October 03, 2019
(++++) CHARACTERS WITH CHARACTER
Big Nate: Hug It Out! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
A Mustache Baby Christmas. By Bridget Heos. Illustrations by Joy Ang. Clarion. $17.99.
One thing that makes books fun for older and younger readers alike is the recognizability and distinctiveness of recurring characters – who have different adventures in each volume of a series, but remain within their well-honed personalities at all times. Readers of the long-running Big Nate comic strip and the books that collect it are quite familiar with Nate, the self-involved and self-important preteen with “hair resembling a tangled mass of jet-black seaweed” (so described, accurately, by another character in the strip); Nate’s wisecracking and tolerant best friends, Francis and Teddy; Nate’s feckless father, Mr. Wright; Nate’s in-school nemeses, Gina (fellow student) and Mrs. Godfrey (teacher); and so on. All these characters appear, inevitably, in the latest Big Nate collection, Hug It Out! And so do less-often-seen characters who nevertheless have distinctive looks and personalities: the never-named School Picture Guy, who perpetually wears a Band-Aid at the edge of his thinning hair and is seen doing odd (very odd) jobs ranging from radio DJ to balloon-sculpture maker; sadistic Coach John, whose obsession with making Nate and friends do wind sprints extends to the beach in summer and who at one point says he knows all the new and more-humane approaches to coaching and rejects all of them; cross-eyed, cat-loving, perpetually Elizabethan-collar-wearing dog Spitsy; and others. What Peirce has done so well for more than a quarter of a century is to weave these characters into, out of and around plots that always include Nate but that effectively showcase the many others in Nate’s world as well. In this collection, Vern and Marge, Nate’s grandparents, turn up as chaperones in a sequence about a school trip to an art museum – complete with misinterpretations of paintings and a search for Junior Mints at the gift shop. Principal Nichols outthinks Nate after Nate slips in the hall and threatens legal action – although Nate, as always, has a comeback: he charges other students a dollar each to visit “the site of the near-tragedy.” Plump, sweet and adorable Chad proves, as usual, unwittingly attractive to girls, who cannot resist his unforced niceness – and Chad is also featured in a story in which he goes to “fat camp,” returns looking substantially thinner, then regains his usual body shape immediately after taking a single bite of Nate’s brownie. Longtime readers of Big Nate will notice not only the expected character interactions but also an inexplicable oddity in Hug It Out! Nate is 11 or 12 years old (both ages have been referred to in the strip at different times); and he is always a sixth-grader – that is the foundational premise of the whole strip. So how does it happen that he and his friends go through an entire summer in this book, return to school, and start asking about what is going to happen in sixth grade? That would mean they were fifth-graders before the summer, but they were not. Nate and friends appear to be locked into a perpetual repeat of sixth grade – a matter to which Peirce here draws unintentional attention, and one that creates ongoing angst for Nate and a whole slew of other characters. However this happens, though, it also creates ongoing amusement for anyone reading Big Nate – and that, of course, is what Peirce aims to do.
The Mustache Baby picture books by Bridget Heos and Joy Ang are aimed at younger readers, but here too familiar characterization in new settings is the basis of the enjoyment the books produce. A Mustache Baby Christmas is obviously a seasonal entry, but what makes it fun is the way Heos and Ang rearrange their underlying idea to accommodate all the ho-ho-ho associated with the season. They open by showing Baby Billy, who was born with a mustache, standing side-by-side with Baby Javier, who was born with a beard – and then they have Baby Javier’s beard turn white and fluffy, changing him into Santa Baby just in time for Christmas. Santa Baby is seen doing all sorts of Santa-ish things, from asking other babies what they want for Christmas to sampling the treats being made in the kitchen: “It was his duty to test each and every one.” But then Santa Baby realizes he has not yet made toys for the other babies! To the rescue comes Baby Billy, dressed as an elf and ready to handle toy-making. But – uh-oh – Baby Billy, now called Elf Baby, likes the toys he makes so much that he decides to keep them all for himself. That is a bad impulse that leads to a transformation seen in other Mustache Baby books: Elf Baby develops a “bad guy mustache” as he turns “the winter wonderland into a winter plunder-land.” Santa Baby retaliates by putting Elf Baby on the naughty list, and matters escalate from there as Elf Baby runs away while Santa Baby gives chase in a sleigh pulled by reindeer (actually two dachshunds). Well, everything soon enough works out, friendship and facial hair appearances are suitably restored, and the real Santa Claus makes an appearance at the book’s end to engage both babies’ help and to shout, “Merry mustache to all and to all a beard white!” The whole book is thoroughly silly and thoroughly endearing, which means it fits perfectly into the Mustache Baby series, in which it is the fourth entry after Mustache Baby, Mustache Baby Meets His Match, and Arrr, Mustache Baby! By making their central characters readily recognizable and packing them with heaps of personality, Heos and Ang show again and again that all they need to do is tweak the settings and the season a bit to come up with yet another heaping helping of adorableness in which very young readers – and their parents – will delight.