March 26, 2015


Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome. By Brad Montague & Robby Novak. Harper. $21.99.

Go to Hells: An Updated Guide to Dante’s Underworld. By Kali V. Roy. Illustrated by Jesse Riggle. Pulp/Zest Books. $14.99.

     It would be overly cynical to note that the concept of Kid President is a packaged, polished and promoted one. After all, the concept of the U.S. presidency is far more packaged, polished and promoted. So a YouTube offering that features 11-year-old Robby Novak playing a character originally created as a promotion for the annual benefit dinner of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee is really pretty mild compared with the character creation and billion-dollar selling of the actual U.S. president. The book based on the YouTube material takes some getting used to, though. In the absence of video and other electronic aids, a lot of Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome comes across as overly cutesy, not to mention illiterate (“treat people awesome”). Still, given the state of the presidency – and, some would surely argue, of the United States itself – we could do worse than being a little awesome. So here is a book that includes cute-looking doodles and various illustrations that are designed to support 100 “awesome” ideas that should make the world better if, you know, everybody did all of them instead of doing whatever else it is they are doing. Love of pop culture is a must for enjoying this book – idea #6, for example, is all about the wonderfulness of Justin Timberlake, “THE Justin Timberlake. Pop superstar, actor, fellow suit-and-tie enthusiast.” Love of simplistic pop psychology helps, too – idea #11 is “Complain less. Celebrate more.” And #15 is “Laugh. Help end global sadness.” A chapter cutely entitled “Talk Gooder” reminds readers to say please and thank you, “I’m sorry,” “Everything is going to be okay,” “Life is tough, but so are you,” and so on. Then there are suggestions such as #58 – “Be like cheese (or bacon) and make everything you touch better.” And #68 – “Be kind. It’s not always easy, but it’s always important.” The sentiments are unexceptionable, and only an out-and-out curmudgeon would suggest not following them. The photos, illustrations, even the typesetting are all designed from a feel-good perspective, and all are intended to make it seem like a revelation when a suggestion such as #75 comes along (“Start with your heart and then just start”). In truth, there is absolutely nothing profound, surprising, unusual or unheard-of here, but there is nothing that is not uplifting, feel-good, well-meaning and well-meant. Look here for plenty of statements such as, “In life you’ll end up in lots of places you never imagined. Don’t let your nerves overtake you so much that you can’t enjoy it.” And this is good advice – in fact, just about everything here is good advice: “It isn’t all cupcakes and kittens and kissing Beyoncé, though. Some days are hard. Real hard. You gotta keep going. Life is tough, but so are you.” The book is aimed squarely at fans of the Kid President YouTube feature, and based on the hits that feature gets, there are plenty of them. Kid President certainly does not work in print the way it does as a video presentation, and the book by definition throws out a lot more at one time than does a periodic video offering. But anyone who thinks the avowedly Pollyanna-ish notions here are a way to attain awesomeness (whatever that is) will certainly enjoy the book; and anyone who does not think that can always find something else to read.

     Such as Go to Hells. Speaking of curmudgeons, Kali V. Roy and Jesse Riggle are two of them. It takes considerable curmudgeon-ness to rethink Dante’s nine circles of Hell, decide that nine would not be enough for all the forms of modern misbehavior, and then create a whole set of new torments designed, like Dante’s, to be entirely appropriate for the sins they punish. The thing is, Dante was concerned primarily with mortal sins, while Roy and Riggle focus entirely on venial sins, so their book, shall we say, lacks the gravitas of Inferno. But then, it is not written in 14th-century Italian – instead, its catalogue of sins and sinners is in 21st-century doggerel. “Entitled Roommates: You ate all our soup./ You never bought soap./ You acted as though you were king./ Now, tuck right in—/ you’ll eat the chef’s special:/ A bisque made from fresh Irish Spring.” Riggle’s deliberately ugly drawings, featuring all-black, pointy-eared demons tormenting humans who are significantly less attractive than the hellions, fit Roy’s words as a key fits a lock (in other words, as in “lock these people up and throw away the key”). Try “Impossible Packaging Designers: We tried scissors and knives/ —even our teeth—/ But nothing could do enough damage./ Leaving this circle’s a cinch:/ Take this pill!/ It’s sealed, but I’m sure you can manage.” That one has a “Go to Heaven Pill” wrapped in one of those impossible sort-of-clamshell plastic packages that are known to withstand scissors, knives, teeth and, possibly, hand grenades. Then there is this: “Internet Trolls: Thank you for taking the time to suggest/ That our brains were far smaller than peas./ Now you’ll deliver your comments direct/ To real trolls who are angry as bees.” The rhymes in Go to Hells are often imperfect (“damage” and “manage,” for example), but after all, this is Hell, or rather these are Hells, and perfection of any sort is scarcely the point. “Shoddy washers: You said they were clean!/ Those plates always had/ Fish scales and rice bits that still clung./ Now you’re in charge of this dirty pig-pen./ Your scouring tool? It’s your tongue.” Roy and Riggle clearly have issues that not even Kid President could solve, but after all, the unfailing- cynical/pessimistic and always-happy/optimistic are but two sides of the same coin, said coin being the human experience. If the presidency can be rethought as a sort of happy-go-lucky self-help position for the world, then Hell can equally well be looked at as a place where modern sinners get the same sort of appropriately nasty treatment as Dante’s got 700 years ago. Whether the world has gotten much better in those centuries, or not, is a matter of opinion, and may be a determinant of which of these two books you would prefer to read.

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