Tom Angleberger’s Middle School Hijinks

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Origami Yoda, Darth Paper, Fake MustacheOrigami Yoda, Darth Paper, Fake Mustache

Tom Angleberger, a former GeekDad contributor, has a couple of books for middle schoolers that are quite funny and work in a lot of fun geeky references. You may have heard of the first two: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and its sequel Darth Paper Strikes Back were published in 2010 and 2011. Coming up in May, Angleberger has a new book out that’s still set in middle school but goes off in an entirely different direction: Fake Mustache.

My 8-year-old daughter and I have read all three together and had a lot of laughs, so I thought I’d tell you a bit about the books.

The Strange Case of Origami YodaThe Strange Case of Origami YodaThe Strange Case of Origami Yoda

I’d heard of Origami Yoda and had seen little drawings and images of folded-paper Yodas around, but for whatever reason I hadn’t ever read the book. My daughter actually found this (and Darth Paper) at her school library after we read Fake Mustache because she knew it was the same author.

The story is set at McQuarrie Middle School, where a sixth-grader named Tommy is trying to answer the question: is Origami Yoda real? Origami Yoda is the creation of Dwight, a classmate who is a bit on the weird side. Really, picture Napoleon Dynamite in middle school and you’ll have a pretty good idea: he’s awkward, rude, socially inept, and nobody really understands him. But then he shows up with this paper Yoda finger puppet and starts giving people advice and answering questions in his bad Yoda impression voice, and most of his advice turns out to be pretty good.

Well, maybe. There are skeptics.

So Tommy takes it upon himself to compile a case file, asking various students to contribute their stories about Origami Yoda and the advice they got from him. Each story gets a comment from Tommy, and a comment from Harvey, the skeptic. (Plus there are illustrations from another kid, Kellen.) There’s the kid who’s been branded the “Cheeto Hog” and wants a way to lose the nickname; a kid who keeps striking out in baseball and can’t stop bursting into angry tears; the girl who accidentally broke her teacher’s Shakespeare bust. All of them asked Origami Yoda for advice, and he came through each time.

But then there’s the unsatisfactory answers, the ones that don’t seem to make sense. And there’s the question of Dwight himself — even though he’s the one doing the voices for the puppet, he doesn’t seem to be nearly as wise as Yoda. He doesn’t follow Yoda’s advice himself. So what’s the deal? Tommy has to make a decision whether to follow Origami Yoda’s advice, and it’s a big deal that could lead to something more than friendship or total humiliation in front of all his friends. What should he decide?

Some of the stuff in the book is a little beyond my third-grader: the school dances and boy-girl relationships are represented pretty accurately and it’s tame, but it’s stuff that she isn’t really dealing with yet. However, a lot of the other stuff like being around kids who act weird and figuring out what it means to be a friend — those are pretty great lessons, and wrapping them in a layer of Star Wars references and talking puppets is brilliant.

The one comment I will make about the book is this: I’m glad that my daughter decided to just read ahead (while I was away for GameStorm) because “Origami Yoda” is pretty hard to say out loud over and over.

Darth Paper Strikes BackDarth Paper Strikes BackDarth Paper Strikes Back

Well, one year later, Tommy and friends are in seventh-grade, and there’s a crisis. Dwight has been suspended and might be expelled, sent to the Correctional and Remedial Education Facility. The principal is tired of Dwight’s behavioral issues (particularly his habit of speaking through Origami Yoda) and after a particular incident occurs she has taken the matter to the school board.

Tommy, as instructed by Origami Yoda, is building another case file, this time to defend Dwight at the upcoming school board meeting. He’s compiled another collection of stories to show how Dwight and Origami Yoda have helped various students overcome problems, in the hopes that this will sway the school board in his favor.

However, Harvey (the skeptic) has become even more annoying. He’s figured out how to make Darth Paper, an origami Vader, and McQuarrie Middle School has become a battleground between the two puppets. It doesn’t help that Harvey’s Darth Vader impression is much better than Dwight’s Yoda voice. He keeps popping up and arguing against Dwight and Origami Yoda at any given chance.

In this book, Origami Yoda takes on school fundraising, the library’s videogame ban, a smelly girl in drama class, and a skateboarding brat. And, of course, Darth Paper, who seems to be leading Harvey to the Dark Side. Will Tommy succeed? Or will Darth Paper triumph, banishing Dwight from McQuarrie forever?

Although the book is filled with a lot of humor, I think it also has serious undercurrents. It’s about not fitting in, about a kid who is creative and pretty smart but doesn’t fit into the right categories that standardized tests expect, and about a kid who is learning to take a stand for his friend. I also like the way the Star Wars references are worked in and feel like something middle schoolers would really say, and there’s a great pencil-and-paper game that I’d totally forgotten about but should try with my kids.

The Secret of the Fortune WookieeThe Secret of the Fortune WookieeFor more about the Origami Yoda series (including instructions for folding characters and more) visit www.OrigamiYoda.com. Also, it was just announced Thursday that the third book in the series, scheduled for an August release, will be titled The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee, pictured here.

One note: my daughter hasn’t seen the Star Wars movies yet, so she does miss some of the references and there are some slight spoilers in that case — but I think nothing too obvious. Certainly kids who are familiar with Star Wars will enjoy these books even more.

Personally I really enjoyed the books. I mean, it’s definitely middle school humor and not classy literature, but it’s a lot of fun, even if you can kind of see where they’re going. (And you might even be surprised) At the end of the books there are even instructions on how to fold your own Origami Yoda and Darth Paper (though a simpler one than the one pictured on the cover). I’m looking forward to the third installment when it comes out.

Fake MustacheFake MustacheFake Mustache

And now for something completely different!

Well, maybe not completely different, but mostly. Fake Mustache is still set in middle school, but unlike the Origami Yoda series most of the action takes place outside of school. Also, whereas the Origami Yoda series sticks with realism, Fake Mustache is quite at home in the realm of absurdity.

Here’s the scoop: twelve-year-old Calvin Bengue borrows some money from his friend Lenny Flem Jr. to buy a fake mustache. But not just any fake mustache — the Heidelberg Handlebar #7, a one-of-a-kind mustache with a storied history that is incredibly convincing. With the mustache and his new man-about-town suit, suddenly Calvin is able to convince everyone that he is, in fact, a short man-about-town and not just a seventh-grader.

Pretty soon everyone in the town of Hairsprinkle is under his spell, and Calvin is able to steal a fortune from the bank, buy up the Heidelberg Novelty Company, and has convinced the governor to step down so he could take her place. He’s got an even bigger plan hidden up his sleeve, and it seems that only Lenny Flem Jr. can resist the power of the mustache.

Fake Mustache had my daughter rolling with laughter. Like the Brixton Brothers series, it’s a book in which the adults take kids too seriously. Nobody believes Lenny when he tells them that the guy they’re seeing is a kid with a fake mustache, because that mustache is too real to be fake. In the meantime, there are all sorts of side plots involving Jody O’Rodeo, the teen cowgirl queen (and TV star), plus some creative uses of various Heidelberg Novelties (besides the mustache).

The illustrations are by Jen Wang, though my advance reader copy only had the cover and title page illustrations with unfinished sketches for the rest. I’ve seen her artwork in other places, though, and I think they’ll be a really good fit. Fake Mustache was originally slated for a May release but it looks like it’s been moved up to April 1, so you can go order a copy now!

Disclosure: GeekDad received an advance reader proof of Fake Mustache.

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