June 20, 2013
(++++) SQUIRMY STUFF
Bean Dog and Nugget: No. 1—The Ball; No. 2—The Cookie. By Charise Mericle Harper. Knopf. $4.99 each.
Squish No. 5: Game On! By Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. Random House. $6.99.
Graphic novels move all the way down the age range to ages 5-8 with Charise Mericle Harper’s adventures of sort-of-frankfurter-shaped Bean Dog and sort-of-chicken-nugget-shaped Nugget. The two comestible comrades have suitably silly adventures, involving only themselves, in the first two books, and there is more edginess to the characters and the narration than you might expect in books for this age group. The Ball involves Bean Dog losing his favorite ball in a bush – because he has thrown it at Nugget and it has bounced off her and hurt her enough to elicit an “Ow!” The friends imagine the bush as a monster, so they have to come up with a monster-fighting way to retrieve the ball and their shoes (which they have thrown into the bush in the hope of knocking the ball out). Thus are born Superdog and Ninja Nugget, who together get everything out of the bush and then find themselves thoroughly bored – so they throw everything back in and resume their costumes, except that this time Bean Dog dresses up as a cake instead of a superhero, which works out fine because the costume is a cake and the friends get to have a snack before dealing again with getting their things back. The premise, the characters, the narration and the overall approach are absurd enough to be amusing and entertaining, and the writing is simple enough so that kids in the target age range will enjoy reading The Ball all by themselves. They will also enjoy The Cookie, in which something unusual happens: the characters lie to each other and are not reprimanded. Nugget goes through elaborate machinations to get Bean Dog’s attention by claiming that she has a huge invisible donut, which eventually disappears, or gets lost…well, whatever. Then Bean Dog brings in three cookies for the two to share, but the third one does not break in half evenly, so the friends argue over who gets the bigger half – and Bean Dog gets revenge for the invisible-donut prank by getting Nugget to close her eyes long enough for him to take the larger piece for himself. This is scarcely exemplary behavior by either character, but the fact that these books are not preachy and not determinedly filled with correct manners will make them all the more appealing to young readers – especially since the characters accept each other’s foibles and remain friends even when they behave less than upstandingly with each other.
Friends are not entirely good for each other in the latest book in the Squish series, either. The first four of these books – which are for ages 7-10 – did not stand up particularly well against the Babymouse books created by the same sister-and-brother team of Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. This one, though, does. The unicellular friends here are Squish, Pod and Peggy, and the plot has to do with Squish being introduced by Pod and Peggy to a video game called “Mitosis” that is so captivating that – driven by his friends’ greater game-play success – Squish neglects pretty much everything, from reading and writing about Moby-Dick (correctly shown with the hyphen!), to preparing for a comic-book convention that he has been eager to visit with his father, to small matters such as sleep, food and personal hygiene. The authors – who make a cameo amoeboid appearance of their own here – effectively use variations of some of the narrative tricks that have worked so well in the Babymouse series. For example, they comment on the story and characters by having large word-containing arrows pointing to things at certain times, and they include a dream sequence in which Squish finds himself transformed into a pixelated Squish within the game that he has been playing so obsessively. Eventually Squish realizes on his own – thanks in part to elements of a comic-book story about his hero, Super Amoeba – that he is overdoing the whole “Mitosis” thing, and he decides to take a break from the game. This does not help him turn in his Moby-Dick report on time, but in a nice plot twist, he gets permission to work for some extra credit to raise his grade when it turns out that his teacher is, like Squish himself, a comic-book fan. The lessons learned here are reasonable and soft-pedaled, the story moves along smartly, and the characters have more unicellular depth than in earlier entries in this series. Hopefully the authors will keep the adventures of Squish going at the same high, and highly amusing, level that they reach in Game On!