October 22, 2015
(++++) LESSONS LEARNED?
Big Nate: Welcome to My World. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Clark the Shark: Afraid of the Dark. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $17.99.
The thing about Nate Wright, chronic sixth-grade academic underachiever, is that he is not unintelligent and not unteachable – he just has no interest in learning in an academic environment. He much prefers to play chess, at which he excels, and to draw comics, at which he thinks he excels. There is something resonant in Nate’s personality for adults as well as for the younger readers at whom the Big Nate comic strip is directed; in fact, cartoonist Lincoln Peirce (pronounced “purse”) says Nate is largely modeled on himself at Nate’s age (which is variously given as 11 or 12). The latest Nate collection in the AMP! Comics for Kids series is missing a few of the elements that make Peirce’s strip particularly attractive: no Nate chess games, no samples of Nate’s own comics (“Doctor Cesspool” and the like), not even any scenes in the detention room (Nate is the reigning detention champ of P.S. 38 – a distinction he relishes). Instead, Welcome to My World has strips that show ways in which Nate may be right in thinking that life is just plain unfair to him a lot of the time. For example, he buckles down and really studies for a test when challenged by his brainy and arrogant student nemesis, Gina: Nate is determined to score a perfect 100, which would give him a B for the class. And almost against his will, thanks to tutoring from a super-brainy first-grader, he learns everything he needs to know – he can learn when sufficiently motivated – but then gets a 99 because he did not write his name in the correct space. This episode casts his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, in an unfavorable light: she is usually tough but fair, genuinely concerned with the students and fed up with Nate because he refuses to live up to his potential. Here she seems unnecessarily cruel, not only through the nitpicking about name placement but also because she refuses Nate’s request for a B for the course – which a good teacher would see as a worthwhile motivator, since Nate fell short by a single point. Well, so it goes: welcome to Nate’s world. In another sequence, Mrs. Godfrey comes off no better: she sentences Nate to detention on Grandparents Day because he arrives 20 seconds late after showing his grandmother and grandfather around; then she decides to give a pop quiz not only to the students but also to the grandparents. This series of strips illuminates some of Nate’s personality – he seems to take after his grandfather – but makes Mrs. Godfrey a less attractive character. Elsewhere here, Nate’s feckless father tries to get Nate to stop eating so many Cheez Doodles – an attempt that falters when Nate insists that in that case, his father has to stop scarfing down so much ice cream. Nate’s involvements with sports teams, art (a class he enjoys), the reading club (he comes for the snacks), junior lifesaving class and School Picture Guy (who wears a smiley-face tie and always has a Band-Aid on his forehead) are here in Nate’s world as well – as are his interactions with best friends Francis and Teddy, crush Jenny, sister Ellen and the rest of the characters who populate Peirce’s strip and keep Nate too busy to learn as much as he is capable of learning (especially about his own limitations).
Bruce Hale’s Clark the Shark picture books have the oversized-kid-in-toothy-guise learning things, too, although Afraid of the Dark is not quite at the level of the earlier books in the series. A lot of the fun in these books comes from seeing Clark, so much bigger and so much potentially fiercer and potentially scarier than all the other denizens of the deep, dealing with the same issues of school and sharing and affection that everyone in the 4-8 age range deals with, whether living on land or under water. Earlier books about Clark worked well because they avoided being too directly learning-oriented, escaping the preachiness that can make series such as the Berenstain Bears books tiresome. Afraid of the Dark, though, spends a little too much time on its title topic and not quite enough letting Clark be Clark. There is only a single page showing Clark overdoing things in his usual clumsy-but-endearing way (Hula-Hoops, karaoke, Freeze Dance). The rest of the book focuses on Clark’s first outdoor sleepover with friends and his attempt to deal with his fear of the dark by repeating “a little rhyme” to himself. Unfortunately, what he says does not rhyme and becomes a tad irritating as he repeats it again and again: “Take heart, be smart, sharks aren’t afraid of the dark.” (This could easily have rhymed; for example, “Take heart, smart shark – don’t be afraid of the dark.” But it doesn’t.) As for the story, Hale has Clark and his friends telling ghost stories (illustrated in a decidedly non-threatening way by Guy Francis), then becoming so “shivery” that they jump with fear at a piece of driftwood, at Clark’s mother carrying a flashlight, and at a clump of seaweed. Eventually all the kid fish admit they are scared of the dark, so they all get together and create a longer not-scared rhyme that is, if anything, more banal than Clark’s original. They set their rhyme to music and all fall asleep. Lesson learned, perhaps, but the narrow focus here and the insistence on using the book as a teaching tool make Clark the Shark: Afraid of the Dark a less-enjoyable entry than earlier Clark books. It is still a (+++) book – Clark remains an attractive character, thanks largely to Francis showing him as so outlandishly toothy but not at all frightening – but there simply isn’t as much amusing involvement with Clark’s antics here as in earlier books, and the teaching seems a bit too forced.