Saturday, May 15, 2010

Fifth Grade Monsters

I enjoy reading middle-grade and YA fantasy, and one of my favorite series in the past was the long-running “Fifth Grade Monsters,” by Mel Gilden. This group of novels for elementary school children features an ensemble of nonhuman characters clearly defined as members of other races or subspecies, not transformed human beings.

One of these is a vampire child eager to fit into the mainstream culture of a grade school classroom. Gilden evokes sympathy for "monsters" by drawing a parallel between these creatures and outcast, persecuted human minorities. The series constantly emphasizes the value of accepting people who look different, perhaps at first sight even threatening. In the opening volume, M IS FOR MONSTER (1987), human protagonist Danny discovers that the four monster children who join his fifth-grade class--Howie Wolfner, an English werewolf; Frankie and Elisa Stein, German twins who wear bolts in their necks and generate electricity from their bodies; and C. D. Bitesky, a Transylvanian immigrant who wears evening clothes with a cape to school and carries a thermos of red liquid called Fluid of Life--make far better friends than Stevie, the human class bully. The bigoted Stevie tries to discredit the "freaks," while Danny and other sympathetic characters accept them and try to understand their differences. Though Danny has some initial problems overcoming the stereotypes he has absorbed from horror movies, the obvious friendliness of the "monsters" quickly changes his attitude. Elisa suggests that "what you call a monster is all in your head,” while C. D. reminds Danny, "We are your friends...Does it matter where we come from or what sort of blood is in our veins?" Elisa compares monsters to "people with special problems--or special abilities.” C. D.'s name obviously suggests "Count Dracula," and the series makes several references to his famous relative, "The Count." But despite the horror traditionally associated with the name "Dracula," C. D. and his family are harmless, drinking Fluid of Life rather than feeding on live prey. Gilden's novels place them on the side of the oppressed rather than (like Stoker's Dracula) the oppressors; the Biteskys have fled old-country persecution in search of a better life in Brooklyn.

In HOW TO BE A VAMPIRE IN ONE EASY LESSON (1990), the Count himself takes refuge in Brooklyn for that same reason, making his home in the cellar of a grand old movie house, the Carfax Theater. (Its name is one of many allusions to Stoker, directed to adult rather than child readers; for example, the theater's owner, Abby Carfax, drives a van that she nicknames Helsing.) A benefit screening of Bela Lugosi's Dracula at the theater leads to a discussion of horror movies, which C. D. and his monster friends dislike because "they perpetuate a negative stereotype,” a lighthearted allusion to similar consciousness-raising among human minority groups. Stevie, fascinated by the film, decides he wants to become a vampire, not because he has undergone a conversion from bigotry to tolerance, but because he wants to appropriate the monsters' power. He wants to become a more efficient bully by dominating others with the force of his will. Though C. D.'s parents introduce Stevie to the Count, this selfishly motivated attempt at transformation naturally fails. C. D.'s family, as non-supernatural creatures, cannot transmit their powers to ordinary people. After Stevie realizes his "change" is a delusion, C. D. reminds him, "Before we began I told you that you are a vampire or you are not...It is like having red hair and freckles.”

Ann Hodgman's THERE'S A BATWING IN MY LUNCHBOX (1988), the one book in the series not written by Gilden, uses the monster children to illustrate the importance of pride in one's own ancestral heritage. C. D. proves to be the only student with the courage to speak up when the fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Cosgrove, plans a traditional Thanksgiving feast. The vampire boy refuses to participate, because his forebears had no connection with the Pilgrims, and turkey and pumpkin pie hold no cultural resonance for him. To his surprise, children of other ethnic backgrounds speak up to support him. Only Stevie, expressing his usual bigotry against the monsters, accuses C. D. of being "a complete unpatriot" and threatens to have his father report C. D.'s rebellion to the school board. Ms. Cosgrove, recognizing her own ethnocentrism, decides instead to have a multicultural feast, with each student bringing a family recipe from his or her ancestral home, to "celebrate all the immigrants who have come to this country.” Howie the werewolf underscores the analogy between monsters and more mundane persecuted minorities with the remark, "The Pilgrims would probably have run my ancestors out of town--or burned them at the stake.” When C. D. presents his contribution to the Thanksgiving feast, a Potion of Friendliness, he tells the class that "my family has been persecuted there [Transylvania] for centuries...In America, in England, in Transylvania--perhaps all over the world--no one likes people who are different.” The identification of vampires (and other victims of superstition) with human outsiders could hardly be more explicit.

Other books in the series focus on the other “monsters” and various paranormal events, and later a mermaid joins the class. A fun, lighthearted treatment of vampires and other traditional horror-movie creatures as people almost like everyone else.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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