I recently asked my husband what his favorite books were as a kid and without hesitation he said “O Gênio do Crime.” He couldn’t remember the author’s name, but he remembered in detail an ingenious system the kid detectives invented to tail a very tricky criminal. My husband remembered this book instantly after forty years, and it wasn’t about ancient Rome.
I had to read it.
Writing a story that stays with a child for the rest of their lives, that’s the dream for children’s authors. João Carlos Marinho solidified his place among Brazil’s greatest children’s writers with the 1969 publication of O Gênio do Crime. It became an instant bestseller and is currently #49 on Amazon Brazil’s fiction list.
Before I go on, I regret to say that I can’t find an English or Spanish translation. A fluent Spanish speaker would have no problem reading the Portuguese text, but as far I can discover, there’s no way for a non-Portuguese speaker to read the 49th most popular book in Brazil. Which is a shame.
The kids of São Paulo are on the verge of an uprising when the company manufacturing soccer trading cards stops awarding prizes for collecting because of counterfeit cards being mass produced in the city. (It’s possibly the most Brazilian crime ever.) The police have yet to find this “gênio do crime” (genius of crime), but Edmundo, Pituca, and Bolachão are determined to succeed where the police have failed and ensure the kids of Sao Paulo can continue collecting cards and prizes.
It’s a thrilling adventure for three friends that takes them on chases and stake outs and even undercover as they try to discover the location of the illegal factory. The method the kids invent to follow one of street sellers, which my husband remember forty years later, is brilliant and how fun is it to read about kids outsmarting the grown-up criminals.
But I don’t know if I want my daughter to read it for one simple reason, epic fat shaming.
I know ever book is a product of the time and place it was written. I know that a group of ten-year old boys communicate and express friendship differently than a group of ten year old girls. I still cringed repeatedly throughout the book.
Bolachão is overweight, and his friends never let him forget it. The tease him relentlessly even after Bolachão asks them to stop. He’s repeatedly referred to by the omniscient narrator as “o gordo”, which I’d translate as fatty. The character is defined primarily by his size and then by his intelligence, because Bolachão is the genius of the group and the one who solves the mystery. But the reader doesn’t know how smart he’s until about six chapters into the book. Whereas his weight is made clear from the first sentence.
I talked to my husband about it. As I did not grow up a boy in Brazil, I was curious how close the the friend’s banter was to reality. Very close is what he told. Pretty mild actually. There’s a saying in Rio, “The only people never booed in Maracanã (the soccer stadium) are the Pope and Frank Sintra.” Meaning those “super friendly” Brazilians the world hears about can be harsh. According to my husband, boys and men tease mercilessly. It doesn’t matter who you are, as nobody is perfect, your friends will find that not perfect thing about you and never let you forget it, but you’re expected to give it back to them. If you don’t tease or get teased, then you aren’t among personal friends.
Ok. I get that. However, Bolachão is harassed to a much greater extent the either of the other boys. Even the adults refer to him as “Fatty”. It’s pretty clear that for the characters being overweight is a far more serious offense the any other flaw. And haven’t we learned more about the psychology of kids and come to understand behavior that was commonplace even twenty years ago is in fact really damaging and standards for behavior should be changed?
Does that mean we never read books written in different eras or cultures because they might offend us? Do I deny a father-daughter bonding moment by forbidding my husband to share one of his favorite childhood books with her? When everyone else her age has read it because it’s the 49th most popular in Brazil, do I tell her no?
So the simple review I wanted to write about a famous Brazilian kid’s book has turned into a complex analysis of how to judge a book written in a different time and culture when it is very problematic by my personal standards.
The one thing I’m sure about is that I would NOT give this book to a child struggling with body image. Nope. Not under any circumstances. The fat shaming in this book is intense, and while it’s a fun story, I wouldn’t consider it required reading.
As for our home, and this could change because I’m still in the midst of an active internal debate, I’ll apply the same policy for reading Huck Finn. When she’s old enough, I’ll read it with her and we’ll talk about it. I think it’s important for kids to know how people acted in the past and compare it to today, but this requires an adult to lead the discussion.
What do you think? Have you read O Gênio do Crime? How do you feel about popular older books that are problematic by today’s standards? Like I said, it’s something I’m thinking about and would love to hear other opinions.