July 31, 2014
(++++) AMUSEMENTS DRAWN AND WRITTEN
The Croc Ate My Homework: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrew McMeel. $9.99.
Pow! A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
My Weirder School #11: Miss Klute Is a Hoot! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $4.99.
My Weird School Special: Back to School, Weird Kids Rule! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.
The way to a young reader’s literary heart – and head, for that matter – may lie in words, pictures or a combination. The combined approach is the most popular, implemented in a wide variety of ways. The series that Andrews McMeel calls “AMP! Comics for Kids” takes excerpts from current and older strips and binds them in easy-to-handle 224-page paperbacks designed not for narrative continuity (which they lack) but for easy reading and immediate appeal to younger readers. Presumably these books will become a gateway to larger collections of the same strips – or to other comics and other visually striking offerings. Choosing strips for a Stephan Pastis collection of this type is by no means easy, though. Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine is a dark strip filled with multi-day continuity that is broken up by extended and generally awful puns that are a highlight because they are so terrible (and that inevitably lead Pastis, who appears as a character in his own strip, to be roundly condemned and physically attacked by the other characters). Because this strip is filled with characters being killed, drinking beer, and committing all sorts of mayhem, it scarcely seems suitable for the young-reader treatment. But The Croc Ate My Homework turns out to be just fine. True, there is a strip in which the inept crocodiles, trying for the umpteenth time to trap and eat their neighbor, Zebra, grind up one of their own in a wood chipper, and another in which one of the crocs devours one of Santa’s elves. But by the standards of this strip, this sort of violence (which always happens off-screen or, rather, out of panel) is quite mild. A sequence in which a young crocodile has a fling with a young zebra, refusing to see her as prey, fits well here, as do strips in which one of the crocs offers his son bedtime stories and nursery rhymes – suitably rewritten from a predator’s point of view. And then there is the strip in which the croc’s conscience appears to warn him against killing other creatures – so the croc makes a snack of the conscience itself. The Croc Ate My Homework is croc-centered (although no homework appears to have been eaten in its creation), but the book also features plenty of appearances by other Pearls Before Swine regulars, including Rat, Pig and Goat. It does not give the full (and sometimes bitter) flavor of the strip, but as an introduction to Pastis’ oddities, it serves quite well.
Pastis has written about the extent to which he owes his success in cartooning to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, not only because of the influence of the Peanuts strips themselves but also because of Pastis having actually met Schulz (1922-2000) and talked with him about comics. Peanuts was a considerably darker strip than many adults remember when thinking back on their own experience of it – not as dark as Pastis’, certainly, but packed with considerable emotional negativism and disappointment. It also had plenty of grown-up language (it originated as a strip in which little kids said grown-up things) and a wide variety of complex themes, including a religious one (which led to a book by Robert Short called The Gospel According to Peanuts). Many of these themes are evident in Pow! – which features on its cover one of the classic panels in which baseball pitcher Charlie Brown is partially undressed by the force of a line drive hit right back at him. Like his inevitable failure to kick a football held by Lucy, Charlie Brown’s feckless attempts to pitch well and manage his team of misfits provided a sports-based foundation for the put-upon protagonist to fail again and again in ever-more-creative and ever-more-disappointing ways. Just how much failure there was in the baseball context is quite clear in Pow! The entire book is made up of baseball-themed sequences from Peanuts, to the point of repetitiveness – which the stories did not have when Schulz was alive, since he spaced them out over months and years. The dates of the panels are not given in this reprint, which is understandable in terms of not wanting the comics to seem old to the young readers for whom the book is designed. There are some unintended consequences of the decision, though: references to cartoonist Willard Mullin, mid-1960s baseball commissioner William Eckert, conductor Leonard Bernstein and pitcher Sandy Koufax will make no sense whatsoever to today’s young readers. Neither will the sequence in which Charlie Brown and Linus place a newspaper want ad to try to find Charlie Brown a new team to manage. But in general, annotations are not necessary for this book – in which, time after time, Charlie Brown tries his very best while, time after time, events and his own wishy-washy personality conspire against him. Schulz’ art remains as intriguing and effective as ever here, and so does his writing: “How can I run a baseball team and solve moral issues at the same time?” And: “Just what I’ve always been afraid of: my team has built up an immunity to losing!” Like Charlie Brown himself, Peanuts just keeps coming back again and again, and hopefully young readers will continue looking for these classic strips after they get started with Pow!
As good as Schulz’ writing was, and as Pastis’ writing is, comic-strip collections inevitably put the focus on visual impact when trying to attract younger readers. Dan Gutman’s My Weird School series and its spinoffs and successors, in contrast, focus primarily on writing, even though the Jim Paillot illustrations are important to the books’ overall effect. The fact that these books read and look like clones of each other gives them a (+++) rating; but the reality is that any book’s resemblance to any other is, in this case, purely intentional. Gutman wants kids to know exactly what they will be getting before they ever get past a book’s cover. So it will be obvious from the get-go that My Weirder School #11: Miss Klute Is a Hoot! will feature A.J. narrating a story about yet another oddball, offbeat occurrence in school. This time the focus is a dog called Miss Klute, who shows up at reading time to help encourage the kids to read out loud. This approach works so well that even reluctant readers (who, by the way, are the target audience for Gutman’s books) want to do more reading to Miss Klute, and ask to do so with enthusiasm: “If you ever want something really badly, just say ‘please’ over and over again to a grown-up. That’s the first rule of being a kid.” To be sure, there turn out to be some unexpected complications involving Miss Klute, but before things get too serious, everything is nicely resolved. Of course. And so it also goes in My Weird School Special: Back to School, Weird Kids Rule! The narrator here is Andrea – her first time narrating, as a matter of fact – and she sprinkles reasons she loves school throughout the book. The book features the kids going to a camp that, instead of being a summertime alternative to school, is a camp to help them get ready to go back to school; they react pretty much as expected (except that, remember, narrator Andrea loves school and everything resembling it). Most of the fun here actually comes from having Andrea tell the story: she not only creates a list of things she loves about school but also decides that she loves list-making so much that she should make a list of her favorite lists – and does. Like Gutman’s other Weird School books, this one is easy to read, lightly plotted and filled with silly humor as well as amusing illustrations. With any luck, these two new Gutman books will help kids get into the right frame of mind for their real and hopefully not too weird school days.