June 09, 2016


Dear Dumb Diary, Deluxe: Dumbness Is a Dish Best Served Cold. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $12.99.

What This Story Needs Is a Munch and a Crunch. By Emma J. Virján. Harper. $9.99.

     Some characters in kids’ books are worth visiting again and again for the sheer joy of being in their presence, however temporarily. One such is Jamie Kelly, erstwhile student at Mackerel Middle School and determined diarist, courtesy of chronicler Jim Benton, whose offbeat humor has found a perfect foil in Jamie through umpteen softcover books with frequently hilarious black-and-white illustrations. Now, lo and behold, there is a hardcover book “by” Jamie, with frequently hilarious color illustrations. And the production values have not gone to her head – well, not to any extent beyond the one in which all special events (and some not-so-special ones) go to her head. A quick glance at the book’s back cover, in which Jamie’s BFF Isabella and BEF (best enemy forever) Angeline appear within ice-cream cones, with the ice cream dripping down their heads, is enough to show that Jamie’s wit, wisdom, and wiseacre-ness are quite undeterred in this more-elegant format. To understand Jamie, it is only necessary to note what she writes about Angeline: “Sure, on the outside, she’s all beautiful and smart and kind to people, but when you go way down deep inside – way down deep – you discover that she’s actually more beautiful and smart and kind.” Jamie cannot stand this, but she knows “it’s terrible to hate somebody for being wonderful,” and to make matters worse, “while you’re standing there, simmering in your own hate gravy, you are actually becoming worse because that’s what hate simmering does to a person.” How much worse? Jamie’s illustration makes that abundantly clear. Yet Jamie is lovable despite her flaws, or actually because of them, because she is at heart well-meaning, rather sweet, inclined to do good rather than bad things, and 100% un-self-aware (maybe even 110%). Jamie is constantly trying to figure the world out and constantly illustrating the things in it that make no sense. For instance, she cannot understand why adults consistently buy ugly cars even though dealerships put the cool ones right out where the adults can see them while buying the ugly ones. She also does not  know why adults will avoid “the gorgeous and exciting cupcake” (shown with considerable makeup and a broad smile) and instead opt for “her homely and quiet cousin, the muffin” (shown in plain brown, wearing glasses and carrying a book). Most of the fun of the Dear Dumb Diary series, which is mainly for girls ages 8-12, comes from Jamie’s incessant misunderstanding of everything and everybody – despite which she manages to do a fair amount of good, often in spite of herself. Dumbness Is a Dish Best Served Cold does go beyond the 18 (not really umpteen) previous Dear Dumb Diary books in some ways, but those ways make sense. For example, angelic Angeline turns out to be a bit money-hungry here, for what turns out to be a good reason. Besides, when she comes up with a way to make some money, it is a do-good one: creating plates with designs made according to federally recommended food-consumption guidelines, so cafeteria servers can give kids the right amounts of the right foods and kids can eat correctly balanced meals. But the plan fails, because kids won’t eat the foods they don’t like, and that makes Angeline uncharacteristically glum. Then it turns out there is a reasonable reason for this, the same one that made her money-focused in the first place: her father got fired and money is currently tight. So there is a bit of a serious undercurrent to this Dear Dumb Diary book – abetted, however, by illustrations such as the one showing Jamie with halo and angel wings, raising her right hand, explaining that she is “never to blame” and noting, “Any way you look at it, you should just look at it my way.” That is, of course, what Dear Dumb Diary does, and it does it mighty well. Everything works out just fine at the end, of course, but what is especially good is the way it works out, which is via – among other things – three laugh-out-loud drawings of Jamie, Angeline and Isabella being “bizarrely qualified” to solve their financial problem, “like a mythological hero who was made up of three people.” There is, however, a late-in-book crisis involving Jamie’s dog, Stinker, that results in Jamie giving up all the money she has made, but also results in her finding something that may result in making it all back, and then – well, it is all delightfully complicated and delightfully Jamie and delightfully Dear Delicious Diary, or whatever Benton feels like calling it. Kids will definitely call it fun.

     A less-complicated character in less-complicated stories, Emma J. Virján’s Pig in a Wig is plenty of fun in her own, milder way. The third Pig in a Wig book, What This Story Needs Is a Munch and a Crunch, revolves around a picnic (no, not “pig-nic,” although that would have been a neat touch). The book opens with the pig in the kitchen, baking bread and pouring punch and packing everything up for a picnic lunch with two friends, a squirrel and a rabbit (who brings, of course, carrots). The three friends have a great time eating and playing games (catch, kite flying), until a sudden thunderstorm breaks up the whole outdoor event. “What this story needs now is a mad dash!” writes Virján, as everybody grabs everything grabbable (with some of the food getting soggy, but that cannot be helped), and all head away to “another place to eat” – inside the Pig in a Wig’s house. The simple tale is told simply and ends with a simple solution to an everyday problem, and Virján’s illustrations offer some pleasant touches, such as the friendly-looking bugs that come home with the three friends so that the in-house picnic still has an outdoorsy feel (one insect is even seen flying over to inspect the flowers that the pig keeps in a vase). Drawn in uncomplicated style and sporting easy-to-understand expressions, the Pig in a Wig is an always-pleasant character whose not-too-challenging adventures are made cuter by the enormous red wig she always wears (it is half as tall as she is). Kids ages 4-8, especially early readers and ones in the lower part of that age range, will find the central character as attractive here as in What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig, the first book, and What This Story Needs Is a Hush and a Shush, the second.

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