December 06, 2018
(++++) THEMES AND VARIATIONS
The Prince Problem. By Vivian Vande Velde. Scholastic. $16.99.
Bird & Squirrel #5: All Tangled Up. By James Burks. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Some authors hit their stride and never leave it – or need to leave it. They find something they do well and, by virtue of doing it slightly differently time and time again, create an ongoing (and sometimes nearly unending) series of books that can capture readers at any point and keep them interested and entertained. Vivian Vande Velde manages to do this without actually producing “sequence” books. She simply returns, time and again, to fairy-tale tropes, twisting them just enough to keep them amusing and interesting for young readers while retaining enough of their original structure to imply (rather than state) that the background of all her books is essentially the same. This is all formulaic in a sense, but it does not feel formulaic, because Vande Velde rings just enough changes on the modified-fairy-tale formula each time to keep things both light and interesting. Vande Velde’s latest version of this approach, The Prince Problem, is frothy and fun and silly and overdone and thoroughly enjoyable, which is a pretty good set of adjectives to describe her work in general. The title is very slightly misleading, since there are actually two “prince problems” here, although if read as “the problem involving the ‘prince’ issue in general,” the title makes perfect sense. The primary prince here is named Telmund and is the typical youngest-son-with-great-potential – or wishes he could be. Unfortunately, he is merely the fourth of fifth children of the local king and queen, who inconveniently had a fifth child seven years after Telmund’s birth – leaving Telmund, at age 13, as little more than a glorified babysitter, unceasingly reading fairy tales in the hope of someday finding a way to be heroic. The princess here – of course there is one in a nearby kingdom – is intelligent, studious, determined Amelia, whose naïve fairy-tale-like parents very much want her to select a prince, any prince, to whom she can be betrothed, to protect their kingdom from being allied against their will with the odious Prince Sheridan, who covets their land because every Vande Velde story needs a dyed-in-the-wool bad guy. So Sheridan is one “prince problem” and Telmund, it turns out, is another, because while babysitting youngest brother Wilmar, who is making a major mess of the peasants’ and tradespeople’s goods at an open-air market, Telmund attracts the unwanted attention of a nearby witch. She thinks he is bullying Wilmar and decides to teach him a lesson. Knowing how such things go and unable to dissuade her, Telmund begs not to become a frog, so the witch gets clever (that is, Vande Velde gets clever) and Telmund is bespelled to become a different animal every other time he falls asleep. Thus, he sleeps and becomes a rat; sleeps and becomes himself; sleeps and becomes a rabbit; and so on. This is the sort of clever twist on fairy tales that makes Vande Velde’s books fun despite their underlying familiarity of plot. Will Amelia escape the depredations of Prince Sheridan? Will Telmund find a way to be the hero he wants to be, or at least a hero of some sort, and eventually throw off the transformation spell? Of course, the answer to both questions is “yes,” but the way Vande Velde merges the characters’ stories is what makes for the enjoyment here, along with wondering what sort of animal Telmund will change into next time. The humor can even be sly, as when Telmund awakens with feathers and thinks things are not so bad, since he can fly and explore things and help Amelia, who by this point he has decided to rescue after Prince Sheridan has her kidnapped – only to discover that he is a mere rooster and can barely get off the ground. The inevitable happy ending and friendship of Telmund and Amelia – which may grow into something more, even though she is two years older than he – detracts not a whit from the pleasure of watching that friendship develop despite numerous stumbles and pitfalls.
James Burks takes a more-standard approach to creating variations on a theme in his Bird & Squirrel graphic novels: the books form an actual sequence rather than standing on their own. Of course, it is quite possible to read them independently, but anyone who does will miss out on some of the back story that is taken for granted in each new volume. The fifth of the books, Bird & Squirrel All Tangled Up, makes the characters’ personalities clear at the start, with happy-go-lucky Bird flying in loops while cautious and nervous Squirrel is having nightmares about protecting his daughter, Birdie (whose mom, Red, has gone off to help Grandmole; how Squirrel and Red got together is part of the back story that readers can only get if they read the previous book, On Fire). Squirrel is such a stick-in-the-mud that Birdie pleads to go with Red instead of staying home and being bored. But of course when Bird comes to visit, things get more interesting: Bird says it is a good day to go hunting Bigfeet (not “Bigfoot,” because “they have two feet, not one,” as Bird explains). Squirrel points out that Bigfeet do not exist, but is eventually roped into going along on the outing that Bird and Birdie want so much. The adventures here are generally quite mild – this is a graphic novel for readers just old enough to be interested in graphic novels – as Squirrel gradually loosens up and starts to enjoy things. Then, of course, something goes wrong, through an encounter with a gigantic spider – and it is Squirrel, with Birdie’s help, who saves the day after Bird’s adventurous nature leads to more problems than solutions. Birdie, after at one point saying she would rather have Bird as a dad than Squirrel, comes around to realizing that Squirrel is a better father. “I’m much better at being the fun uncle,” Bird says, accurately. And Squirrel tells Birdie, “I wasn’t doing you any favors by trying to protect you from everything.” Lessons learned and fun experienced, the three characters head back to Squirrel’s home for the return of Red and a cameo appearance by, yes, Bigfeet (or Bigfoot). The family-focused themes and the importance of balancing caution and adventure appear in all the Bird & Squirrel books, with Burks varying them enough to keep things interesting even while building each of the graphic novels on the same foundation of personality contrast between Bird and Squirrel. It is a formula, yes, but a winning one, with just enough variety to keep all the books enjoyable.