Sixth grade is the witching time for authors of middle-grade (mg) novels. That’s because twelve is the magic age, for both sexes: a turning-point year. Girls are not quite out of the pink-bedspread and silky-pony stage, but are thinking ahead to prom dates and prospective mates. Boys are generally two years behind on overall development, but at twelve they’re gaining strength—on the
cusp of potentially doing all those crazy things they dreamed about as five-year-olds, but terrified at the same time. They want guidance, but it’s not cool to ask for it.
Capturing that state of mind is what made Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid so popular, to be followed by the inevitable imitators. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is similar in style, but takes off in a more interesting direction.
Dwight is seriously weird. He picks his nose, cracks his knuckles, wears the same T-shirt every day for a week, lies on the floor in the library, answers questions with total irrelevancies, dug a hole in the back yard and sat in it for days—AND made an origami finger puppet that looks like Yoda and can answer your most perplexing questions. Except for the biggest question: is Origami Yoda real? That’s what Tommy, our narrator, wants to know, and that’s his project: to assemble a case file of stories about this
strangely sapient piece of paper and decide where the evidence lies. Is Dwight just making up these answers out of his own nerdy brain, or is there some transcendent wisdom at work? Tommy wants to believe the latter, as much as Harvey the skeptic wants to disbelieve (Harvey writes a response to each story). Most of the other kids in the class are with Tommy, but the evidence is inconclusive: “the truth is that not all of Yoda’s answers have been magical. Some of them have in fact been really annoying.”
Finally, after an argument with Tommy, Dwight wads up the paper and throws it away. This inspires Harvey to make his own cynical O.Y.–but it just doesn’t seem to have the power or the mystique of the original one, and the timing couldn’t be worse. Tommy is approaching a middle-grade turning point: should he ask his dream girl Sara to dance at the upcoming PTA Fun Night, or play it safe and not risk the embarrassment when she turns him down? Does he step out in faith or be realistic?
A resurrected Origami Yoda plays a part in his decision, and influences the whole evening: “Something was going on here that was bigger than a hoax, and I wanted to be part of it, whether it was magic or luck or the Force of whatever.”
In spite of some mild bathroom humor and typical sixth-grade name-calling, this is rather a sweet story about the follies and foibles of middle school. But it could also be interesting as an examination of faith in whatever gets you through the night. Night for a sixth-grader in fortunately not that dark, or not in this book: even seriously-weird Dwight ends up having a great time at Fun Night. The burning question posed by Tommy’s investigation goes unanswered–or rather the answer is slightly different for everybody. But they can all get along and enjoy the party, which seems to be all that really matters.
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda quickly became a best-seller last year and popular demand has spun off a sequel: Darth Paper Strikes Back. Its humor and originality is enough to account for that, but it can also be seen as a lesson on tolerance and acceptance—and perhaps even faith as the great unanswerable question. To the extent that your 9-to-14-year-old can engage in the discussion, it might be worth reading the book together to see how Tommy goes about “proving” Origami Yoda’s validity. How does it compare with the way contemporary adults go about proving God’s existence or non-existence? Does Christian belief depend on anecdote and personal preference, or do we have more solid ground to build on?
Of course, your 9-to-14-year-old might sputter, “Mom! It’s just a funny book!” Okay: fair enough. It is that. So read it and then see if you can follow the directions on the back page for making your own Origami Yoda. Just don’t ask it any questions. And Lord willing, next week I’ll write about a novel for teens that looks at similar questions from a completely different angle.