November 29, 2012


Big Nate: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $9.99.

Big Nate: Here Goes Nothing. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $9.99.

Big Nate: Fun Blaster. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $10.99.

Big Nate: In a Class by Himself—Special Edition. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $12.99.

     Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate, featuring 12-year-old sixth-grader Nate Wright in a series of perpetual misunderstandings brought about by his own lack of self-awareness and his feelings of superiority (to his friends and classmates) and oppression (by his father, big sister and especially his teachers, in particular Mrs. Godfrey), is one of those strips that appeals both to adults and to kids of around Nate’s own age.  As a result, it lends itself to collections of daily strip sequences (Big Nate: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? and Big Nate: Here Goes Nothing); to participatory activity books (Big Nate: Fun Blaster); and to illustrated novels written in Nate’s voice and including individual panels from the strip, or sometimes groups of them (Big Nate: In a Class by Himself).

      This is unusual versatility for a comic strip, but Nate’s stories hold up surprisingly well in all three formats. The collections of strips are obviously going to be as successful as Peirce’s storytelling and drawing abilities can make them.  Big Nate: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? includes strips from November 2007 to June 2008, and Big Nate: Here Goes Nothing includes ones from June 2008 to January 2009, so the two books together provide about 14 months of Nate-isms.  These fall into predictable patterns: Nate has a crush on classmate Jenny, which she does not return, instead taking up with super-nice Artur, whom Nate tries to hate but who is so nice that he is impossible to dislike as intensely as Nate wants to dislike him; Nate wants a dog, his sister wants a cat, and their father refuses to get either; Nate’s nerdy friend, Francis, goes through factoid withdrawal when Nate and others stage an intervention to stop Francis from constantly reading out loud from a book of trivia; Nate gets into all sorts of trouble in Mrs. Godfrey’s class; Nate’s school develops a mold problem and has to be closed for remediation, forcing Nate and friends to share space for a while with an arch-rival school; Nate’s goalkeeping in soccer brings his team a big victory; Nate’s uncle, the ne’er-do-well Ted, gets in the way repeatedly; and so on.  The specific events do change, but the overall feeling of them does not, as Nate negotiates preteen life with his misconceptions largely intact and with a rather endearing balance of pluses (chess skill, friendliness, sports abilities) and minuses (laziness, self-importance, inability to see himself as others see him).

      Big Nate: Fun Blaster is a different sort of book.  Part of Nate’s persona is that he is a would-be cartoonist – as was Peirce himself in sixth grade – and this activity book is filled with “Nate’s” own drawings as well as puzzles, coded messages, rhymes to create, speech bubbles in which readers are supposed to guess what Nate would say, word games, design contests and more.  Of course, it will be fun only for existing fans of Big Nate, since the whole thing is built on Nate’s personality and the occurrences and characters in the strip.  But it will be a lot of fun for preteens who enjoy Nate’s predicaments and want to emulate some of his better qualities – for instance, there are “doodle pages” giving readers a chance to draw their own cartoons, and others offering readers chances to draw characters from the Big Nate strip either imitatively or in their own style.

      The “Nate novels” are an interesting hybrid form.  Big Nate: In a Class by Himself was the first of these, published in 2010, and it set a style that other Nate books of this type have followed.  Nate “writes” a story that goes through a couple of hundred pages, tackling in words the same themes that he deals with in Peirce’s everyday strips, but in narrative form.  However, this narrative is very amply illustrated, sometimes with panels from Big Nate, sometimes with “Nate’s” drawings and cartoons, sometimes even with his (bad) poetry – the three poems to Cheez Doodles, his favorite snack, are hilarious.  Nate’s level of self-awareness comes through here with lines such as, “I know I have potential. I’m just saving it for something more important than school.”  Nate’s adventures in Big Nate: In a Class by Himself are largely occasioned by a fortune-cookie fortune telling him, “Today you will surpass all others,” which Nate therefore tries to do – repeatedly – leading him into trouble again and again, and detention again and again, and failure again and again. But one of the most endearing things about Nate is that however many times he gets knocked down, he comes back up one time more.  And sure enough, that is what happens here, in a most unexpected way, leading Nate’s fortune to come true after all and leaving him happy and satisfied at the end – although what satisfies him would not make most other sixth-graders happy.  But that is the whole point: Nate both is and is not a sixth-grade “everyman.”  As for what makes the new edition of this book a Special Edition: it contains a 16-page bonus section called “Holiday Hullabaloo” that includes a “Dear Santa” page from Nate, “Gina’s Grinch List” from the super-brainy classmate with whom Nate constantly fights, a mix-and-match game, and some Christmastime panels from 2004.  This small additional section certainly does not make the book a must-have for anyone who already owns Big Nate: In a Class by Himself. But for those who do not have the book, why not buy the Special Edition? It costs the same as the regular version and does offer at least a bit more of Nate’s thoughts, feelings and antics – which is what Big Nate, in all its various book forms, is intended to do.

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