HOW I LEARNED TO FLY

Mar 28, 2024 | Goosebumps

Goosebumps #52:
How I Learned to Fly

© 1997 by Parachute Press. Cover Art by Tim Jacobus.

 

Spoiler-Free Review

How I Learned to Fly is a unique entry into the Goosebumps canon. With the 52nd book in the series, it was refreshing to see Stine try some new things. The magic was ridiculous but enjoyable, and there was a pretty strong message at the book’s core. The main character got a little grating at times, but I empathized with his predicament. The weakest part of the story was the lack of development in its supporting characters. There was a lot of room for nuance that was wasted. A stronger supporting cast could have made this a perfect rating for me. I can’t recall any other Goosebumps book delving into themes of validation and self-worth, let alone neatly folding in a powerful lesson. The ending was one of Stine’s best and gave Jack more growth than the typical Goosebumps character is privy to. Even though it fell a little short of great, I liked this one a lot.

Score: 4

 

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ERMAHGERD #52: How I Learned to Fly.
© 2024 by Daniel Stalter. All rights reserved.
Photo by Daniel Stalter.

 

Observations & Spoilers

Jack is a pretty normal kid with a crush on Natasha. For her part, Natasha seems to like him too. The only problem is Jack’s “friend” Wilson keeps ruining everything. Wilson is the sort of budding asshole who turns everything into a competition. I’ve known people like him, and they are exhausting. But when you’re a kid, and insecure like Jack is, someone like Wilson can be downright infuriating. Jack draws a cool new superhero and shows Natasha; Wilson draws a whole superhero team. Jack tries to rescue a kitten from a tree and falls; Wilson rescues it instead and makes it look easy. It’s an unending one-upmanship, and Natasha remains oblivious to being at the center of it all. 

 

Natasha invites the boys to her birthday party over the weekend, but Jack doesn’t want to go. He hates birthday parties, and he knows Wilson is going to make it worse. Natasha really wants Jack to go, so he gives in. At the party,  they play Twister and Jack’s shorts rip. He wants to leave but Natasha asks him to stay. He decides to say so he can give Natasha her gift; a CD of her favorite band. Then Wilson upstages him by getting Natasha concert tickets to see the same band. Jack can’t handle it and leaves the party. Was this melodramatic? Absolutely. Jack was totally being an asshole here by making Natasha’s party about himself. But his reason for being angry was real. His instinct to avoid the party had been right. Someone needs to teach him the art of the Irish Goodbye.

 

The kids go looking for Jack, but he hides in an old abandoned shack on the beach. This is where he ends up finding an old book called Flying Lessons. Jack flees the house and runs back home. When he gets there, his parents are on their way out. I should mention that Jack’s parents are talent scouts looking to sign the next big act. This will become important later. Jack reads the book while they are out. The book is filled with drawings of people in Victorian-era clothing flying around. It gives directions on how to fly by making a potion, repeating a chant, and following a bizarre series of dance steps. Having nothing better to do and no adult supervision, Jack goes about making a huge fucking mess while mixing up the potion. It comes out more like dough than a liquid. The finishing touch is adding a blue powder that came with the book, which is presumably 100 years old, but I’m sure it’s still safe to eat.

 

Jack does the dance moves and repeats the chant: “Hishram hishmar shah shahrom shom.” It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as the chant that brings Slappy to life. But then Jack’s dog Morty eats a bunch of the potion dough and floats out the window. Jack is forced to eat a bunch of it as well so her can go about saving his dog. Then Jack takes off flying after his very confused dog. He eventually catches Morty, flies around the neighborhood a bit, and then returns home. Morty goes into his dog’s house and is too terrified to leave it. Jack puts him on the tie-out leash so he doesn’t float off, then hides the Flying Lessons book in his garage. Then he sets about plotting how he can use this new skill of his to impress Mia and finally do something that Wilson can’t do better.

 

It takes a few days, but Jack challenges Wilson to a race in the park in front of Mia. Jack flies into the air when they start out, then realizes that Wilson is also flying and returns to the ground. Wilson wins their race and then explains that he had seen Jack flying the other day and stole the book from his garage. Mia asks if Jack can teach her to fly too, but they soon find out that Jack’s parents threw away the mattress he had been hiding the book in. The next day Wilson tells Jack that the two of them are going to do a special race at school the next day. Why would the school agree to make a school-wide event out of two middle schoolers racing each other? This remains unclear. Jack doesn’t want to do it, but Wilson is an inconsiderate asshat. The end result is that they both end up flying in front of the whole school. Not only does Jack lose the race, but now the whole school is afraid of both of them.

 

The school nurse then turns Jack over to a bunch of random scientists who want to run a bunch of tests on him. He ends up escaping and running home, only to find that his parents are really excited. As struggling talent agents, they think he can make them a whole bunch of money. In the following weeks, Jack and Wilson start to become celebrities. Jack’s dad is booking him gigs at local car dealerships, and Wilson’s getting commercials. The government has also taken an interest and begins putting Jack through many exhausting tests. Then Jack’s dad schedules a new race between the two Flying Boys of Malibu (my title for them, not RL Stines). A crowd of thousands gathers to watch them. Wilson seems to be relishing in all of the attention. When the race starts, Jack jumps but falls to his feet. He does this several times while Wilson takes off and wins yet another race. He is no longer able to fly (or make his parents rich).

 

Many months go by. Wilson has become a massive celebrity and Jack’s stardom has faded to obscurity. Wilson keeps such a busy schedule he has to switch to homeschooling. Jack and Mia never see him anymore. He and Mia spend a lot of time together now. Jack also has a secret: he never lost his ability to fly. He faked it because he hated the attention and wanted it to all go away. Wilson may have won every race, but Jack managed to get everything he had wanted. He’s kept it a secret from everyone and still steals away some nights for some solo flights. 

 

Now, I really loved this ending. Goosebumps are known for some pretty weird and dark twists, but this one was just smart. The twist was that the main character learned a valuable lesson about validation. From the beginning, Jack had a pretty good sense of who he was and what he did and didn’t like, but was antagonized by the unrelenting Wilson. Having Jack realize that he didn’t need to be better than Wilson was a really solid moral arc. The twist was that the book had a powerful message.

 

My frustrations came from Wilson and Mia being very one-note characters. I think the story would have benefitted greatly from getting some glimpses of their perspectives. I wanted to know more about why Wilson felt the need to always be better, and I wanted him to get called out on it. Mia could have been the perfect foil for this, but instead, she just came across as indifferent or oblivious to the shenanigans happening in front of her constantly. There were queer-coded elements to Jack and Wilson’s rivalry. I got the sense that Wilson didn’t care about impressing Mia, it was all about winning. I wish there was a point in the book where his armor cracked and we got some idea as to what made him tick. I wanted to know what insecurity he was over-compensating for.

 

I did enjoy that Jack’s parents were terrible but in a very believable way. Parents exploiting their children for money is a familiar story in the entertainment industry. Jack was very obviously unhappy, and they just didn’t give a shit or even ask about how he was feeling. I will be doing a ranked list of the worst Goosebumps parents at the end of this series. They will not be at the top of the list, but they will be on it.

 

Only 10 more books to go…

 

Score Card

For the scoring of each book, I decided to rate them based on five criteria worth 2 points each.
I then split that in two to give it a rating out of 5 stars. Those criteria are:
Concept: the strength of the overall idea
Execution: the mechanics of storytelling
Character: the protagonists, antagonists, and villains
Intent: does it succeed in being the kind of book it wants to be?
Originality: subversion and reliance on genre tropes

 

Concept: 2/2
The magic in this was silly but in a fun way. The concept was solid and character-driven. All of it built to an ending that was satisfying and unexpected.

Execution: 1/2
The pacing was good, and I didn’t see that twist coming. It could have done with a little more nuance between Wilson and Jack. It would have made the ending even more satisfying.

Character: 1/2
Jack was a little grating but he showed growth in the end. Wilson was obnoxious and Mia was oblivious. It would have been more enjoyable if Mia had a little more depth and Wilson had some redeeming aspects. The parents were awful in a toxic but believable way.

Intent: 2/2
This was less horror and more adventure, but I’m not complaining. The real horrors of the book were fame and exploitation, which Stine has not really done before. 

Originality: 2/2
This felt refreshing and new compared to the rest of the books in the series. It’s character arc and themes are not the tropes Stine tends to fall back on.

 

Based on GoodReads aggregate ratings, How I Learned to Fly is:
Ranked 26th of 62 books in the original Goosebumps series.

 

TV Adaptation – Bullet Review

There is no TV adaptation of this book.

 

 

Don’t miss the next post in my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #52: Chicken, Chicken

 

Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street Super Chiller #9: The New Year’s Party

 

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1 Comment

  1. Jennifer (Barnes) Howell

    Great review!

    Reply

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