October 16, 2014
(++++) IN PRAISE OF SILLINESS
The Complete Adventures of Johnny Mutton. By James Proimos. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
Robots Rule! Book One: The Junkyard Bot. By C.J. Richards. Illustrated by Goro Fujita. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $13.99.
Take one baby that just happens to be a sheep, leave it on the doorstep of a woman who happens to be named Mutton and whose “weak eyes and warm heart kept her from even noticing” the baby’s species, and you have the setup for three amusing, offbeat, occasionally strange and always funny books of adventures – written by James Proimos and illustrated by him a style that can best be called “arrested development” (that is, the pictures look as if they were drawn by a six-year-old, and maybe one with sheep’s hooves rather than human fingers). The Complete Adventures of Johnny Mutton includes The Many Adventures of Johnny Mutton (2001); Johnny Mutton, He’s So Him! (2003); and Mutton Soup: More Adventures of Johnny Mutton (2004). The stories wear well because they are timeless: each of the original books contained five very short tales, and each ends with a “Where Are They Now?” chapter that is a story in itself – a very amusing wrap-up. The stories’ titles are part of the fun. “The Pirates Meet the Runny Nose” is about Halloween costumes and Johnny’s budding friendship with Gloria Crust, who dresses as a giant box of tissues. “The Cook-Off” features Johnny’s arch-enemy, Mandy Dinkus, and a cooking contest in which Johnny defeats Mandy by presenting the judges with nothing at all (for good reason: he has kindly given away all his cupcakes). In “Bottoms Up,” Johnny is sent to learn table manners from Ms. Bottoms, who decrees him unteachable – but it turns out that Johnny has learned everything, while teaching the teacher his own previous bad table habits (which she practices with her dog, Mr. Tooshy). Proimos so effectively channels his inner child that one wonders whether he ever really grew up. Momma beats Johnny in a staring contest by “tooting” at just the right time; Johnny and Gloria decide to set the world record for sitting; Momma, a great basketball player, tries unsuccessfully to teach the game to Johnny, who prefers to swim in the water ballet (a decision that is fine with Momma, who says, “Then swim your best”). Readers learn about and get to see food items such as mutton gravy (“the hot maple syrup that goes over the pancakes that have a cherry on top”) and mutton pie (“a whole lot of cherries in a bowl with a cherry on top”). The Johnny Mutton books were fun when they first appeared, they are fun in this new collection, and they will likely continue to be fun for quite some time to come.
The Robots Rule! series is designed to be enjoyable well into the future, too, but in a different way. C.J. Richards is just starting what is sure to be a multi-entry sequence set in the town of Terabyte Heights, a high-tech enclave where everyone has his or her own robot and plenty of programming skills to go with it. Central to the town is the TinkerTech technical hub and robotics factory, overseen by Professor Droid, whose daughter, Anne, is friends with series protagonist George, who uses the TinkerTech workshop to rebuild his personal robot and best friend, Jackbot, after Jackbot is hit by a car. George, a typical preteen genius, makes some improvements in Jackbot that soon draw some nefarious attention – from Professor Droid’s second-in-command, Dr. Micron, a typical bad guy who has everything his own way until George derails his evil schemes after Dr. Micron boastfully gives George the means to do so. There is nothing especially creative in the overall plot of The Junkyard Bot, but it makes a good series opener by introducing a number of major themes and characters (the vanquished Dr. Micron escapes, of course) and by offering more humor than might be expected. For example, after George’s attempt to defuse a bomb goes right down to the last second, as usual in books like this, Jackbot laughs and reveals that he had actually taken care of everything one minute earlier. Jackbot tends to seem more human than some of the characters, but there is nothing unusual about that: think, for example, of R2D2 in the original Star Wars movies, and he did not even speak. The Junkyard Bot features apt illustrations by Goro Fujita, who has clearly been influenced by anime in creating the robots but has not drawn the humans with traditional anime appearance – resulting in a mixture of styles that works nicely in a series opener that bodes well for future volumes.