As I entered the first grade at Ecole L’Ardoise in 1978, I wasn’t reading full-length chapter books on a regular basis. It would take another three years before I was even willing to give them a try.
Fortunately, another Canadian kid, only nine years older than me, had just published his first novel, the opening salvo in a lengthy run of children’s/young-adult literature that would keep me enthralled throughout the ’80s, still makes me smile today, and has introduced two generations of kids around the world to the joy of reading.
That author: Gordon Korman. The book: This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall!
Now, to me, one of the most amazing things about the tale of trouble-making private-school buddies Bruno Walton and Melvin P. “Boots” O’Neal is the fact that, in a sense, it reached the rest of the world by accident. During his seventh-grade year at German Mills Public School in Thornhill, Ontario, Korman didn’t have an actual English teacher – he had a track and field coach who, in early 1975, was suddenly thrust into teaching English. (This resonates with me because one of my earliest music teachers and my longest-serving piano instructor, Billy Digout, was a Phys Ed teacher who suddenly became a music teacher in the early ’80s because he happened to know how to play the piano.)
Taking his track-turned-English-teacher up on his offer to “work on whatever we wanted for the rest of the year,” preteen Korman spent the next four months concocting the tale of Bruno and Boots and their campaign to remain roommates at the fictional Macdonald Hall despite their lengthy record of adolescent shenanigans. He also developed a whack of quirky schoolmates for the central characters – awkward, science-obsessed Elmer Drimsdale, snooty rich kid George Wexford Smith III, easily-annoyed gymnast Perry Elbert, and across the street at Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, Bruno and Boots’ eager co-conspirators Cathy Burton and Diane Grant. Rounding out the main cast: Macdonald Hall headmaster (and taskmaster) William Sturgeon aka. “The Fish,” and the often-frantic, blunderbuss-toting Miss Scrimmage.
Whether or not he immediately saw the potential in these characters, 12-year-old Korman rightly knew they shouldn’t be consigned to a mere classroom assignment. He asked his mother to type up This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall so he could send it to the Scholastic publishing house; in Korman’s own words: “I was the class monitor for Scholastic Book Orders, and figured I was practically an employee. Seriously.” By 1978, as Korman began his freshman year at Thornlea Secondary School, Bruno and Boots would officially hit the store shelves; three more of their adventures would follow by the time I discovered Korman’s work in late 1983.
That quartet of books quickly won over my sixth-grade self with four things I wasn’t used to seeing in children’s/YA fiction: snappy, breezy writing that didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time inside the main characters’ heads; a healthy dose of descriptive prose to back up even the most innocuous plot development; a wonderful and occasionally wicked sense of humour; and, outside of Bruno and Boots themselves, a strong ensemble cast. In the third B&B book and my favourite of the series, Beware The Fish!, Korman’s inventive characters even extended outside the Macdonald Hall/Scrimmage’s setting to include bumbling law-enforcement officials trying to trace the location of closed-circuit “Fish” broadcasts eventually traced to Bruno’s dorm room. (“This is the Fish Patrol in 4-0-1…”)
Now, I can’t honestly claim that Bruno and Boots captivated me throughout the entirety of their book series. I was left somewhat cold by the fourth instalment, The War With Mr. Wizzle, partly because its authoritarian title character left little room for the humour to squeeze through. By the time the fifth chapter, The Zucchini Warriors – featuring Scrimmage’s student Cathy as a member of the otherwise-all-male Macdonald Hall football team – arrived in 1988, I wasn’t connecting with those favourite characters with my previous zeal (sometimes high school will do that to you); I wouldn’t even learn that Korman had written two more B&B books, Macdonald Hall Goes Hollywood and Something Fishy At Macdonald Hall, until I started preparing to write this blog post a couple of months ago.
Through the years, however, I always fondly remembered my first taste of Gordon Korman’s work, so I was delighted when YTV announced a TV movie based on the second Bruno and Boots book, Go Jump In The Pool! The 2015 production expertly captured the spirit of the original novels, and its bang-on casting brought characters I had loved for years to life. I was tickled to see a couple of my favourite Canadian comedic actors of the past two decades, Peter Keleghan and Caroline Rhea, as Mr. Sturgeon/”The Fish” and Miss Scrimmage, respectively. (I’ll be honest – I always pictured Jeffrey Tambor as “The Fish” whenever I read the novels, but Keleghan is a perfect fit in this day and age.)
And the teenage casting worked like a charm – Johnny Gray’s Bruno has just the right mix of energy and bravado, while Callan Potter gives Boots the perfect blend of determination and loyalty with the occasional drop of bewilderment. (He’s also part of a sweet bit of chemistry absent from the original novel, as Boots gets a late-movie kiss from his Scrimmage’s counterpart Diane, played by Kiana Medeira.)
With Go Jump In The Pool a critical and ratings hit for YTV, the network made Kormanites like me even happier last summer when it announced two more Bruno and Boots movies for 2017 – This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall and The Wizzle War. (UPDATE: They debuted on YTV on April 1, and they were both a hoot, especially The Wizzle War.) I’m still holding out hope that we’ll see Beware The Fish! on our screens sometime down the road – after all, there’s a whole world out there that wants to see Elmer Drimsdale become “Elmer Dynamicdale” and sing his big hit song “Euclid is Putrid”! Come on, YTV! It’s your civic duty!
But hey, why stop at Bruno and Boots? Gordon Korman kept me and millions of others laughing through the ’80s with a steady stream of books that would be a perfect fit for YTV, and possibly even the big screen, in this day and age – specifically:
No Coins, Please: Published in 1984, this one has a plot-line that seems perfect for Hollywood: Eleven-year-old huckster Artie Geller joins a group of fellow young Canadians on a national camping trip across the U.S., scamming Americans out of hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way with schemes as bizarre as selling jars of “Attack Jelly” in New York City (as depicted on the original book cover), charging people a buck to milk “no-frills cows” in Nebraska, and converting an abandoned pretzel factory in Denver into a one-night-only dance club. Artie’s finally caught when he overplays his hand (literally and figuratively) and disguises himself as an elderly gentleman to sneak into several Las Vegas casinos. Despite racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and penalties, Artie still manages to make a few dollars in profit on his original investment of $75.00, although he’s mildly disgusted that the profit includes change. (See the book’s title.)
Why I Loved It: Apart from what I now recognise as a likely-unhealthy glee in seeing a kid from Montreal bilking all those gullible Americans, the “Canadians barging in on the U.S.” theme was further driven home by Artie’s group’s insistence on calling their white van “The Ambulance” and making their group cheer a siren noise, driving tour director Charlie Butcher bonkers. Also, I enjoyed the little special touches in Artie’s schemes, right down to the moose that kept appearing on the slot-car track he set up in Washington, D.C.
Why Isn’t It A Movie Yet?: I suspect a young Canadian con artist might not be as good a role model for kids as, say, a group of teenage wizards or a post-apocalyptic society that forces kids to shoot each other with arrows for adults’ viewing pleasure. Also, the producers would have a hard time finding the right person to play Pete Ogrodnick.
Bugs Potter: Introduced in 1980’s Who Is Bugs Potter? and returned for the 1983 sequel Bugs Potter LIVE At Nickaninny, this character seems ready-made for the movies. In the original, he somehow finds a way to sneak into four consecutive Toronto nightclubs and sit in on the drums for some of the continent’s biggest bands while visiting the city for a national youth orchestra concert at Ontario Place. Bugs’ popularity grows exponentially with every appearance, a concept that seems even more plausible in the social media age than it did in the early ’80s. The second chapter sees a rare appearance for a main character’s parents in an early Korman work, as Mr. and Mrs. Potter drag Bugs to a camping trip at Lake Naka-mee-chee, where he converts a cooking pot and a fellow camper’s designer jeans into a drum set and has a full band ready for a concert by the end of the book.
Why I Loved Them: In both books, Bugs Potter’s relentless determination continually drove the story, with an extra layer of comedy added by his obliviousness to his own growing fame in Who Is Bugs Potter? Also, I haven’t seen Zsa Zsa Gabor quite the same way since the original Bugs book introduced me to her doppelganger, BiBi Lanay (alias Brenda Lipschitz, a secretary from the Bronx who spits out a different European dialect every time she opens her mouth in public). Most importantly, the comic rivalry between the competing American and Canadian scientists attempting to find the lost Naka-mee-chee tribe in LIVE At Nickaninny inspired me to create similar characters for a sci-fi novel I started to write in junior high, Stargazers. (Unlike This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall, however, I never finished the novel and YTV won’t return my calls.)
Why Aren’t They Movies Yet?: It takes time to find the right person to play Johnny Solid, the Busted Chandelier drummer best known for the worldwide hit “Glass On The Floor.” Similarly, given that Nickaninny secondary character Elizabeth is a classically-trained teenage singer who initially hates Bugs but winds up in his band after discovering the therapeutic nature of primal screams set to hard rock beats, I imagine the casting director gave up waiting for Alanis Morrisette or Courtney Love to audition years ago.
I Want To Go Home!: The last book published before Gordon Korman’s high school graduation (and his first book featuring characters that wouldn’t reappear in a follow-up book), this 1981 classic continues the anarchic spirit found at Macdonald Hall and Scrimmage’s but ups the ante by making its central character a sarcastic summer-camp attendee. Rudy Miller might infuriate most camp counsellors but he still wins me over with the sheer creativity of his efforts to get out of Ontario’s fictional Camp Algonkian; he excels at everything from athletics to dance to calligraphy but chafes at being told what to do. I’ve known a lot of people like that in my life, and I’ll admit that, on occasion, I’ve been a Rudy Miller, even in social and work situations. (I draw the line at making fun of bowlegged people, though.)
Why I Loved It: The exaggerated nature of Rudy’s antics – he places a phone order for 10,000 basketballs when the camp organizers make the mistake of putting him in charge for a day – and the panic of various counsellors (especially Chip) is balanced off by the reveal, in the final chapter, that every time Rudy actually managed to escape the Camp Algonkian site, he came right back because he didn’t really want to go home. And a lot of the one-liners still land today, including “He must be the only camp counsellor who can water-ski with his face” and “Betwixt these sheets sleepeth ye biggest twit in Ontario” (which was still a source of laughter for one of my radio co-workers when we discussed I Want To Go Home! during a quiet office moment in the mid-’90s).
Why Isn’t It A Movie Yet?: I suspect this one’s going through rewrites to find a more acceptable insult than “twit” and a more sensitive way of using the line “Look, you can see the entire camp through his legs.”
Our Man Weston (1982), Don’t Care High (1985), Son of Interflux (1986): I’ve grouped these three together because they were the last Gordon Korman titles I acquired prior to the fifth Bruno and Boots book, and they mark an interesting transition for the author’s material. With Our Man Weston, the concept of quirky young men getting involved in extraordinary adventure holds true, with espionage-obsessed Sidney Weston determined to expose covert action at a resort that employs him and his twin brother as bellhops. By the mid-’80s, Korman’s focus shifted to the public school system, with Don’t Care High involving its protagonist and his new best friend launching a bizarre campaign to make a mysterious loner the big man on campus, while Son of Interflux followed a student’s efforts to stop a company run by his father from destroying a green space next to his high school – without tipping off his dad that he’s behind that campaign, of course.
Why I Loved Them: I thoroughly enjoyed Our Man Weston’s two counter-balances to Sidney Weston’s conspiracy theories – specifically, his sceptical twin brother and many of the intelligence agencies Sidney kept badgering (NORAD even burned his letters without opening them). Son of Interflux constructed a careful-yet-humourous double-life for protagonist Simon Irving, as he disguised his Interflux lineage from his fellow students and his “Antiflux” protest from his parents. And in Don’t Care High, I liked the idea that the main character, Paul Abrams, actually let his guard down and allowed the readers to see how much he hated starting over at an NYC high school after moving with his family from Saskatchewan. Besides, given the current White House occupant and how he got there, it’s not actually hard to believe an unsuspecting write-in candidate could become a student council president thanks to two guys roller-skating around the school hallways and handing out copies of The Otis Report.
Why Aren’t They Movies Yet?: I can’t help but wonder if Our Man Weston, the tale of a kid harassing intelligence agencies, might not necessarily fly in the post-9/11 era. Son of Interflux is probably waiting for that all-important Burger King sponsorship (Simon and his dad routinely made late-night runs to the Home of the Whopper as antidotes to Mrs. Irving’s health-food kick). Speaking of food, Don’t Care High is probably hinging on the all-important development of the pizza sauce patented under the name Rocco for the wrap party. These things have to be perfect, don’t you know. Mike Otis would have wanted it that way.
All kidding aside, though, part of my admiration for Gordon Korman – apart from the dozens of best-selling children’s books he’s released since the late ’80s – is rooted in his willingness to engage with his fans of all ages. Now living with his family in Long Island, New York, he routinely visits schools, libraries and bookstores on both sides of the 49th parallel and was actively involved in the promotion and production of YTV’s Go Jump In The Pool.
And he maintains a solid social media presence, particularly on Twitter. How do I know this? Well, let’s just say that the 11-year-old from Cape Breton who first discovered Bruno and Boots in the sixth grade had no idea that, someday, computers that barely seemed advanced enough to deliver a serviceable home version of Ms. Pac-Man would allow him to connect with the author who was creating these smart, funny Macdonald Hall stories.
Among my favourite revelations from my Twitter exchanges with Mr. Korman: He loves the casting of Go Jump In The Pool and the fact that Boots and Diane kissed; and while he likes Caroline Rhea as a “New Age” Miss Scrimmage, he still wishes she could wield the shotgun that famously shot a hole in her school’s main entrance sign in the original version of This Can’t Be Happening At Macdonald Hall! (“Where’s the lion? Don’t worry, girls, I’ll save you!” “BOOM!”)
All I know is that, as the young man who laughed his head off while picturing the early-morning sunlight filtering through the hole in the sign that now welcomed visitors to “Miss Scrimmage’s Fishing School For Young Girls,” I’m still grateful for Gordon Korman’s incredible imagination and his amazing devotion to his craft.
Not to mention that track-and-field teacher who took over his Grade 7 English class.
2 thoughts on “Canada 1978: Could This Be Happening To Gordon Korman?”
Great review! I grew up right near Gordon Korman in Willowdale, the next suburb down from Thornhill. I’m a 44 year old corporate attorney, and I STILL love reading and re-reading GK. I’ve gotten my kids to read him too.
You literally got every one of the classics, and I know most of them by heart. Would only add also, from that period, semester in the life a garbage bag. It’s one of the last of that early period, and perhaps just a smidgen less funny, but to me it still belongs in the grouping with don’t care high and inter flux. (I would put our man Weston in a separate, stand alone category.)
Korman was a real prodigy. Not only are all these books hilarious, but they also display understandings of the relationships between husbands and wives, principals and teachers, etc. it’s amazing he grasped all these subtleties already in his early teens.
Again, great work.
I’m glad I stumbled onto this post! I’m 42 and still annually re-read all my Gordon Korman books. I’m currently taking a break from re-reading and am reading Macdonald Hall Goes Hollywood for the first time.
In addition to Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag that the commenter above mentioned, I’d also say Losing Joe’s Place is one that I’d consider a classic. Absolutely hilarious. I’m giggling just thinking about it.
I always wanted to meet Bruno and Boots in real-life, though I suspect Bruno would get on my nerves pretty quickly. I’m more of a Boots, myself.