Who are Tara and Mike? Think of Ebert and Roeper–but discussing children’s books instead of movies. This week we’re giving two bookmarks up to Neil Armstrong is My Uncle & Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me by Nan Marino (Roaring Brook Press, May 2009).

“Muscle Man McGinty is a squirrelly runt, a lying snake, and a pitiful excuse for a ten-year old. The problem is…only I can see him for what he really is.”

Tara: So Mike, what attracted you to Neil Armstrong is My Uncle?

Mike Jung: Well, Tara, it was partly the cover (the moon, it’s a very evocative image), partly Nan being a Blueboarder and seeming like a decent sort, and partly the title, which really spoke to me somehow—I instantly felt like there was a story right there in the title. Why’d you read it?

Tara: The title especially drew me in. Even though it mentions the first man on the moon, I didn’t realize the story took place during the summer of 1969, so I was pleasantly surprised. I became immersed in the summers of my childhood, anticipating the arrival of the ice cream truck, just like the kids on Ramble Street.

Before I read it, I imagined Muscle Man McGinty was some sideshow freak at a local carnival. I’m glad he turned out to be a scrawny ten-year-old instead.

Mike: Ha! I was caught off-guard by the time period too. 1969 was the veeeeeery beginning of my time (I was born in the summer of ’69) so it didn’t trigger any memories, but I thought the setting was so vivid, and so lovingly created, that I was immersed in it right away. And I had the same thought about Muscle Man McGinty! I also loved the character he turned out to be—so much sadness, courage, generosity and patience rolled up in one runty little kid.

Tara: Uh, maybe I shouldn’t have dated myself like that. 1969 was before my time, but still, if you remove the historical backdrop—Vietnam and the lunar landing—the story has a timeless feel. It felt like 1979 in my neighborhood, but it could easily take place in 2009, although the kids would be wearing bike helmets and the adults would be talking about Afghanistan and flying cars. If we had flying cars, that is.

What about the novel hooked you?

Mike: I was hooked by more than one thing—the setting, as I mentioned, was superb—but it was the characters that really grabbed me, especially Tammy. I love the voice of Tammy. She’s an incredibly genuine, multi-faceted, fully-realized character. In my eyes, one of the ways to create a successful protagonist is to put all their flaws on glaring, unmistakable display, but still make them sympathetic and understandable. Tammy often comes across as self-involved, oblivious and sullen in all the normal 10-year-old ways—she’s not some kind of villain, but she’s also not super-cuddly and lovable. I loved her anyway.

Tara: Confession: I didn’t love Tammy all the way through the novel. But I loved that I didn’t love her. I can’t recall the last time I felt such conflicting emotion over a main character. I rooted for her, even though I didn’t necessarily agree with her actions. The narration was brilliant because it revealed Tamara’s world so slowly, making you trust her implicitly at first, but toward the end you realized she could be her own antagonist. It felt like that Oscar Wilde song by Company of Thieves: “We are all our own devil.” Tammy wants what she wants and she doesn’t see what she needs to see. I’m being very cryptic, aren’t I?

And I also have to admit, I loved liar Muscle Man more than Tammy sometimes. The way he complimented Tammy’s pitching during the Muscle-Man-against-the-whole-neighborhood kickball game was hilarious because it infuriated Tammy. She wanted to expose him as a loser and he wanted a friend. Muscle Man had a big heart and he was desperate to fill it up.

Why would you recommend this book?

Mike: YOU ARE BEING TERRIBLY CRYPTIC. No problem, though, it’ll keep your blog readers on their toes, show ’em life is real, etc. I agree about the gradual reveal of Tammy’s world—her dysfunctional family, her envy toward the neighbors, her brother and his friend—it unfolds beautifully. There are moments when Muscle Man just broke my heart—you got it exactly right, such a big heart and such desperate attempts to fill it up.

Ultimately that’s why I’d recommend the book, it has tremendous heart. The characters have so much emotional depth, there are moments of real poignancy, and the book ended with the perfect mixture of loneliness, grief, solace, reconciliation and hope. This book is a tour de force, and I’m gonna pounce on Nan’s next one.

Tara: Mike, there’s nothing left to say because you’ve said it all. All the puzzle pieces came together at the end in a very satisfying way, but I still see opportunity for a sequel. Nan, could you get on that right away, please?

Neil Armstrong is My Uncle & Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me
by Nan Marino
Roaring Brook Press
May, 2009
Want it? Sure you do!

Blog Guest

Thanks to blog guest Mike Jung for the book banter.

Mike Jung has delusions of galactic conquest–lunar death beams, interstellar armadas, alien flunkies, etc.–but he probably has better odds for achieving notoriety by elbowing his way into the realm of published middle-grade fiction writers. He therefore restricts his empire-building activities to Twitter, which is better anyway because he doesn’t have to get out of his chair. Mike lives in Northern California with his wife and daughter, who exhibit immense patience for all his weirdo tendencies.