November 23, 2011


Killer Koalas from Outer Space and Lots of Other Very Bad Stuff that Will Make Your Brain Explode! By Andy Griffiths. Illustrations by Terry Denton. Feiwel and Friends. $12.99.

Wonkenstein: The Creature from My Closet. By Obert Skye. Christy Ottaviano Books. $12.99.

My Life as a Stuntboy. By Janet Tashjian. Cartoons by Jake Tashjian. Christy Ottaviano Books. $13.99.

The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant. By Michelle Cuevas. Pictures by Ed Young. Frances Foster Books. $15.99.

     Middle-school readers with a taste for the weird have plenty of choices of reading material this season – parents, be forewarned! Killer Koalas from Outer Space, from the mind that brought you The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow, is an amply illustrated and ridiculously written foray into absurdity, liberally laced with rottenness. For example, one of Andy Griffiths’ offerings is “The Very Bad Road,” which includes not only dangerous curves and falling rocks but also falling bombs, zombies crossing and falling zombies. And just as the boy zipping along the road gets past the awful parts (his expressions very aptly rendered by Terry Denton, whose mind is clearly as twisted as Griffiths’), something even worse happens to end the story. Also here are parallel-universe versions of fairy tales, including “Mud Brown and the Seven Slobs,” which features Prince Poopy-pants, begins “once upon a slime,” and ends when “nobody lived ever after”; and “Little Bad Riding Hood,” who is supposed to take lifesaving medicine to her grandmother but refuses to do so. Throw in bad riddles, bad jokes, “The Adventures of the Dog Poo Family,” and several episodes about the killer koalas of the title, and you have a really yucky book that some kids and their families will find yuckily delightful. You know who you are.

     You are candidates for Wonkenstein as well. This is more of an amply illustrated novel than a collection of stories in comic-strip form like Killer Koalas, but Obert Skye’s sensibilities are quite odd enough, thank you very much. Rob, the 12-year-old protagonist, is a non-reader (thus presumably making his story appealing to other non-readers, who have to, err, read it); Rob gets lots of books but just tosses them in the closet. And then one day something emerges from the closet: a small being that appears to be a cross between Willy Wonka and Frankenstein’s monster – hence Wonkenstein, which is what Rob calls him. Wonkenstein and Rob get into trouble quickly enough, and Rob’s dad “wanted to know who was responsible for almost burning down our kitchen and knocking a huge hole in the wall.” Upon seeing Wonkenstein, Rob’s dad thought he “was just a really small kid dressed oddly and with some green skin condition.” Whew! Taking Wonkenstein to Softrock Middle School complicates things further, and eventually Robert – who is afraid of public speaking – manages, with Wonkenstein’s help, to appear on stage and apologize for everything so eloquently that the scene is neatly set for the next book in this series, which will feature “Potterwookiee,” who looks like “a Chewbacca and Harry Potter hybrid.” Skye’s text is easy to read, and his illustrations go perfectly with it, and Wonkenstein is silly/funny throughout. Even Rob probably would read this book.

     My Life as a Stuntboy is somewhat more conventional, as books go, but it too is enlivened by plentiful helpings of cartoons. Janet Tashjian’s story and Jake Tashjian’s drawings combine neatly in this followup to My Life as a Book, in which readers met Derek Fallon, not-so-easy reader and erstwhile illustrator of vocabulary words (plenty of which get illustrated this time around, too). The plot here has Derek getting the chance to be a stuntboy in a major movie, provided his parents will agree. Umm…not so easy. They will have to sign a contract, so they insist Derek sign one, too, with his including such provisions as agreeing to change Frank’s diaper daily (Frank being the capuchin monkey that Derek wanted so badly and promised to care for, but has neglected ever since). “I suddenly realize my parents’ bodies have been taken over by aliens from another galaxy,” Derek comments during the contract discussion. “If I don’t escape soon, they will suck out my brains through my nostrils while I sleep. …I wonder how long before these aliens decide to conquer the rest of the planet and will finally leave me alone.” Well, not for a while: there is movie-making to be done. While pictures illustrating “sluggish,” “android,” “supportive” and “enlarge” march by in the margins, Derek keeps trying to impress the movie’s star, Tanya Billings, despite enduring the humiliation of a video posting showing him having trouble reading. Everything eventually works out well for everyone, even Frank (thanks in part to the fact that Derek’s mom is a veterinarian), and the stage is set for another book in a series with a great deal of slightly off-kilter charm.

     Even more charming, and written with considerable delicacy as well as much gentler humor than is offered in the other books considered here, The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant is a touching little story in which Michelle Cuevas’ unusual ideas are beautifully complemented by Jules Feiffer-style drawings by Ed Young. The absurdity of the book’s premise is used less for amusement than for emotional connection. The story is about 10-year-old Pigeon Jones, who has lived since infancy on the back of a white elephant named Birch. Each member of this unlikely pair has dreams: Pigeon’s about the parents who abandoned him, Birch (who paints) about becoming a well-known artist. Cuevas’ story takes Pigeon and Birch around the world in a search for love and fame, and into adventures with zoo animals, singing hoboes and an evil former circus ringmaster called the Ringleader. Some of the writing here is on the esoteric side and will require parental explanation for young readers. For example, when Pigeon and Birch meet an old woman whose late husband was a painter, the woman tells them, “When he painted a picture of me, critics said you could see so much. That you could see every woman any great artist ever painted: Velázquez’s sleeper seen in a mirror, Tiepolo’s nymph in dewy skies, Boucher’s beautiful shepherdess, Fragonard’s woman of nobility, Delacroix’s golden sultana, Cézanne’s bather, Renoir’s young woman blissful beneath an endless sun.” And the emotionalism of the writing is beyond that of many children’s books: “I lifted the body of a dead bee from above a light fixture near the ceiling, and it was almost weightless, this thorax and the crystal wings. How long had it been there? Forever? Sunsets, ukuleles, insects, people, love. The workings of the world were still a mystery to me – a tiny flea circus, wonderful to watch, but with the nuts and bolts still hidden.” On the other hand, the underlying themes here of friendship, the search for love, and the eventual need to go one’s own way and allow others to go theirs, will be quite meaningful to sensitive children and adults alike. The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant is in many ways an odd little fable – and a book that requires rereading to have its full heartwarming and at times almost heartbreaking effect.

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