From the moment Miss Payne ("The Hound of the Baskervilles, the English teacher from Hell. The Pitbull!") walks into their classroom, Calma and Kiffo know she will have to go. After doing a bit of, well, teacher stalking, they are amazed to discover her having late-night rendezvous with suspicious associates. Could she be involved in the mob? The drug trade? How fabulous!
But the more they work to prove Miss Payne is crooked, the more evidence they find of her innocence. Creeping hell! A teacher this heinous has got to be guilty of something--right?
Calma Harrison, the smart, sassy narrator of this memorable first novel by an Australian high school teacher, shares an unlikely friendship with class clown and ne'er-do-well Jaryd Kiffing, known as "Kiffo." Jonsberg reveals the source of their bond in flashbacks on tinted pages, which hint at something terrible happening to each of them four years before. The main narrative begins in Year 10 English class with Kiffo driving off the teacher in a hilarious (unless you are a teacher) opening scene. The replacement, naturally, is far worse. Miss Payne has the "sensitivity of a paving slab," and looks ferocious enough to "disembowel a horse with her teeth." "The Pitbull" instantly makes it plain she plans to "break [Kiffo's] spirit." Calma agrees to help Kiffo get rid of her with a vague strategy that involves stalking which, miraculously, actually raises suspicions she's connected with drug dealing. The plot moves briskly from one calamitous misstep by the would-be detectives to another, but the action outside the classroom often teeters on the brink of absurdity. The momentum stumbles, too, when the story climaxes with a turn that feels unnecessarily harsh. Jonsberg recovers (the final twist is tantalizingly ambiguous) and Calma's assured and mostly comical account is well-nigh irresistible. It's similar to her complaint about teachers who get going on the subject of attitude: "They're like a train with brake failure on a long slope. There's nothing you can do until they stop rolling." Ages 12-up. (June)
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Knopf Books for Young Readers
November 13, 2006
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Excerpt from The Crimes and Punishments of Miss Payne by Barry Jonsberg
Write a description of a place, person or thing in such a way that you demonstrate an understanding of the use of similes.
Student's name: Calma Harrison
Subject: Jaryd Kiffing
Kiffo's hair is like a glowing sunset. However, unlike a sunset, it lasts for a long time and doesn't suddenly turn black and become studded with stars. It is as wild as a dingo on drugs and sticks up like ears of corn after a cyclone. Maybe like a field of corn that is the color of sunset and has been trampled by a whole load of drug-crazed dingoes during a cyclone.
Kiffo's nose is like butter on toast. It was put on hot and it spread. His nostrils gape like two huge caves, but it would be difficult to camp in them or even light a fire in them. Though it might be worth trying, I suppose. They drip like your bathing suit when you hang it over the pool railing to dry. His eyes are as brown as diarrhea, which only goes to prove that he is full of crap. Kiffo's teeth are like stars because they come out at night. No, that's just an old joke. His teeth are as white as sheets that were once white but have now become stained by unmentionable things. Kiffo's neck is short and dirty, like life. His arms are as thin as pencils, but if you try to sharpen them he'll probably bash you. His legs are bent like parentheses ( ), but unlike parentheses there is not much of interest between them. When he stands he is like a cowboy who hasn't realized that the horse he was riding has gone for a smoko break. He smells like a fish that you forgot was in the fridge.
His mind is as shallow as a gob of spit in a drained swimming pool. Kiffo is as intellectually challenging as a meeting of English teachers.
So. What do you think? Be honest. I mean, it's not as if we know each other, so you can say what you like and I'm not going to be offended. It would be different, I suppose, if we hung out together at the local mall, or invited each other for sleepovers, or you had my name tattooed on your left buttock. Your judgment would be clouded. There was a study done. I can't remember where, but I think it might have been in America. A psychologist compared students' classwork with their appearance and a direct correlation was found between physical attractiveness and grades. In other words, if you look like Brad Pitt or J.Lo then you are more likely to get an A than someone who looks like the rear end of a lower primate. Interesting, huh? I think there are three possible judgments, based on this research, we can make about teachers:
1.Teachers are, like the rest of humanity, flawed, and we should understand that they are subject to the same frailties as everyone else.
2.Teachers are superficial idiots.
3.Teachers are both of the above.
But if I've learned one thing over the last month or so, it's that judgments are very dangerous things.
Anyway, have you made your objective assessment of the simile exercise? Good. Hold that thought.
end of semester report:
Student's name: Calma Harrison
Teacher: Ms. Brinkin
Calma is an exceptionally talented student of English. Unfortunately, she seems determined to waste her considerable ability. She needs to understand that assignments must be taken seriously and are not merely an opportunity to display her quirky and, at times, immature sense of humor. I expect a marked improvement in her attitude next semester.
end of semester report:
Teacher's name: Ms. Brinkin
Student: Calma Harrison
Ms. Brinkin has a considerable talent for mediocrity and she seems determined to reach her full potential in this area. Her assignments are of an antiquity that would fascinate educational historians and she is justifiably proud of never having entertained an original idea. Her lessons are delivered in a whining monotone that only occasionally threatens to disturb the class's established sleeping patterns. An enormous improvement on last semester. Well done!