July 29, 2010


Little Rabbit and the Meanest Mother on Earth. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Harcourt. $17.

The Gecko & Sticky 4: The Power Potion. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. Knopf. $12.99.

Melonhead 2: Melonhead and the Big Stink. By Katy Kelly. Illustrated by Gillian Johnson. Delacorte Press. $14.99.

50% Wool, 50% Asinine: An “Argyle Sweater” Collection. By Scott Hilburn. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     “Little things amuse little minds,” the old saying goes. But little things also amuse bigger, or at least older, minds, and the little things in all these far-from-profound books are designed to amuse minds of many different ages. The best of the books is for the youngest readers: the Klise sisters, who have a fine sense of the absurd in everything they create together, make Little Rabbit and the Meanest Mother on Earth a wonderful encapsulation of young children’s feelings about their “awful” parents, who insist on torturing children by making them do such terrible tasks as cleaning up their rooms. That is the point of contention here: Little Rabbit cannot go to the circus unless he cleans up his super-messy playroom, but he just can’t bring himself to do it, and his mother insists, so she is clearly the meanest mother on the planet. And if she is, Little Rabbit realizes, then she is worthy of being a circus attraction itself. So Little Rabbit goes to the circus and offers to bring his mother later in the day as an attraction, successfully selling tickets in advance as he tells the other animals, “She has two heads. And green teeth! …Why, if you just look at her the wrong way, she’ll chop off your tail and eat it – in one bite.” The exaggerations certainly sell tickets, but what happens when Little Rabbit blindfolds his mother and leads her to the circus, past posters of a two-headed apron-wearing bunny and a mean, green-toothed monster mother rabbit? Well, of course all the animals realize that Little Rabbit’s mother is not at all what he has told them – but before the crowd gets too unruly, it is Mother Rabbit herself who figures out something really scary to show the audience. She not only saves the day but also ends up with a clean playroom, thanks to some wonderful sleight of hand that will have parents and children alike wishing for a little of Mother Rabbit’s magic in their lives.

     The absurdity is on a different level, but not necessarily a loftier one, in the two series entries for ages 8-12, The Gecko & Sticky 4: The Power Potion and Melonhead and the Big Stink. Both these books, which get (+++) ratings, have a thing (or several things) about smells. Wendelin Van Draanen revisits Dave Sanchez and his lizard sidekick, Sticky, as Dave is delivering a package to the evil Damien Black, his nemesis from previous books. Dave just can’t resist opening the package to find out what terrible thing it contains, and that leads to a series of misadventures that closely parallel the earlier ones in this series (although the hyper-powered six-horned goat is new). A high point, perhaps, is the Stephen Gilpin picture showing the evil Damien perched on a toilet, after more than a page of verbal description of what is happening to him. Damien uses a potion that is not what he thinks it is, and “it acts, by and large, as a laxative. It loosens your stools. Gurgles your guts. And (let’s just be frank, shall we?) makes you go poo-poos. And so it was that Damien Black wound up trading his gargoyle throne in the great room for a porcelain one in the bathroom.” Okay, okay, got it, and undoubtedly this will be hilarious to some young readers; but it is disappointing to find Van Draanen (who in that past has been better than this) wallowing in this sort of thing – which she does not confine to Damien, either. Oh no, she also includes a scene in which the Bandito Brothers, “smaller and rattier” Pablo and “hairy-armed Angelo,” are running around a forest screaming “I NEED A POTTY!” and “I’ve got dibs on the potty!” and “I’ve really got to GO!” There’s a plot, too, but it tends to get a bit buried under…well, under everything that Van Draanen is flinging.

     The new Melonhead book puts the words “the big stink” right in the title, but it’s not that kind of stink – it’s worse. The title refers to the infamous odor of the titan arum plant, which blooms once every seven years with a blossom that smells like rotting dead animals. Melonhead (real name: Adam Melon) is determined to get to New York City to see the plant in bloom, but he keeps detouring himself – starting when he ruins one of neighbor Mrs. Wilkins’ favorite garden plants and his mother insists he do chores for her to make up for the accident. Katy Kelly’s book is action-packed and includes a genuinely touching moment or two when Melonhead realizes that there is more to Mrs. Wilkins than he ever thought. But a lot of what goes on is odor-focused. Notably, Melonhead decides that a good-deed list should be called “the Boys’ Improvement Guide for Acting Responsible Till Stink Sunday” – that is, BIG FARTSS, and “the second s is silent,” Melonhead adds. Between this name and the ongoing focus on awful smells, Kelly’s book stinks – that is, it intends to stink, and there is even a vomiting episode thrown in for good measure. Gillian Johnson’s illustrations are a little too sweet-natured for all the smelliness, which in this case is a good thing.

     The kids who fail to outgrow smell-oriented preteen books may be a natural audience for the Argyle Sweater single-panel comic, which includes “Lifethstyleths of the Thspitting Cobra Thithsterths” as they hurl spit-filled insults into each other’s face, and two observers finding out that a leprechaun’s “Pot o’ Gold” is a golden toilet in an outhouse. Scott Hilburn’s humor ranges from the extremely silly to the overly abstruse. A covered wagon is pulled by two horses with pine-scented deodorizers hanging from their rears. An exhausted stork from the Vlasic plant leaves an unhappy surprise for a young couple – readers must know that Vlasic uses a cartoon stork in its pickle ads to get the joke. A butterfly is arrested during a date with an under-age girl – that is, a caterpillar. Mobsters demanding answers are going to “rearrange his face” – “he” being Mr. Potato Head. An irritated traveler at airport screening is stuck behind Iron Man. A hunter is stopped for shooting Care Bears (you have to know who they are to get it), but is not arrested, because his license is in order and they are in season. A new model of Cinderella’s pumpkin coach comes with “front- and side-impact air gourds.” A pirate boss tells a complaining female employee, “I checked with Accounting and there’s no missin’ treasure, so I’m not sure what ye mean when ye say the scoundrel touched yar booty.” Two “insurance giants do battle, ironically costing their own companies billions of dollars in claims” – for which you have to recognize the GEICO gecko and Aflac duck. The Argyle Sweater can be hilarious, but Hilburn often overreaches in his search for a laugh and overdoes the references to fairy tales, ad campaigns and popular culture. His new collection gets a (+++) rating – it is often very funny, but equally often comes across as if he is simply trying too hard for absurdity and cleverness.

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