November 30, 2006


The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil. By Wiley Miller. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $14.99.

Dear Dumb Diary Boxed Set. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $19.96.

Our Dumb Diary, A Journal to Share. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $7.99.

     Exaggeration can be fun.  A lot of books for kids make it their main stock-in-trade – and when done well, it can lead to an enjoyable reading experience.  That’s what you get in The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil by Wiley Miller, the cartoonist who draws Non Sequitur.  Basil, a boy so ordinary that he is named after an herb, manages in 128 pages to solve the mystery of Atlantis, foil a plot to take over the world, take a ride on a pteranodon and learn about the thermablat.  Not much ordinary there, and that of course is Miller’s point: even someone who seems ordinary can have the most extraordinary adventures.  But this is not a “message” book, since the story is played for its adventure and amusement value rather than for a chance to show children that (for example) everyone is extraordinary in some way.  So far, so good.  But unlike Non Sequitur, in which these adventures originally appeared as Sunday vertical-format strips, the book seems a little flat.  Basil is not an especially appealing hero: he doesn’t smile, and he is willfully oblivious to the unusual things that already exist in his supposedly ordinary life (the fact that he and his family live in a lighthouse, for instance).  As a comic strip, this story was a delight, with crowded panels bristling with words and detailed drawings of bizarre people and locations.  In narrative form, with the pictures sprinkled traditionally on typeset pages, the whole thing pales a bit.  But it’s still fun.

     Jim Benton’s Dear Dumb Diary series is fun, too, in its own one-dimensional way.  The four books in the series to date – now available in a single convenient if oddly priced boxed set – are narratives of the middle-school angst of Jamie Kelly, who starts each book by warning parents and non-friends not to read it, then chronicles all the happenings and (mostly) mishaps of her sort-of-everyday life.  A lot of her problems revolve around Angeline, the prototypical perfect person: beautiful and rich and sweet and generous and oh-so-annoying.  By the fourth book – Never Do Anything, Ever – Jamie sees a positive side of Angeline at last.  But in the first three – Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, My Pants Are Haunted! and Am I the Princess or the Frog? – Angeline takes on more of an arch-enemy role.  Jamie also deals with friendship and boy crises, clumsiness, and her general anger (of an amusing sort) at the fact that things don’t go her way all the time.  She’s a likable character, and kids who really like her will enjoy Our Dumb Diary, A Journal to Share, which gives them a chance to relate their own lives to Jamie’s.  The spiral-bound book starts with the usual warning about who should or should not read it.  Then, instead of blank pages, it includes fill-in-the-blanks pages based on the four Dear Dumb Diary books.  Example: “Would you rather watch someone who is so perfect that the word ‘perfect’ is not perfect enough for her as she flirts with your crush, or get sent to the nurse’s office for a little lie-down time on the cot during art class?”  This journal can be more fun than most, as when it asks for a listing of the “times you’ve been the victim of gigglecide,” defined as “that thing when somebody grabs you by the shoulders and makes little stampy stomps and shakes their head around and squeals those happy, giggly, shrill sounds that make puppies pee.”  Okay, this is scarcely profound.  But it’s cute in its own way.

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