Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mudshark by Gary Paulsen

When each chapter begins with an all-school intercom announcement asking the custodian to report to the faculty restroom, you know the book is going to catch readers' attention.

When each chapter's custodial call gets progressively worse, from asking the custodian to bring "a shovel and a plunger" to "a rag, a strainer, and a set of tongs" to "a plastic shield, a hazardous waste suit and a large container of pepper spray" to finally "a Geiger counter, lead-lined gloves and smoked-lens goggles," all to the faculty restroom, well, who wouldn't want to discover the menacing cause of impending disaster?

What is somewhat confusing, however, is that the chapters themselves have nothing to do with the announcements, at least at first glance. The chapters tell the story of a young detective named Mudshark, so named for his quickness in Death Ball, a local sport that combines various aspects of soccer, football, rugby, wrestling, and mudfighting.

Mudshark is always thinking and always observing. So if you lost your homework, as Markie McCorkin once did, Mudshark could direct you to the bushes at the front of school to find the lost assignments, as he did for Markie. Because Mudshark sees things - Markie on the step, two small kids, a yellow ball, an orange folder, a red paper clip - and he puts them all together to solve the problems he’s presented. It's not rocket science. Just observation and memory.

But then the library's new parrot begins solving problems quicker than Mudshark. Sure, the parrot emits naughty noises and objectionable odors, recites off-color limericks in several languages, and says, "Hey, babe, what's happening?" but that doesn't stop the students from believing he's psychic. Mudshark knows better. It's not rocket science. Just observation and memory.

Mudshark is called in by the principal to help solve a mystery involving missing erasers in the school. Mudshark soon discovers the problem includes the custodian, the faculty restroom, a couple classmates, and a missing hamster. As he seeks to unravel the knots in this yarn, Mudshark must also keep the precocious parrot from getting in the way.

In the end Gary Paulsen brings everything together, including the cause of faculty restroom dilemma. The plot gets a bit confusing at times – I had to reread parts during my initial read – but it made much more sense as I reread it aloud to my class. My class wanted more description of the faculty restroom, but I think their imaginations actually drew more vivid and dangerous scenarios than would have been offered. We all wanted more Death Ball, more than the occasional mention of the playoffs or resulting injuries.

There’s still plenty of silliness to keep readers’ attention, with laughs on nearly every page, and an ending that elicits major groans and a great “Now what?!?”

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