Friday, December 24, 2021

More Old Guys-- Bingo Brown

Byars, Betsy. The Burning Questions of Bingo Brown
January 1st 1988 by Viking Juvenile 
Library copy

Bingo (nee Harrison) Brown is a typical middle school student. He is minding his own business in English class when the students are given an assignment; you are at the top of your field, so give advice to others. When three girls in his class give answers he finds intriguing, he suddenly finds himself irresistably drawn to them. His own answer isn't that inspired, but he loves the notebook that his teacher, Mr. Markham, gives him, and proceeds to record his antics in it. This includes his parents' plans for their college class reunion (his father was a cheerleader and his mother played trumpet, and both are excited to return to the field), his sudden romantic urges, and most importantly, a schoolwide protest against a ban of t shirts with letters on them, which he is running along with school bully, Billy, who is also moving next door to Bingo. Add to this the fragile emotional state of their young teacher, Mr. Markham, who gives writing assignments persuading his girlfriend to stay with him, and also a troubling assignment to persuade someone not to commit suicide, and Bingo's burning questions are certainly justified. 
Strengths: For a book that is almost 34 years old (meaning that Bingo would now be 46!), this remained incredibly readable. I'm going to have some actual 12 year old boys try it to see if it is also relatable. Certainly, the romantic interests (which were very modern, and I loved that Bingo cared more about what the girls thought than how they looked), the dealings with goofy parents, and the protests against authority all ring true. The teacher's mental health struggles reminded me a bit of the teacher's health problems in Because of Mr. Terupt, but lacked an instructional quality that we would see today. 
Weaknesses: It seemed odd that Bingo didn't have a best friend, but was also a bit refreshing. It's so common for boys in books to have a best friend or group of friends that this felt jarring!
What I really think: I'm not quite sure how I feel about this one. Right up until the teacher's possible suicide attempt (he is involved in a motorcyle accident, but did he skid off the road into a tree or have the accident on purpose?), I was all in. After that, I wanted more information. School counselors are called in, but there isn't any concrete resolution, and we don't know if the teacher is really getting the help he needs. I think I will read more of the series, and also test this book with some trusted, mature 8th graders. 

Byars, Betsy. Bingo Brown and the Language of Love
May 1st 1989 by Viking Juvenile
Library copy

Poor Bingo. His crush, Melissa, has moved to Bixby, Oklahoma, and he misses her whenever he smells gingersnaps. He has, unfortunately, run up $54 in long distance calls to her, and his parents have banned him from using the phone. He writes her letters, which she is glad to get. Melissa even sends her friend, Cici, over to take Bingo's picture so that she can have one of him. When Cici comes over, Bingo is a little scared of her, but Billy (his new next door neighbor and former bully) falls in love. There's some back and forth with letters, and Cici does have a bit of a crush on Bingo, but he's still pining for Melissa. In the meantime, Bingo's mother, who finally has a job she enjoys after years of underemployment, seemed extra stressed. Bingo takes on cooking for the family to make up for his phone bill, but even the tuna lasagna doesn't seem to help. After his mother goes to spend time at his grandmother's house, Bingo finds out that his parents are expecting a baby, after years of not having any luck. While this isn't the best news for Bingo, he is very sympathetic to his parents, and tries to make life better for his mother.
Strengths: Bingo's interest in girls is realistically and sensitively handled. I did appreciate that he really likes Melissa and her personality, and is willing to write her letters! It was also interesting to see his reaction to CiCi; I can't really think of many books that deal with a character not wanting to reciprocate a crush. Cici is a little daunting, but she isn't an undesirable acquaintance, which added a nice layer of complexity. It would be all too easy to play her for laughs, but Byars didn't. The situation with the parents is great; they are open and honest with each other and with Bingo, and able to work through some challenging times. I loved that Bingo paid off his debt by cooking dinner! 
Weaknesses: There wasn't very much about school in this one, which was a bit of a surprise after the first book in the series, which was set a lot in the classroom. 
What I really think: I still enjoyed this, but still have to get a student to read the first one. I thought that Bingo's family dynamics were pretty healthy, and that his feelings about Melissa and Cici were pretty modern for being over 30 years old. I will definitely keep this series for now; if nothing else, it is an interesting snapshot of the past. 

Byars, Betsy. Bingo Brown, Gypsy Lover (Bingo Brown #3)
June 30th 1990 by Viking Juvenile
Library Copy

Oh, Bingo, I do love you. It's not you, it's me. Well, actually, it IS you. You're not really 12, you're 44, and my middle school readers can tell the difference. Don't get me wrong; you were a fantastic 12 year old for 1988. You cooked, you took good care of your pregnant mother, and you liked girls because of how smart they were, not just because you thought they were cute. You wrote letters. But a very kind student read the books and told me that he was sorry, but they really no longer felt relevant. Given that people in polite society no longer use the term "Gypsy", I'm going to have to agree and send you to a better place.

Of course, now I have my reservations about Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik and Naylor's Alice McKinely, who are your contemporaries. I read a LOT of the Alice books in 1992, when my school was involved in a book collection project for a small town public library. Wait. I read all of the books because a larger library was deaccessioning the Alice books. Thirty years ago. Hmmm. 

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