I really wanted to read I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore after I read a review of it a few months ago. I remember the reviewer saying that the author’s name is obviously a pseudonym, then just filed the title away. (I actually have a “book book” – a little book in which I write titles of books I want to read, organized by author. My kids tease me about my book book, but when you’re a motherboard with limited RAM, you need to write things down.) More recently I heard that it’s already been made into a “major motion picture” (due out in February!), so I knew I had to read it soon.
And it was OK. The idea – aliens living among us, waiting to get strong enough to go back to rescue their home planet from horrible monsters who now might be coming to conquer Earth – was rather interesting. But the book was just OK. I liked it enough to keep reading it, but probably not enough to bother with the sequels.
It’s certainly not as good as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, which is also being made into a movie. If you haven’t read the The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, read them now. (Yes, I know, I haven’t read Mockingjay yet … I’m procrastinating because I don’t want the series to end.) I Am Number Four isn’t even as good as The Maze Runner (the first book in a new series by James Dashner). But it is often a page-turner and I can see some teens wanting to follow the series. On the other hand, there are some huge plot holes and clichéd characters (the principal only interested in sports, the bully jock, the nerd, the beautiful blond (former) cheerleader with a heart of gold … played in the movie by Dianna Agron of Glee fame, where she plays a beautiful blond cheerleader with a heart of tarnished gold).
Then, yesterday, I remembered something I read recently. Something about James Frey and I Am Number Four … and I got sad. Back in November, New York Magazine featured a story called “James Frey’s Fiction Factory.” I Am Number Four was produced by this factory.
James Frey, infamous for his semi-fictional autobiography and subsequent praise and then butchering from the almighty Oprah, has started a publishing brand. He hires young writers to help him produce “commercial ideas that would sell extremely well.” Sometimes the idea comes from Frey, sometimes from the young writer. Jobie Hughes was tasked with writing I Am Number Four from a concept given to him by Frey. Frey was looking for the next big thing. According to the New York article, “Frey believed that Harry Potter and the Twilight series had awakened a ravenous market of readers and were leaving a substantial gap in their wake. He wanted to be the one to fill it. There had already been wizards, vampires, and werewolves. Aliens, Frey predicted, would be next.”
Sigh. You can’t really disagree with him on some of that. There is a market here. Our kids may not read enough, but when they get hooked on a series, they read. And parents, librarians, teachers, publishers, and even booksellers should encourage that. Reading really is fundamental.
And he’s not the first one to use a factory-like system. Think of artists and apprentices. Look at all the Matt Christopher sport books for preteens. They’re branded with the Matt Christopher name even if Christopher didn’t write them.
But I’d like it if we librarians and parents could at some point help steer our kids away from the schlock, which factories like this turn out, and toward books with more literary merit. We know they're out there. First and foremost, of course, kids should read. And if that means reading schlock first, and then reading better stuff, let them have the schlock. After, we can suggest other, better, books.