January 04, 2018
(++++) MISCHIEF AND MAYHEM
Dog Man #4: Dog Man and Cat Kid. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Three Little Monkeys. By Quentin Blake. Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark. Harper. $18.99.
Pancakes for Breakfast. By Tomie dePaola. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Sometimes books try too hard, pack too much in, overextend themselves, and nevertheless can delight many of their intended young readers – at least those who are not aware that the authors have bitten off somewhat more than they can comfortably chew. The fourth Dog Man novel by Dav Pilkey continues an ambitious approach started in the third, A Tale of Two Kitties. Pilkey has George Beard and Harold Hutchins, the two supposed creators of the book, reading well-known literature in fifth grade, and being inspired by it to produce Dog Man adventures that pick up from and reflect the classic novels the kids encounter in school. This works reasonably well in A Tale of Two Kitties, based loosely (very loosely) on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. But it is much more of a stretch in Dog Man and Cat Kid, which is based loosely (very, very loosely) on John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It is highly doubtful that fifth-grade students would read Steinbeck’s final novel, a complex interweaving of the stories of two families that is fraught with Biblical references and filled with moral failings, sexual malfeasance and philosophical musings based on varying interpretations of the tale of Cain and Abel. Certainly this book adapts poorly, if at all, to a child-oriented graphic-novel format and to the Dog Man series in particular – with the result that when Pilkey most directly brings in elements from Steinbeck, such as the Hebrew word timshel (“thou mayest,” a crucial concept in East of Eden) and the chapter title “An Aching Kind of Growing” (a direct quotation from Steinbeck’s book), Dog Man and Cat Kid comes perilously close to skidding off the rails along which Pilkey is guiding this sequence. But it never quite does skid off, and that is one reason young readers will find the book perhaps puzzling at times but not really off-putting. Furthermore, the story here, shorn of its existential angst and its sometimes forced parallels to Steinbeck, is entirely age-appropriate and often absolutely hilarious. The basic tale has to do with evil cat Petey’s clone, created in the previous book but emerging as a kitten who, it turns out, respects and loves Dog Man and does not want to be evil. In Dog Man and Cat Kid, Petey shows up dressed as Mary Poppins to “take care” of “Li’l Petey,” as the kitten is known, so Dog Man can go to work. Petey soon reveals himself to the kitten and insists that biology is destiny (not quite in those words), so Li’l Petey must learn to be evil because he is, after all, Petey’s duplicate. The flip side of this nature-vs.-nurture debate comes from Dog Man, and of course the good wins out over the bad eventually, but what makes Dog Man and Cat Kid so delightful is the hilarious way it gets to its obvious “good is better” conclusion. Much of the book involves an attempt by movie company Gassy Behemoth Studios to make a Dog Man film starring actors who are nothing like Dog Man or other “real” characters: hyper-muscled “international action hero Ding-Dong Magoo” as Dog Man, Italian beauty Yolay Caprese as Australian reporter Sarah Hatoff, “comic superstar Scooter McRibs” as Petey, and Samuel J. Johnson (think Samuel L. Jackson) as Chief – a character constantly spouting parodies of famous (and very profane) remarks drawn from the movie Snakes on a Plane, such as “I have HAD IT with these DOG-GONE ACTORS in this DOG-GONE LIMO!!!” Throw in parodies of Batman (“The Bark Knight Rises”) and a hilarious recurring gag in which a studio guard is repeatedly and very inventively dumped into a deep hole dug by Dog Man to try to get into the building, and you have a book of parodies within parodies within parodies, filled with action and brimming with so much silliness that East of Eden mostly fades far, far into the background. And that is where it belongs in a series like this. The fact that it shows up at all tends to be confusing, but Pilkey’s sure-handed comedic gifts make up for his overreaching for a Steinbeck connection.
The connection that readers will most readily make with Quentin Blake’s Three Little Monkeys is likely to be with the mischievous simians of Esphyr Slobodkina’s classic Caps for Sale. And there is in fact a kind of classic style to Emma Chichester Clark’s attractive and often elegant illustrations here: the backgrounds and settings are especially well delineated. But unlike Slobodkina’s mischievous but basically well-meaning monkeys, the three kept as pets by Hilda Snibbs in Blake’s book are genuinely monkey-like in their behavior – which means they make enormous messes whenever Hilda leaves the house, which she does repeatedly and without making the slightest attempt to confine the monkeys to a room or area where they are less likely to do damage. That is the weakness in this (+++) book: Snibbs is so dim, such an uninteresting and unaware character, that even young readers may tire of her repeated departures, before each of which she admonishes the monkeys to be good, which of course they are not – leaving Snibbs to return home to mess after mess, always apparently surprised that the monkeys have behaved like, well, monkeys. Why does Snibbs even have the monkeys? Blake does not say. And is there any lesson learned in the book, any change of pace or change of habit for Snibbs or the monkeys? None at all – Three Little Monkeys simply concludes that problems galore are “the sort of thing you have to expect if you have three little monkeys.” Blake is a fine illustrator – and was Clark’s teacher – but as an author, he is less adept, providing in Three Little Monkeys a story that is not very involving and does not really go anywhere. On the other hand, the creative ways the monkeys find to mess up Snibbs’ apartment are amusing and suitably monkey-like, and Clarke does a fine job depicting them. The book comes across as an attempt at an artistic collaboration between two illustrators, a sort of teacher/student merger in which the skills of both are brought neatly together. Blake has written other books, but only for his own illustrations – this is the first time he has created a story for someone else to picture. The joint venture is not wholly successful. But that is really an adult analysis – the young readers for whom the book is intended will enjoy the monkey mischief portrayed repeatedly in Three Little Monkeys, and may find it funny that Snibbs never does anything to limit the monkeys’ access to things they can mess up. But never underestimate children’s wisdom: Snibbs is so unaware of the inevitability of what will happen when she leaves the monkeys alone yet again that even kids may find their enjoyment of the monkeys tempered by a feeling of being fed up at the dullness of the human being.
No such concerns affect the handling of mischievous pets in Tomie dePaola’s (++++) Pancakes for Breakfast, originally published way back in 1978 and just as much fun as always in a new paperback edition. This is a wonderful, nearly wordless story – almost the only words are in the included recipe for pancakes – in which a woman, living out in the country, wakes up dreaming of pancakes and sets about gathering the ingredients needed to make some. She carefully measures the flour, then discovers she has no eggs, so she walks to her chicken coop to get some, followed by her dog; then she needs milk and has to go milk her cow, this time with her cat watching. The scenes of rural life are beautifully handled by dePaola, done in cartoonish style but nevertheless exhibiting plenty of understanding of the real world in showing the egg basket and nests of the chickens, the timbers of the cow’s barn, and the snow-covered yard through which the woman walks back and forth with her animal companions. Eventually she puts the pancake ingredients into an old-fashioned butter churn – adults may have to explain what it is to young readers today – and she sets about mixing everything, spending nearly half an hour at the work (as a clock on the wall shows) and ending up thoroughly tired out. But the batter is ready and the woman is happy – until she finds she is out of maple syrup and needs to go get some from a neighbor. And so she does, with visions of warmth dancing in her head as she contemplates cooking the pancakes and serving herself a big, delicious stack of them. Unfortunately, when she gets home, she finds that the dog and cat have, quite understandably, gotten into the pancake batter, the remaining milk and eggs, and even the flour – there is nothing left for her, and dePaola shows a vision of the distraught woman imagining winged pancakes flying away. But before the story can have an unhappy ending, the woman smells something and walks through the snow one more time, finding that her next-door neighbors have just finished making, of all things, pancakes! And so, thanks to country hospitality, she gets her big stack of deliciousness at last. And on the book’s final page, the plump-bellied and satisfied trio – woman, dog and cat – can be seen resting peacefully beneath a wall hanging with the only non-pancake-related words in the book: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Modest in scale and charming from start to finish, Pancakes for Breakfast remains a joy four decades after its initial publication because of its modest scope and dePaola’s skill in conveying emotions and human-animal interactions without the need for any words at all.