April 05, 2012

(++++) WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS

Big Nate and Friends. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated. By Gerald Morris. Illustrated by Aaron Renier. Houghton Mifflin. $14.99.

No Such Thing as Dragons. By Philip Reeve. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Sixth-grader Nate Wright, king of detention and self-importance, can’t do it all (whatever “it” may be) on his own. That is why he has Francis and Teddy, his best friends – and Artur, who is friends with everyone but whose unforced niceness Nate can’t stand; and Gina, who as the top student in Nate’s class is friends with teachers but definitely not with Nate, a slacker-in-training if there ever was one. And there you have Big Nate and Friends, the latest collection of Big Nate comic strips by Lincoln Peirce (pronounced “purse”), who says he himself was a budding cartoonist back in sixth grade – just like Nate. Unfortunately, we don’t get Nate’s cartooning efforts (most notably “Dr. Cesspool”) in this particular collection, but we get plenty of other Nate-isms: Nate as a peer counselor, using honesty to help his fellow students (one helpful comment: “Your breath smells like a sack of dead fish”); Nate as Monopoly master, building hotels on railroads because he is “an entrepreneurial visionary”; Nate in ecstasy when he sees a lawn sign indicating that his nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, has moved, and then in agony when it turns out she has only moved across the street; dog lover Nate and cat lover Francis competing with each other in a series of canine and feline clich├ęs; Nate relaxing by “hitting myself in the head with an empty two-liter plastic soda bottle” and saying to an incredulous Francis, “Don’t try to pretend like you haven’t done it.” Peirce establishes Nate’s personality so well that readers will quickly realize what he is going to do even before he does it; but Peirce also makes sure to mix things up a bit from time to time. For instance, in one sequence here, Nate actually bests Gina on a test, getting a 96 to her 94 -- until she looks at his paper and discovers that Mrs. Godfrey made a 10-point error, so Nate should have gotten an 86. Gina tells Mrs. Godfrey – who, however, lets Nate keep his grade because she is the teacher and grading is up to her, not to Gina. And in fact, Mrs. Godfrey – who is a very good teacher even though Nate dislikes being challenged by her – gives Gina detention for her attempt to get Nick’s grade lowered, leaving Nate with a big, self-satisfied smile and the thought, “This is the happiest day of my life.” By playing Nate mostly to type but occasionally against it, and surrounding him with recognizable characters against whom his personality shines (or, as the case may be, is tarnished), Peirce makes sure that Nate has plenty of friends not only in school but also among readers.

     Sir Balin has friends, too, and he certainly needs them in Gerald Morris’ The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated. This is the fourth book in an easy-to-read series of short novels that Morris calls The Knights’ Tales (the three previous ones dealt with Sir Lancelot the Great, Sir Givret the Short, and Sir Gawain the True). All the books are sendups of Arthurian legends, and all are packed with silliness and filled with amusing illustrations by Aaron Renier. Sir Balin’s problem is – well, he has several. For one thing, his older brother is named Sir Balan, creating instant confusion for everyone except their mother, who insisted on the nearly identical names. For another, just after Balin’s christening, a dire prophecy is uttered by the Old Woman of the Mountain, whose failure to specify what mountain leads Morris and his characters also to call her the Old Woman of a Mountain Somewhere, the Old Woman of Some Mountain, the Old Woman of an Unknown Mountain, and so on; you can see how this works. In any case, the old-woman-of-whatever says Balin will be known as the noblest knight in England, but will bring misfortune on all his companions; will do marvelous deeds, “but they will only serve him ill”; will strike “the Dolorous Stroke,” a phrase whose meaning no one seems quite to understand; and so forth. Balin’s adventures involve fulfilling the various prophecies in unexpected ways, or perhaps not fulfilling them at all, thanks to such friends as his brother (whom he unexpectedly encounters in the midst of one adventure) and the Lady Annalise, who is a Questing Lady, which means she goes along with knights on their knightly quests and helps them do some of their derring-do (unlike her sister, who is “off at school now, studying to be a Damsel in Distress”). Balin’s adventures involve obtaining a second sword to go with the usual knightly one, encountering and eventually defeating an invisible knight, getting trapped into a fight that is supposedly against a villain but that is really a game arranged by some unscrupulous villagers, and more. At the end, Balin and Balan and their parents and Lady Annalise come to realize that the whole prophecy business is just so much bunk, except when it isn’t or when it’s convenient to pay attention to it and act as if it makes sense. The non-moral of the story is as much fun as the story itself, which means it is very enjoyable indeed, and not a bit dolorous.

     The derring-do is a great more serious in Philip Reeve’s No Such Thing as Dragons, originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback. And the friendships are on the decidedly peculiar side. The story is about Brock, a knight in rusty armor who goes from village to village conquering dragons – except that he knows they do not exist, so he is really a con man or, at most, is conquering the fear of dragons. On his travels, Brock buys a young mute boy named Ansel from the boy’s father, and the two make an odd but logical pair, since Ansel, who is also unable to read or write, cannot let anyone know that Brock is a phony and dragons are not real. Except…maybe they are. The two come to a mountain village where a young girl has already been taken from her mother to be given to a dragon that the villagers say lives on the nearby peaks. Brock and Ansel pick up a third compatriot – another con man, Flegel, who is posing as a friar – and plan to pretend to defeat the dragon, then claim their reward from the villagers and the local nobility. But they run into an unexpected sort of reality, and it is not the reality of other books about dragons and knights. It turns out that Reeve imagines a dragon as neither more nor less than a vicious, frightening animal, having some traditional dragon characteristics, but for animal reasons (for example, it hordes shiny objects as a magpie does, not out of some mystical attraction to gold). This dragon is not to be trifled with – it attacks and eats horses and even a person – and the scam artists (with the addition of Else, the girl who is supposed to be sacrificed to the monster) have to confront both the beast and the wintry conditions in which it lives. This is a book with equal parts of action and characterization (Reeve seems genuinely interested in why Ansel is mute and in showing that there is good in Brock even though he has been making his living dishonestly); and it is one in which friendships blossom in unexpected places and through unlikely acts of courage – which certainly show bravery, but not in the ways that readers are likely to expect. It turns out that there is indeed such a thing as a dragon, but more importantly, there are such things as human relationships, boldness and compassion.

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