June 05, 2014


Big Nate: Mr. Popularity. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $9.99

Super Silly School Poems. By David Greenberg. Pictures by Liza Woodruff. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

     School always plays a prominent role in Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate comics, but it is particularly important in the latest compilation, Mr. Popularity. This is not because of the strip “written” by Public School 38 itself: “Here’s a tip for the youthful 6th grader/ who considers himself a school hater:/ Though I’m mortar and brick, and I can’t run a lick/ I’ll catch up to you sooner or later.” It is not because of the sequence in which Nate discovers that his substitute teacher is, like Nate himself, a cartoonist, or a would-be one, anyway. No, it is because of the extended series in which Nate decides to run for class president and, against all odds and every possible expectation, actually wins – by one vote. Peirce so often makes Nate a loser, tripping himself up at every turn, that it is easy to forget that Nate has a variety of talents that he displays, admittedly intermittently, in the strip. He is, for example, a first-rate chess player. In any case, Nate quickly finds that the reality of being class president is not quite what he expected. Despite his offer to take over the faculty lounge as his private office, the principal turns him down. His nemesis, brainiac Gina, who has been elected treasurer, tells him that “being sixth-grade class president is NOT that big a deal. It’s not like you have any POWER!” So Nate decides to assert himself and, incidentally and as an afterthought, do some good, by raising money for the local soup kitchen. This even earns him praise from his other nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey – who notices “your enthusiasm, your determination, and your work ethic,” and says that she expects “those admirable qualities to carry over into your SCHOOLWORK from now on.” Oops. Of course, the presidential matter is not the only school-related one here. There are also several sports sequences – Nate is school soccer goalie and on the basketball team – plus yet another of Nate’s perpetual plots to get his crush, Jenny, to go out with him…this one involving the temporary departure of Jenny’s boyfriend, Artur (the super-nice, super-competent student whose unassuming sweetness drives Nate crazy). There are various non-school sequences in Mr. Popularity as well: adventures in snow shoveling, problems with Nate’s ever-clueless father and shopaholic sister, rehearsals with “Enslave the Mollusk” (the band Nate and his friends Francis and Teddy have formed), and so on. But school is the focus here, complete with Nate’s usual detention stints (a point of pride with him) and even some sessions with the school counselor (which, like so much else at school, do not go quite the way Nate would like them to). Nate is scarcely a role model for 11-to-12-year-olds, but he has enough redeeming qualities, including stick-to-it-iveness and surprising (if occasional) doses of charm, so that this and other Big Nate collections are a lot of fun.

     School is also the focus, obviously, of David Greenberg’s Super Silly School Poems, a thin and easy-to-read collection on some expected topics and some unexpected ones. One expected poem is “My Teacher Is a Mind Reader,” which begins, “If you as much as whisper/ Your teacher is aware.” Another is “My Dog Ate My Homework,” which has only four lines: “More than crunchy biscuits/ More than juicy meat/ Homework is the food/ That doggies love to eat.” But then there are less-typical topics, such as “The Extremely Modern School Bathroom,” in which “The auto-flush toilet’s great/ There’s just one minor issue/ The toilet paper roll/ Is completely out of tissue.” Or “Snakes on the Loose!” – which starts, “Just before lunchtime/ All the snakes got loose/ You tried to get them back/ But it wasn’t any use,” and ends with the serpents E-mailing their friends to come join them at school. The poems are short; in fact, the whole book is short (32 pages). And Greenberg’s verse is nicely complemented by the amusing Liza Woodruff illustrations. The mixture of anticipated and unanticipated topics does not work terribly well, though, and not all kids will enjoy poems such as “The Tastiest Taste,” which ends with praise of boogers, or “The Worst Smell of All,” which compares the smell of a teacher’s perfume to “the smell of a class full of kids/ After recess when they sweat/ When none of the windows open/ And their tummies are, well, upset.” Still, this (+++) collection has enough high points to balance the low ones, although reading it during school is probably not the best possible idea.

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