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Reading Group Guide America's Report Card by John McNally
Book Description: America's Report Card is a hilarious, humane, astute portrait of folly, longing, and luck set against the current political polarization of this country. Humor, compassionate insight, and cultural commentary infuse this story of two hapless individuals who, improbably, bring out one another's humanity and intelligence, saving them from their own recklessness and bad luck. Jainey O'Sullivan, a comic book artist extraordinaire, is a seventeen-year-old with purple and green hair. Recently she has been feeling especially aimless and alone: she's been skipping school, and her favorite art teacher dies under what Jainey considers suspicious circumstances. On her final standardized test, America's Report Card, she tells the government exactly what she thinks of its stupid testing and she issues a plea for help addressed to her nameless test scorer. Meanwhile, in Iowa City, recent film school grad Charlie Wolf's life is falling apart. But as a standardized test scorer who happens upon Jainey's essay, he seizes on her as someone in need of rescue. When they eventually meet, Charlie and Jainey forge a strange, tentative connection that neither would have expected but that proves crucial to both their lives. With its unlikely yet extremely likeable heroes and its subtle, humorous take on American paranoia in the age of the Patriot Act, America's Report Card reflects back at us, personally and as a culture, our part in the dark but frequently redemptive human comedy.
Reading Group Discussion Questions:
At an early age Jainey O'Sullivan has some very negative experiences in school, during standardized testing as well as in gym class. Discuss the psychological impact of these experiences.
Discuss the role of government in the book. How is the government portrayed? How does the author represent government physically and thematically throughout the book?
Before a standardized test, Jainey's third grade teacher describes the Russian and Chinese way of life to be one with "no more Art class, no more Music, nothing fun, and all of the boys will have to join the Army." (p. 4) How are the real foreigners, such as Petra and Akshay, portrayed compared with the Americans?
"It was their duty as Americans who loved their country to participate in the political process." (p. 18) What is citizenship? Does it mean different things to different people in the book? What role does citizenship play in the lives of Charlie, Petra, Jainey, and Rex?
Discuss Mrs. O'Sullivan, Mariah, and Mrs. Grant as Jainey's female role models. What does each one try to teach her (if anything) and what does she learn? Who has the greatest impact on her life, positive or negative?
Jainey delights in coming up with funny nicknames for other people and things in her life, such as "Al Licks" and "Lloyd the Freakazoid." Confronted by so much strife, how effective is humor as a coping method for her?
Both Jainey and Charlie are interested in the arts, yet "some of (Charlie's) co-workers had Ph.D.s in fields where there was no gainful opportunity. Music, for instance. Or English." (p. 39) What is America's Report Card saying about the role of art and the artist in American society? Is Jainey a successful artist? Is Mrs. Grant? Define success.
How does the hypnotist's surprising seduction of Charlie frame some of the larger deceptions that appear in the book? How is Charlie's view of the seduction similar to or different from the way he approaches other problems?
Mariah says, "Government's lying to us girl. Each time the government lies, innocent people end up dead or thrown in jail." (p. 51) Along with her, many of the characters are deeply suspicious of the government. How does this suspicion influence their actions and shape the plot of the book?
Both Jainey and Ned wear disguises of sorts: Jainey dyes her hair and wears wigs while Ned paints his face and dons camouflage. Are they trying to hide? If so, why?
Ned, Dale, and Charlie each perform passionate and consequential acts in the name of protecting or saving Jainey. Does Jainey need to be saved? If so, who is the most successful and why?
What type of transformation does Jainey go through from the beginning of the book to the end of the book? What about Charlie? What does each care about in the end that they did not when the book began?
When reflecting upon serving in the Army, Dale thinks, "America was number one in his book. Numero uno." (p. 264) Is Dale patriotic? Are Jainey and Charlie patriotic?
Enhance Your Book Club
One of the most well known standardized tests is the SAT. Information about the SAT can be found at www.collegeboard.com. What are the positives and negatives of having standardized tests? Is the testing system in America effective?
Each of the characters in the book has a file about him or her in deep storage. Using the criteria in the book create a "file" for yourself. What would be included?
Feeling creative? Have a group member draw a sketch for every major scene in the book. Before you know it you'll have your very own comic book!
John McNally is the author of two novels, The Book of Ralph and America's Report Card, and a short story collection, Troublemakers. His next book, Ghosts of Chicago, a collection of short stories, will be published this fall. A native of Chicago, he lives with his wife, Amy, in North Carolina, where he is associate professor of English at Wake Forest University. The first word he ever spoke was "Batman," who has remained, in his darker incarnations, his favorite superhero. John's first creative work, a play written in the fourth grade, featured an overweight superhero who gets stuck inside a phone booth while changing into his costume. He is happy to return to the genre, albeit thirty-four years later.