary school, circa 1990, Korman was a hero—his novels constantly in demand at the library and always among the hottest sellers at the book fair.

“I thought he was some kind of genius,” the Toronto novelist Sheila Heti told me recently. “I probably thought that No Coins, Please was one of the most popular kids’ books ever written.” Jeremy Keehn, an Edmonton-born Korman fan who is now an editor at the New Yorker, remembers his father, a school principal, bringing him to a Professional Development day at which Korman was giving a speech. “At the time I’m sure I thought, ‘Oh, he’s this super famous writer, I hope that we can get in,’” Keehn remembers. “We’re not talking a keynote address. It was fifty teachers in a room.”

In 2010, Justin Trudeau appeared on a TV series on called Great Canadian Books in which notable Canadians talk about their favourite works (this is an actual program on Book Television, an actual channel). Guests generally choose classics from the CanLit canon by authors such as Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Laurence, or W.O. Mitchell. The future prime minister picked This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall.

***

Korman wrote middle-grade books, those slim novels that fill the gap between kids’ picture books and YA fiction. As Korman has said in interviews, these books are often a kid’s first real cultural choices. Your parents don’t read them to you. A teacher doesn’t force them on you. You pick them up off the shelf yourself, one of the earliest expressions of a burgeoning sense of taste.

And in the early ‘80s, while Canada had produced plenty of great literary kids’ fiction (shout-out to Kit Pearson), there was a gap when it came to lightly comic, contemporary novels. Korman’s books, stories about friends getting into mischief, were written with a kid’s enthusiasm for getting to the next gag. His first novels featured Bruno and Boots, two kids who went to Macdonald Hall. Boots was Nick to Bruno’s Gatsby, Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. The dynamic—the same one that would play out across almost all of his Korman’s early books—was of a wildly irresponsible alpha dragging his straight-man best friend into trouble.

On the back page of my faded 1979 Scholastic paperback copy of Go Jump in the Pool!, Korman appears in late ‘70s disco garb—wide lapels, aviator shades, and the voluminous afro then common among Jewish teens in North Toronto. It seemed obvious he was the coolest person in the world.

The plots are gentle in a way that, in retrospect, feels particularly Canadian. There are no real villains to hate, none of the cruelty of a Roald Dahl book or the social realism of Judy Blume. Ed Keenan, the Toronto Star columnist and a former Korman fanatic, described his books to me as “Ferris Bueller avant la lettre,” which feels exactly right. When you’re a kid, the stakes are low, but feel enormous. Things are maybe a little stupid, but then, so is childhood. Bruno and Boots don’t want to be split up. Bugs Potter, the hero of pair of early Korman novels, wants to sneak around downtown Toronto clubs and play rock music. Rudy Miller from I Want to Go Home just wants to escape his awful summer camp. The pleasure in the books is in the creativity of the schemes, the quality of the gags, the evident love between the characters, and the streak of anti-authoritarianism that, to a ten-year-old, felt thrilling.

Beyond the novels, Korman himself was a legendary figure. Reading something a local kid had written when he was just a few grades ahead of you was a fundamentally different experience than reading a book by an adult. “All the other books, the TV shows, the animated cartoons, it’s like grownups were trying to teach you something,” says Keenan. There was no moralizing in Korman novels. There was simply the feeling of following a slightly older kid as he tried to create the funniest, most amusing world he could.

By the time I was devouring Korman’s books, I already had some sense that I wanted to do what he did. His example made the idea of becoming a writer less abstract. After reading his books, Ed Keenan convinced his parents to buy him a typewriter to write stories of his own. When Sheila Heti was eight or nine, she sent Korman a letter telling him she wanted to be a writer. He sent her a two-page typed response offering warm advice and telling her his thoughts about the writing business.

On the back page of my faded 1979 Scholastic paperback copy of Go Jump in the Pool!, Korman appears in late ‘70s disco garb—wide lapels, aviator shades, and the voluminous afro then common among Jewish teens in North Toronto. The copy reads: “Some school projects really pay off!” Korman looks, in retrospect, exactly like what he was: a slightly dorky teen who had suddenly become a bestselling author. To me it seemed obvious he was the coolest person in the world.

***

When Korman graduated high school, he moved to New York to study film at NYU. At home, Korman had lived a quiet suburban teenager’s life. He would occasionally take the subway downtown to Toronto’s Eaton Centre mall, hang out at the arcades and record stores on Yonge Street, eat burgers at Wendy’s. The move from a sleepy Thornhill to Manhattan was overwhelming. Now he was plunked in the centre of Greenwich Village—a buzzy downtown that felt both vital and intimidating.

Korman may have been a literary celebrity in Canada, but in New York he was anonymous, even to his peers at NYU. “I hardly ever talk about my writing with friends,” a 21-year-old Korman told the New York Times in 1985. “For a couple of years I was sort of paranoid about talking about it, because it sounded conceited.” Korman would work on his college courses, then quietly return home to do a national book tour.

That Times article catches Korman at what feels like the precipice of a major change. “The book I’m working on right now is young adult, but I’m very interested in writing for the adult market,” he told the paper“I have this vision of myself signing 650-page books that are too heavy to lift. I see myself writing in a lot of different directions, maybe doing some television or film or even theater.”

The YA novels Korman wrote during this time reflect this experience. In his 1985 book Don’t Care High, a kid from Saskatchewan moves to New York and finds himself at a comically apathetic high school. In Son of Interflux, a teenager arrives in upstate New York and struggles to become a painter. Together, the books read like autobiography—the story of an earnest Canadian attempting to find his place in America, trying to grow from a precocious teenager into a real artist.

Throughout elementary school, I read every Korman book in the library, instinctively moving towards his more mature work as I grew older. His books marked a clear progression, from elementary to middle to high school. Like Korman himself, I envisioned the author moving on to adult novels, the two of us maturing in parallel.

Then the books stopped—or, at least, disappeared from my limited view. In my adolescent, pre-Google mind, Korman had simply vanished. He’d grown up—taken off to start a new career, passed from sight into America to become whatever it is he wanted to become.

“When I go to high school reunions and stuff everyone’s talking about how much they’re reinvented themselves, they’re always like, ‘Dude, last time I heard from you, you had just signed a contract to write a kids’ book for Scholastic! What are you doing now, man?’ And I say, ‘Well, I just wrote a kids’ book for Scholastic.’”

Korman, of course, didn’t actually go anywhere; I just stopped paying attention. The oddity of life as a kids’ author is that your audience changes every four years, a perpetual cycle that means you’re constantly forced to introduce yourself to a new generation of fans. When I spoke to him on the phone a few months ago, Korman was working on a new book from his spare room in Long Island, a makeshift office cluttered with papers and old mail.

Now fifty-two years old, married with three children, Korman has published more than eighty-five kids’ and YA novels. There have been a lot of ebbs and flows to my career over the years,” Korman told me. “There are probably some soft spots in the continuum in terms of how many fans I have.” Korman has written sports and adventure books, in addition to the comedies with which he began his career. In 2008, he made it to number one on the New York Times children’s book bestseller list for the first time when he was chosen to contribute to 39 Clues, a series of adventure novels written by a rotating group of authors.

Korman’s career has that slightly unbalanced quality that sometimes occurs when a Canadian finds some success in America. His celebrity is broader now—there are simply more Americans—but it’s never been deeper than it was among my generation of readers. When Korman first built a website with a discussion forum in the 2000s, he found a culture war brewing between his new fans—kids who wanted to talk about the latest adventure novel, and older readers who threatened to push the kids out with detailed reminiscences about George Wexford-Smyth III and other minor Macdonald Hall characters.

Despite starting a couple adult novels and playing with various ideas, Korman told me, he never did write one. “In my twenties I thought about it a lot,” he said. The concept always revolved around the idea of a person finding his place, an outsider finally realizing his role in a community. “The idea of the new guy in town, the young man coming to a new city, that kind of thing.” One of the big changes in this, the third or fourth iteration of his career, is that he doesn’t think about the adult novel any longer. “It’s not to say that if I came up with an amazing idea for an adult book, I wouldn’t write it. But it’s not the great unclimbed mountain,” he told me.

That doesn’t mean that Korman doesn’t sometimes feel strange about his career. “When I go to high school reunions and stuff everyone’s talking about how much they’re reinvented themselves,” said Korman, “they’re always like, ‘Dude, last time I heard from you, you had just signed a contract to write a kids’ book for Scholastic! What are you doing now, man?’ And I say, ‘Well, I just wrote a kids’ book for Scholastic.’ It sort of sounds like I’m still kind of mired in my seventh-grade life.”

YTV’s Macdonald Hall movie, Korman said, was the ultimate example of this. “I’m fifty-two years old, and if you ask me about what’s going on in my career, one of the newest things is the fact that they’re doing a TV show based on my seventh-grade English assignment,” he told me. “The idea that at this point in my life Bruno and Boots are still a factor is pretty wild.”

***

It’s hard to know how the Korman movie will fare with kids who have likely never heard of Bruno and Boots. It airs on YTV this week and it looks, to my unprofessional eye, like a fun romp that both children and their parents might enjoy! Going against current trends, it is not a dark, gritty revamp, which is a relief. My personal hope is that the movie’s a hit, the producers make a half-dozen more, and the ensuing Korman renaissance means that books such as No Coins, Please—a Canadian classic that is shamefully out of print—will be introduced to the next generation.

In Hamilton, though, watching a group of teen actors reenact a baking contest presided over by an ersatz Guy Fieri, it was difficult to feel a connection to the material. This month, I reread some of the Macdonald Hall books. After years of culling my library, hauling boxes from place to place, they’re some of the few kids novels that remain, alongside books by Roald Dahl, Arthur Ransom, Dennis Lee and Kit Pearson. The books are still charming. Reading them now, it was a pleasure to be reminded of favourite jokes, to spend time with characters I’d once found so appealing. But it was a strange sensation, too, trying to suss out precisely why I had loved the books as much as I did, feeling my way through the narrative, consciously probing for the moments that might produce a surge of familiar feeling.

For Korman himself, returning to his first books is a complicated experience. Last year, the author revisited the Macdonald Hall books for the first time in decades, reading through the back catalogue at his youngest son’s request. “It almost felt like something I read as a kid and really loved and knew very well,” he said. “It didn’t feel like something I’d written.” He laughed at some of his jokes and cringed at some of his choices. “It’s clearly not how I would write those stories today,” he said, then paused. “But then again, what’s more true to my readers, me now or me then?”

I asked him if he would ever consider returning to the world of Macdonald Hall. “I would. I would definitely,” he said. “We talk about that all the time with my editors. What’s the best thing to do? Do you sit down and write Macdonald Hall like it had never stopped? Do you do it from the standpoint of Macdonald Hall the next generation?”

He warmed to the subject, spinning off ideas he had obviously spent some time considering. In 2016, how do you deal with a “finishing school for young ladies,” a concept he admits was already outdated in the 1970s? How to pick up the threads of a narrative you started when you were a kid? “Do you have, like, Bruno is now a teacher and Mr. Sturgeon is kind of very elderly and he’s chairman of the board emeritus or something?” Korman said.

“Oh, those are sometimes so sad,” I blurted out. “You know, when you revisit characters and they’re old?” I was thinking of how depressing it had been to read about a paunchy d’Artagnan in the Three Musketeers sequel, of how much I’d hated hearing about Jo March’s kids, of the melancholy of aging in general and how difficult it can be to return to beloved characters and find them changed.

“Yeah,” said Korman hurriedly (and I immediately felt like a jerk). “I don’t know whether it could work. Or maybe the possibility is that the best ideas are not Macdonald Hall. And rather than trying to put a square peg in a round hole, you know … your energies might be better directed elsewhere.”

***

The best narrative resurrections offer a kind of magic. To see a beloved story from the past brought to new life is a specific pleasure, your experience in the present constantly interrupted by the sensation of yet another forgotten memory burbling to the surface.

It’s easy to dismiss nostalgia as a cheap ploy. Sentimentality is the enemy of art. “I felt like a ten-year-old again” is a trite thing people say when they’re interviewed leaving a new Stars Wars movie. It’s not the sort of reaction a real artist should try to produce. But to truly feel the things you felt as a ten-year-old—to experience an involuntary rush of memory that returns you to a younger self—is profound and powerful. It gives continuity to a life that can sometimes feel as if it’s just bumping from one moment to the next. Earlier versions of yourself are there, inaccessible to conscious reasoning. Typically, they only emerge when drawn out, whether by a particular scent, a forgotten song, or, increasingly, a cynically produced piece of Hollywood entertainment.

If you’re a writer of children’s books like Gordon Korman, of course, you don’t need a revived sitcom or a J.J. Abrams reboot or a bite of a tea-soaked Madeleine to do this work for you. The reason Korman has been able to write dozens and dozens of children’s novels is because he’s able to remember exactly how it felt to be a kid, all the exhilaration and frustration of growing up. Korman’s job is to put himself in the mind of the twelve-year-old that wrote that first Bruno and Boots book. It is his particular talent. If the fifty-two-year-old author is no longer struggling to write an adult novel, fiddling with stories about a young man finding his place in the world, it’s because he knows exactly what he is and how he fits. Korman is a kids’ writer.

On the phone from his office in Long Island, he tried to explain the process. “An old song comes on the radio and it reminds you of the summer you worked selling cotton candy at the CNE, because that song played at the ride that was next door. I think it’s a very similar thing to that: you are able to evoke impressions and feelings and details of the past artificially. Some people need a song to come on,” he said. “But some people can just think back and remember.”

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