July 20, 2017
(++++) THE USES OF ODDBALL CHARACTERS
Bobs and Tweets 1: Meet the Bobs and Tweets. By Pepper Springfield. Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell. Scholastic. $9.99.
Bobs and Tweets 2: Perfecto Pet Show. By Pepper Springfield. Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell. Scholastic. $9.99.
My Weirdest School #8: Mrs. Master Is a Disaster! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $4.99.
My Weird School Fast Facts: Explorers, Presidents, and Toilets. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.
My Weird School Fast Facts: Space, Humans, and Farts. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.
The personalities of many characters in kids’ books are designed to make specific points, and much of the character comedy of the books involves personality contrasts. This is quite explicit in Pepper Springfield’s stories about the Bobs and Tweets, whose differing characteristics are simply and straightforwardly (and rhymingly) explained: the male Bobs are slobs and the female Tweets are neat. The possibilities are many, varied and delightful, and are immediately apparent in Kristy Caldwell’s covers for the first two books in the series, on which even the families’ names are shown in letters reflecting their predilections for messiness and care, respectively. The first book, in rhymes that are somewhat Seussian if not quite insouciant, introduces the two groups – the identical but different-size Tweets, looking like Russian nesting dolls that have been laid out separately, and the very-different-from-each-other Bobs. And Meet the Bobs and Tweets also focuses on one Bob and one Tweet who are the opposite of the rest of their families: Dean Bob, seventh and smallest of the Bobs, is neat and tidy, while Lou Tweet, seventh and littlest of the Tweets, is disorganized and messy. The respective families simply accept their not-quite-fitting-in members, and readers will quickly figure out that the two smallest characters will become friends. Sure, enough, the Bobs and Tweets end up living on the same block of Bonefish Street – guided by the same real-estate agent, Mo, who is later revealed to be the town’s mayor as well. “‘That Mo,’ says Bob Seven. ‘She lied to us all./ And now she has caused a huge Bonefish Street brawl.’” The dustup happens at the local swimming pool, where the Tweets want to swim in neat, synchronized lines, while the Bobs want to jump and splash and make as much commotion as they possibly can. The lifeguard takes time out from preening and using his phone to divide the pool into neat and messy halves, more-or-less solving the conflict – and setting the stage for future arguments and misunderstandings between the families. Such as the one in Perfecto Pet Show. Ms. Pat, who teaches both Dean and Lou, brings her six pets to class one day and announces an upcoming “Kid-Pet-Talent Show” for which kids can bring their own pets or borrow one of hers. This worries Dean and Lou for opposite reasons. Dean says, “My Bobs will be rowdy. Noisy. Not cool./ I worry so much when my Bobs come to school.” And Lou comments, “My Tweets will come early on the day of the show/ And insist they get six clean seats in the front row.” It turns out that Dean and Lou are both right – but that is not the half of what happens. The Tweets, determined to arrive four hours early and clean everything, inadvertently ride their bikes onto a huge skateboard ramp that was not there before and is now blocking their way – resulting in multiple crashes, wrecked bicycles, and dirt all over everything. Of course the Bobs turn out to be responsible for the ramp. Eventually, albeit reluctantly, the Bobs give the Tweets a ride to school, and even more reluctantly, the two groups have to sit near each other in the school auditorium. Up on stage, Dean Bob and Lou Tweet, who are now fast friends, end up performing together with their pets (Dean’s dog and Lou’s cat) after Dean gets stage fright so intense that he cannot do his act alone. And after the show, there is a glimmer of getting-along between all the Bobs and all the Tweets: one Bob has fixed all the Tweets’ bikes and added such touches as “Wi-Fi and a Blurpee cupholder.” This initially seems like a problem: “‘Oh no,’ gasps Dean Bob. ‘What will the Tweets say?/ Bob Four fixed the Tweets’ bikes the Bob-fashioned way.’” But the Tweets accept the help graciously and, in their turn, set about Tweet-ifying the Bobs’ bus by giving it a thorough cleaning. So all ends happily, at least for the time being, but the stage is certainly set for more personality-based (mis)adventures to come.
Personalities are also an ever-present element of Dan Gutman’s (+++) “Weird School” series – that’s “series” plural, not “series” singular, since Gutman and illustrator Jim Paillot just keep churning them out. The current one is My Weirdest School, whose eighth entry, with the usual exclamation point at the end of the title, is Mrs. Master Is a Disaster! As usual, the title has little to do with the plot, which as usual features A.J., whose real name is Arlo and who hates being called that, which is why the other usual central character, Andrea, likes to use it. This book starts with class appearances by old fogies (grandparents), who spend their time talking about ridiculous ideas such as playing outdoors and avoiding sugary foods – but one of whom, Mrs. Masters, turns out to be an inventor. That gets the kids interested in inventing something so they can “make bazillions,” which requires them to come up with something worth bazillions in the marketplace, which leads A.J. (who is in the gifted-and-talented program even though he spends most of his time being what the old fogies would call a wiseacre) to spearhead the concept of a new kind of toilet seat. Gutman is fond of toilet seats and potty humor, and here gets to elaborate on the whole toilet topic. The Party Pooper seat is heated, glows in the dark, puts out a pleasant scent, and uses artificial intelligence to have conversations with users. The whole corporate-startup thing gets compressed into a few pages, and so does the whole corporate-success thing, and then the corporate-failure thing, so by the end of the book the kids are looking for someone to blame, such as A.J. or Mrs. Master. The book is no better or worse than others in the series, and the characters are true to form even though, in truth, they are rather formless – they move the plot along but have very little personality. Still, this easy-to-read book, like the many others in these Gutman/Paillot series, will be fun for kids who already know the characters and enjoy their adventures, even if their personalities are rather hard to pin down.
Actually, the verbal byplay between A.J. and Andrea is somewhat more interesting in the fact-focused books that Gutman and Paillot spin off from the “Weird School” universe. Unsurprisingly, both of the most-recent fact books veer into Gutman’s usual preoccupation with toilets and bodily functions – but before they do that, both present some interesting facts (or factoids) about American history (Explorers, Presidents, and Toilets) and science (Space, Humans, and Farts). These books’ titles may not end in exclamation points, but several chapters of the history book certainly do: “The United States Is Born!” “The Colonists Are Revolting!” “It’s Getting Bigger!” “Rise of the Machines!” And, of course, “The History of the Toilet!” The narration by A.J. and Andrea, interspersed with occasional pictures, is filled with typical A.J. comments such as “nah-nah-nah boo-boo” and “I’m not going to tell you. Okay, okay, I’ll tell you.” And Andrea continually reminds readers that some things A.J. says are not true, as in, “Arlo, you totally made that up!” The mild banter is supposed to be all in good fun: Andrea really likes A.J. and periodically wonders if they will get married someday (“Over my dead body” is a typical A.J. response). The point of the fact-focused books, though, is, or is supposed to be, the facts; and there are enough of them so that kids who pay a modicum of attention will actually learn something. The balance of entertainment and information tends to be a little off: Gutman clearly enjoys the characters, not so clearly what they are communicating. Still, there is plenty of interesting material here, some of it not typically included in factual books. The history volume, for instance, discusses the disinformation campaigns of George Washington: early in the Revolutionary War, finding the colonists very low on gunpowder, he created a rumor that they had so much they did not know where to store it; and late in the war, he made elaborate preparations for what seemed to be an attack on New York, then went after Yorktown, Virginia instead. The science book follows a similar presentation pattern and has similarly mixed content. About clothing and chemistry, for example, Gutman explains that sheeps’ wool can be and is used to insulate houses – but almost half the world’s clothing is now made from synthetic fibers such as nylon, which was created in 1935 by Wallace Hume. There is also a note that racing cars are designed to work the opposite way planes do: air flow pushes planes into the air, but the cars are designed so that as they go faster, they are pushed more firmly against the road. And some elements of the science book seem as if they are kidding, but really are not, such as the notion that Earth is a planet in the “Goldilocks Zone” – a part of the solar system that is neither too hot for life nor too cold, but is just right. The “Weird School” books, fiction and fact alike, are designed to intrigue and involve kids who are not all that interested in reading for its own sake, but can be pulled into it by a combination of interesting and simply presented material and some personalities with which they enjoy spending time. For those who find A.J. and Andrea – and the other, lesser denizens of the “Weird School” world – to be congenial companions, the latest entries will be as enjoyable as the many earlier ones.