You don't have to be a fan of George Lucas' "Star Wars" movies to appreciate how significantly they've impacted American culture. "Star Wars" tells a story of a hero's journey; the timeless story of spiritual growth and heroic triumph over evil speaks to nearly three generations of moviegoers.
But what happens when a "Star Wars" fan turns to origami, the Japanese art of folding paper into shapes, and makes origami representations from the movie, such as Yoda?
That's precisely what happened to Tom Angleberger, author of the popular Origami Yoda series for children 8 and up.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Angleberger explained that the idea for the book was born when two of his interests merged.
"One day I heard people were making origami Yodas, and I thought, 'That's for me,' " he said. Origami masters produced intricately folded origami Yodas that ordinary folders were hard-pressed to duplicate.
Even though he's been doing origami off and on since he was 4 or 5, Mr. Angleberger doesn't consider himself particularly good at it.
"The book truly came from making the puppet," he said. "If I was good at origami, then the book would have never happened. I would have folded it but never written a book. Because I'm not very good, I made a very simple one and made it into a finger puppet. Once you have origami Yoda on your finger, the Force is with you," he said.
Mr. Angleberger appears Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series for children, Black, White & Read All Over. His appearance will be followed by refreshments and a book signing. Mr. Angleberger also is author of Edgar Award nominee "Horton Halfpott," a semi-Gothic parody inspired by Charles Dickens' "Bleak House," and most recently, "Fake Mustache."
Attendees on Sunday can expect to participate in a group origami folding event.
"We might set a record!" Mr. Angleberger said. "We'll need parents to join in, too. If we all fold origami Yodas, we might do it!"
The first book of the series, "The Strange Case of Origami Yoda," features Dwight, an eccentric sixth-grade boy who doesn't have many friends. When he places an origami puppet of Yoda on his finger, he's able to interact more with his classmates. Origami Yoda gives sage advice, which is doled out in Yoda's backward grammar.
The kids at McQuarrie Middle School are intrigued by the origami puppet, the uncanny effectiveness of its advice and oddball Dwight. Some suspect the puppet wields the Force, while others believe it's just another weird antic by an even weirder kid. Tommy tries to figure it out by compiling a case file. He collects stories from his classmates about how Origami Yoda tried to help them. Tommy's case file is truly a collaborative text; it includes cartoony doodles from one friend and blunt counter-arguments from Harvey, the book's villain.
Eventually, Dwight is suspended from school on account of his origami puppet, and subsequent books in the series, "Darth Paper Strikes Back" and the newest, "The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee," feature other classmates' use of origami "Star Wars" figures.
In "Fortune Wookie," Dwight no longer attends McQuarrie Middle School, has stopped doing origami and seems "normal" but strangely reticent. The kids at McQuarrie aren't buying Dwight's "normal" act. Meanwhile, Sarah gives advice to the kids at McQuarrie with a paper fortune-teller that looks like the wookiee Chewbacca. Tommy compiles another case file to investigate whether the fortune wookiee has special powers and tries to get to the bottom of Dwight's strangely normal behavior.
The intricacies of middle school social life and behind-the-scenes school politics are aptly represented throughout the series. Mr. Angleberger's depiction of middle-schoolers feels authentic. He admits to plumbing his own middle school memories in order to write the book and reveals that there's a lot of Dwight in him.
"I just remixed my disastrous middle-school years. I mixed it all up and put it back together again to make it a good story instead of a tragedy," he confesses.
Mr. Angleberger explains that of all his characters, readers love Dwight the most.
"It's hard to be Dwight, but I'm proof that you can survive [middle school] and have a good time," he said.
The series is full of clever puns and insider references from "Star Wars," but it also connects more deeply to the film's archetypal story of redemption.
"Just as 'Star Wars' is the story of the redemption of Anakin Skywalker, possibly the Origami Yoda series is about Harvey and if he can be redeemed," Mr. Angleberger said.
His website, origamiyoda.com, is a bustling place where his readers post pictures of origami they've folded and converse about the series. Mr. Angleberger is thrilled to see such creative work being done by such young kids. "They fold stuff, they write stuff, they make these movies where the different kids act out parts and put it all together," he said. "It's just amazing!"
It's obvious Mr. Angleberger enjoys what he does.
"I spend more time on the website than I do writing the books. I love interacting with the kids and seeing what they'll come up with. I feel so lucky that almost by accident this book has connected with these kids," he said.
Julie Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh and blogs about children's literature and parenting at www.instantlyinterruptible.com