Recently I read an amusing, two-book children’s series by Allen Kurzweil (Mr. Kurzweil’s website) that uses the obsessions and passions of the characters as plot devices. The first book in the series, Leon and the Spitting Image (2003) introduces the main character, Leon Zeisel, whose “collection” of taxi drivers fuels the first chapter and provides a running thread for the entire book. Leon’s 4th grade teacher, Miss Hagmeyer, uses her passion for sewing to teach the children their year long theme of the Middle Ages. The kids learn to follow sewing patterns, sew different stitches and construct “animales.” Leon is fine motor challenged, and finds his 4th grade year at the Classical School a trial – until he creates an animale that becomes imbued with magical properties.
Leon and the Spitting Image is inventive and fun, and filled with memorable characters, like Napoleon the Haitian taxi driver, and crazy contraptions like the evil ice machine. Leon and his mother live in the hotel Leon’s mother runs, which plays host to all the conventions no other hotel would take – usually animal themed conventions – which provides a lot of poop humor and punning possibilities. The illustrations by Bret Bertholf (Mr. Bertholf’s website) are perfect, particularly the vintage feeling pen and ink illustration of the different eyeballs used in the animales.
The second book in the series is titled Leon and the Champion Chip, and features Leon’s next obsession, potato chips. Leon hits the lucky jackpot in his 5th grade year with his science teacher, Mr. Sparks, who uses potato chips to teach the science curriculum to Leon’s class. Through potato chip science, the children study scientific classification, combustion, propulsion, and many other scientific topics.
This is another light hearted, inventive book that manages to take on the topic of bullying. Kurzweil handles it in an obvious way, with Leon’s bully, Lumpkin, and also in a subtle way, with the bullying of Mr. Sparks by some skeptical parents who are not thrilled with the potato chip curriculum.
For me, the issues Leon faced were secondary to the exploration of his passion, potato chips. Leon and his friends attend The Potato Chip Convention and Taste Off in Leon and the Champion Chip. The scenes with the Taste Off competition were brilliantly funny, and would be the highlight of a fantastic kids’ movie. The passions and obsessions in these fun books are treated in a very refreshing way. No one was neurotic or strange, just passionate and intense. Apparently, Mr. Kurzweil shares some of these characteristics, and actually built some of the devices used in these books (potato cannon, anyone?). Kurzweil has also written a non fiction book for kids called Potato Chip Science, which looks like ideal inspiration for an elementary school science fair.
I would highly recommend this pair of books to elementary age – middle school kids. My 6th grader loved these books, and he is hard to please. Hearing him laugh out loud over Leon’s predicaments, and having him say – “Mom, you have to read this book!” – is the highest recommendation I know.