July 26, 2018
(+++) BOOKS AS AFTERTHOUGHTS
Making Friends. By Kristen Gudsnuk. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Wild Rescuers #1: Guardians of the Taiga. By “Stacy Plays” (Stacy Hinojosa). Illustrated by Vivienne To. Harper. $17.99.
They look like books, they read like books, and in fact they are pretty good books in many ways – but there are numerous books these days that are tie-ins to other things their authors do, such as the Henchgirl webcomic by Kristen Gudsnuk. Making Friends is a typical middle-school-angst story that has nothing specific to do with Henchgirl, but clearly readers who enjoy Making Friends are likely to look around for other Gudsnuk work and discover what she does, at considerably greater length, online. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, but the episodic nature of a webcomic does not translate particularly well to a graphic novel, and Making Friends is so plot-clotted that it seems at times as if Gudsnuk wants to create multiple story threads and have them go along on their own, as they could online, but has realized that in a book the threads must knit together – so she pulls on them until they get, well, rather tangled. Danielle (Dany), the seventh-grade central character here, has nasty-family issues that are made clear at the book’s beginning and that then disappear forever. She has, or rather had, a great-aunt who apparently had magical powers, for reasons that are obscure and never explored. Those powers appear to be vested in a sketchbook that Dany gets after her great-aunt dies. Dany, who is filled with typical middle-school angst, spends a lot of time online with a, well, webcomic – called “Solar Sisters.” She thinks the villain of the piece, Prince Neptune, is kind of cool, so she doodles him in her sketchbook, and then he appears in real life – but only as a disembodied head, since the head is all she drew. Dany, who is remarkably level-headed (ha!) after an initial freak-out moment, soon takes Neptune’s head everywhere, finding it useful because it has magical powers of its own that let it, for example, clean her room instantly. Shades of Mary Poppins! Well, after that part of the plot meanders along for a bit, Dany encounters the usual cliques and social difficulties of middle school and, finding herself friendless, decides to draw a friend for herself, this time remembering to create the whole body and give it a background: “Madison Fontaine. She just moved here from New York City. She’s really cool, funny, smart, and is my new best friend.” So Madison comes into existence (in a toilet stall: nice touch there) and is designed, literally designed, to be everything Dany wants in a friend – which works out just brilliantly until, eventually, it doesn’t, when Madison starts wondering where she lives and where her parents are and why she can’t seem to remember anything before showing up in school and being programmed to be a perfect friend for Dany. Well, eventually Gudsnuk realizes that she has to do something with the Prince Neptune story, the Madison story, the standard-middle-school story, and a few other stories that drop in for a visit along the way. So she creates a great big honking “Solar Sisters” sort of battle in which she draws all sorts of weapons and such for various classmates and, at the same time, she convinces Madison that she is really real because, gosh, she just is, you know? Well, none of Making Friends makes much sense (although the title is certainly appropriate). But the book is fun to read and the various premises, even though they fit together awkwardly, are individually enjoyable and sometimes out-and-out fun. Readers who enjoy the book will indeed be likely to seek out Gudsnuk’s work online, where she spends most of her time.
The first Wild Rescuers novel is even more clearly an also-ran, being no match for the YouTube series Dogcraft, to which “Stacy Plays” devotes most of her time. Dogcraft is a spinoff of Minecraft, featuring Stacy as a girl raised by wolves who now runs with the wolf pack and works with its members to protect the forest and its dwellers. Wild Rescuers is about – well, it is about a girl named Stacy who was raised by wolves and now runs with the wolf pack and protects the forest and those who live in it. This actually goes beyond tie-in: the book is an extension of what happens online, an adventure between covers rather than an adventure on a YouTube channel, but essentially the same type of adventure featuring the same characters. The six Arctic gray wolves with which Stacy roams – Basil, Everest, Noah, Wink, Addison, and Tucker – have powers and personalities all their own and are well-differentiated, in fact more interesting and often more thoughtful than Stacy-in-the-book herself. The adventures here are piled one upon the other again and again. For instance, it is not enough for Stacy and the wolves to rescue a little dog (Stacy “had never seen a dog in real life,” but only in pictures in books, which, yes, Stacy has) – they have to do so after the dog “stood her ground against the wild wolf pack and [jumped] over the magma to safety.” Indeed, there is another wolf pack in the area, and it is larger than Stacy’s and a potential threat; and indeed, there is magma just underground; and there are all sorts of adventures to be had in just about every direction. Guardians of the Taiga is an enjoyable novel that is deeply indebted to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, whether or not the author is familiar with Kipling’s stories. The story of Stacy and the wolves is nicely illustrated in an attractively homey style by Vivienne To. The full-page pictures are the best, creating a distinct family sense for Stacy and the wolf pack. But of course relationships with humans have to become part of the story, and they are inevitably less interesting than Stacy’s interactions with the wolves – and with the dog, which Stacy names Page: “I think she believes she’s a wolf,” Stacy tells Everest, the pack leader, and in any case Page fits into the group nearly seamlessly. The book includes tidbits of factual material: “Fawns are born with no scent – nothing a potential predator on the hunt could pick up.” And this helps give the story a level of verisimilitude that it cannot have from its premise alone. Guardians of the Taiga ends, inevitably, with a cliffhanger, after Stacy’s pack saves what it can of the larger, inimical pack from a fire. Then Stacy – who is pretty well-educated for a wild child, a mystery whose solution is hinted at early in the book when it turns out she ended up with the wolves after some sort of dimly remembered accident – finds herself aboard a helicopter that she cannot understand, thinking thoughts, maybe, of her…parents, of all things. What it all means will be revealed in the next book – or preteen readers, the book’s target audience, may prefer to head right for the Dogcraft YouTube channel, where adventures much like this one are available anytime.