The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin
Author: Elinor Teele
Illustrator: Ben Whithouse
Published April 12th, 2016 Walden Pond Press
Goodreads Summary: A quirky, humorous, whimsical, and heartwarming middle grade debut about a young boy who runs away from home with his sister to escape working in the family coffin business—and discovers even more adventure than he bargained for.
John Coggin is no ordinary boy. He is devising an invention that nobody has ever seen before, something that just might change the world, or at least make life a little bit better for him and his litter sister, Page. But that’s only when he can sneak a break from his loathsome job: building coffins for the family business under the beady gaze of his cruel great-aunt Beauregard. Having lost their parents when Page was a baby, how else are they supposed to survive?
Perhaps by taking an enormous risk—a risk that arrives in the form of a red-haired scamp named Boz. When Great-Aunt Beauregard informs John that she’s going to make him a permanent partner in Coggin Family Coffins—and train Page to be an undertaker—John and Page sign on with Boz and hit the road. Before long, they’ve fallen in with a host of colorful characters, all of whom, like John and Page, are in search of a place they can call home. But home, they realize, isn’t something you find so much as something you fight for, and John soon realizes that he and Page are in for the fight of their lives.
Elinor Teele’s picaresque debut is a rollicking tale filled with wild adventures, daring escapes, and—thanks to Boz—more than a little catastrophe.
My Review: One thing I’ve noticed is that so many orphans in stories seem to always get into some sort of trouble and then go on amazing adventures. Like Annie, Grubb from Alistair Grim, and Peter Nimble before him, John Coggin, a recent orphan, finds himself in quite a predicament of a situation when he is forced to work for his great aunt’s funeral home. It is the last straw when Great Aunt Beauregard tries to force Page, John’s sister, to go to work with them, and that begins the adventure! Elinor Teele takes us on quite a journey! With Boz, the comic relief with an amazing vocabulary, our three main characters meet some unique characters along the way.
Teele’s ability to weave such an odd story together and make it seem seamless is remarkable. John, Page, and Boz have about 5 stops along their journey all with a wide-variety of characters who all are a bit quirky but also relatable and you end up loving all of them. Although everything that happens is quite farfetched, you end up believing it all because you just want John and Page to be successful!
Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: In the classroom, I think this book would be a perfect opportunity to discuss ways to determine unknown vocabulary within a text. Boz has QUITE a vocabulary and uses words that will be unknown to many of the middle grade readers the book is aimed for; however, the author does a fabulous job of having context clues or restatements of what the words mean. I would love to use passages of this book for vocabulary instruction.
It could also be used as a mentor text for imagery, specifically character description. Like I said, throughout the book we meet some very odd characters, but they are all described so well you can picture them. Same with John’s contraptions and the setting. Elinor Teele’s specific word choice really brings the story to life.
Lastly, I think it would be fun to compare/contrast the orphans within middle grade novels and discuss why orphans are chosen for so many adventurous books. Peter Nimble and Alistair Grim along with John Coggin would definitely be a great place to start, and you could even tie it in with “Annie.”
Also check out the Educational Activity Kit based on the book for more ways to use the book in the classroom or library.
We Flagged: “”Up and at ‘em, troops! The back of a new day is already broken, and time marches on!’
Boz blew into the barn like a category five hurricane and came to rest at John’s feet. ‘Where are the foundations of your perambulation?’ His baffled face collapsed even further into itself.
‘Where are the what?’ John asked blearily. The bright summer sun was making fireflies of the dust around Page’s hair.
‘Your shoes, young man, your shoes.’
‘I threw them outside.’
‘Well, find them! We go, we see, we conquer!’” (p. 58)
Special Guest! Q&A with Boz (by Elinor Teele): Boz may, in fact, be the worst interviewee on the planet. It was barely possible to get him into a hotel lounge and almost impossible to keep him there. And his hair! It seemed to have a life of its own. After this experience, I am firmly convinced his only future is a career as a human firework.
Q. So, first I’d like to ask… Boz? Boz! Could you please stop swinging from the chandelier?
A. Of course, profuse apologies my Fallonesque friend. I was merely trying to pump some blood to my knee joints. I ingested a box of sugar-coated hookoo grubs yesterday and I fear they have inflamed my rheumatics.
Q. Where did you get a box of hookoo grubs?
A. A gift from the Queen of Samarrand. She says she misses my winsome ways.
Q. How did you become friends with a Queen?
A. Oh, I have roamed the bureaus and boards of many a parliament. From the sweat-soaked slums to the blasted heaths, I have crisscrossed this great globe itself in eighty days and under. “A wandering minstrel, I…”
At this point in the interview, Boz yanked open the door to the lobby and vaulted onto the hotel’s front desk. From there, he sang operettas to incoming guests until security guards brought him back into the lounge.
Q. I don’t think the concierge enjoyed your singing.
A. It’s a waste of vitriol trying to please critics. Besides, it gave me an opportunity to relieve him of his time commitments.
Q. You stole his watch?!
A. You may say that, but I couldn’t possibly clarify.
Q. Well, what can you comment on?
A. Anything that tickles your pearly whites.
Q. Okay, how about this? Some people have said that your way of speaking is far too complicated to understand. They point out many kids have enough trouble with basics, so why make it harder?
A. I grant you that my vocabulary may be a little bewildering, but why not be wild? There are so many beautiful words in this world that go a’begging. As my dear friend Dodo Dodgson often opines, “Look after the senses and the sounds will look after themselves.”
Q. Yes, I noticed you tend to appropriate phrases from famous writers.
A. Who was it that said that bad artists copy and great men steal? Or was it that the immature youth imitates and the mature matron plagiarizes? I can’t remember.
At this point in the interview, Boz once again made a grab at the chandelier. This time – thanks to the force of his liftoff – he was hurled round and round the room like a demented tornado.
Q. Are you insane? Should I call the fire brigade?
A. Wouldn’t do that, my dear boy. They’re still irked about the incident with the propane and the propellers.
Q. What did that involve?!
A. A gaggle of insurance investigators, apparently.
Q. I give up. I don’t know how John Coggin put up with you.
A. But John and I are friends! Buddies of the bosom. Compadres of the cabana. Say what you will about my ethical standards, but I always believe in my friends!
This was a revealing comment, and I would have liked to ask Boz more about it. Unfortunately, he had let go of the chandelier and was already rocketing skyward through one of the open windows. I last saw him passing a goshawk.
Walden TV Features John Coggin: http://waldentv.com/video/
Find Elinor Teele at her website.
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**Thank you to Walden Pond Press for providing a copy for review and giveaway!!**