September 18, 2008


Frankenstein Takes the Cake. By Adam Rex. Harcourt. $16.

Baron von Baddie and the Ice Ray Incident. By George McClements. Harcourt. $16.

Monsters on Machines. By Deb Lund. Illustrated by Robert Neubecker. Harcourt. $16.

     If you buy your family only one monster-themed, wedding-oriented book featuring bad parodies of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” it should definitely be Frankenstein Takes the Cake. And that’s selling Adam Rex’s sequel to Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich short. In reality, if you buy only one monster-themed, wedding-oriented book with or without a Poe parody in it for your family, you should buy Frankenstein Takes the Cake. How’s that? Rex’s sense of humor is so warped that it practically turns in on itself, like an M.C. Escher drawing. From the inside front cover, in which various monsters confuse you, the reader, with Frankenstein’s creation, to the back cover, on which Poe’s famed raven says there’s nothing to see but the bar code, this is a book so far out there that it’s practically back here. Wherever “here” is. It’s the story of the wedding plans of Frankenstein’s monster and his bride, the complaints of the bride’s mother (“do you know how much it cost to get you boxed, embalmed, and buried?”), an announcement from the caterer, the flower girl’s scene (and she does make a scene), the vows written by the bride, and much more. “Much more” includes some of the Headless Horseman’s blog entries, little Medusa’s new glasses, a wonderful “Peanuts” parody featuring Dracula Jr., and…well, even more. The writing rolls in marvelous cadences: “Don’t say ‘steak’ to the vampires – they won’t understand./ They’ll just look for a sharp piece of wood in your hand.” The drawings are superb: funny and scary (but not too scary) and exaggerated and hilarious – oh, there are barely enough superlatives to cover all the delights of this entirely bizarre and completely wonderful bit of weirdness. Buy it and make up your own.

     Baron von Baddie and the Ice Ray Incident is not at the same level – very few books are – but it is funny and well-wrought and even comes with a highly interesting message of a type that philosophers and comic-book lovers alike have debated for many years. George McClements’ story is about an evil genius whose clever plans are invariably foiled by his nemesis – until one day, quite by accident, Baron von Baddie catches Captain Kapow in an ice ray and the bad guy actually wins. Now triumphant, he builds a robot, changes the order of the days of the week, and eats lots of doughnuts. And does those same things again and again, until he concludes, “This is boring.” He realizes – here’s where the philosophy comes in – “What was the point of creating chaos if no one was trying to stop you?” So he frees his old enemy, who promptly captures him, and the two continue their well-oiled machinations, presumably happily ever after. The book is a romp, but there is enough underlying seriousness – how does one know good in the total absence of evil, or evil in the total absence of good? – to raise Baron von Baddie and the Ice Ray Incident to considerable heights.

     Monsters on Machines is an altogether less rarefied work – pleasant enough for a strong (+++) rating, but not at the highest levels of creativity. Still, very young children will enjoy watching a major construction job performed by monstrous-looking (but not too monstrous-looking) workers, who turn out to be very young monsters who need a midday break to eat lunch prepared by their monster mom and to take a nap. Deb Lund’s story is just monstrous enough: “The site’s almost ready. The blueprints are drawn./ It’s a Custom Prehaunted with thistles for lawn.” And Dirty Dugg, foreman (forething?) Gorbert, Stinky Stubb and three-eyed Melvina look cute enough. But the greatest fun in the book comes in Robert Neubecker’s illustrations of the foursome at work with their crushermusher, monster-vator and ghostergrader, as well as more mundane vehicles such as a crane, bulldozer and front loader. Kids who love toy construction vehicles are the natural target audience for this book – and the sight of the four little monsters eating their lunch of “monsteroni and cheese” with their hands and feet is a bonus for everyone (except perhaps for parents, who will have to prevent their own little monsters from eating their lunch the same way).

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