December 02, 2010


Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $17.99.

Big Nate Strikes Again. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $12.99.

Justin Bieber—First Step 2 Forever: My Story. Photos by Robert Caplin. Harper. $21.99.

     Plot? Why? In some books – for many different age groups – the fun is in spending time with the characters. What those characters are doing is secondary. The Fancy Nancy books are a perfect example. It does not much matter what Jane O’Connor’s delightful character – endearingly drawn by Robin Preiss Glasser – is up to. All the books involve Fancy Nancy simply being herself, which means she is spectacularly overdressed (but in an adorable way that she always manages to carry off); that she likes to use big words and French words and then explain them to her readers (girls ages 4-7); and that whatever problems she runs into will be mild, and the solutions will guarantee a happy ending. The whole series is, on the level of plot, entirely formulaic, but it is so laden with charm (and lots of glitter on the book covers) that its easy-to-figure-out plots don’t matter at all. Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique gives FN (always prancing, usually on tiptoes) a chance to show herself as a wonderful big sister to JoJo, who is about to have a birthday. First she sensitively picks out a pirate-oriented gift, since that is what JoJo wants. Then, seeking to make money to buy something for herself – a fancy fan – FN creates her own boutique (“that’s French for fancy store”). She sells dress-up things that she no longer wants to her friends – but runs into an unexpected problem when JoJo decides that she wants a particular necklace that FN has already agreed to sell. So FN manages to buy it back, include it as a birthday gift with the pirate gear, and get her fancy fan after all as a “big sister gift” from her parents. It is all so warmhearted and adorable that it could easily be overly sweet, but Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique is saved from that fate by the sheer delightfulness of the title character’s poses (she is always posing) and the enthusiasm with which FN does everything. Fancy Nancy is simply one of the most adorable characters anywhere, no matter what she happens to be doing.

     It would be a stretch to call sixth-grader Big Nate adorable, but he too is a character who is…well, a real character. Lincoln Peirce’s comic strip is nicely complemented by the Big Nate sort-of-graphic-novels that he is now producing. What Nate will do, in newspapers and books alike, is pretty clear: rush into things headlong with supreme and unjustified self-confidence, make all sorts of messes (literal and figurative), and come out just fine in the end. The fun is in watching all that happen. And “watching” is the operative word here. Big Nate Strikes Again is not exactly a graphic novel, since it contains illustrated text as well as sections told entirely in comic-strip form. But it is the drawings, sometimes of Nate’s exploits and sometimes drawn “by” Nate himself, that keep the story moving and make it so much fun for boys of more or less Nate’s age (the target age range is 8-12). The books allow Peirce to rummage through multiple plot lines in a set space and tie everything into a neat package at the end. In Big Nate Strikes Again, we start with a bulletin board of baby pictures on which Nate is sure he can identify the photo of his crush, Jenny – only to find out that it is a picture of his enemy, super-smart and super-dedicated Gina. By the end of the book, Nate has saved Gina’s perfect grade-point average and Gina has saved Nate’s team in a sports event called “fleeceball” that means a lot to Nate and nothing to Gina herself. Between beginning and end are encounters with all the usual suspects in Nate’s world: science teacher Mr. Galvin, the Coach, Nate’s father and sister, the lucky and always-liked Artur (whom Nate isn’t sure he can stand even though he does sort of like him), and many more. School bully Randy is here, too, and librarian Mrs. Hickson, and Principal Nichols, and of course Nate’s teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey – whose assignment of a report on Benjamin Franklin is the major plot mover, since Nate and Gina end up as unwilling partners. The book is filled with clever lists and drawings “by” Nate (“approved school yard activities,” “worst potential project partners,” “the no-snack zone” of unappetizing food that Nate’s dad keeps in the house, and so on). And the plot twists and turns are clever, too. It’s just plain fun to spend time with Nate, whatever he is doing.

     Justin Bieber fans will surely swoon unceasingly over the ghostwritten, nicely photographed “autobiography” of the 16-year-old Canadian singer who was discovered all of two years ago and, in an age when even 15 minutes of fame seems like a lot, has apparently now taken his First Step 2 Forever. This is one of those books that it is impossible to rate on a scale of (+) to (++++), because fans will give it (++++++) and non-fans will give it zero. Certainly it is the most crassly commercial attempt imaginable to cash in on a young star’s career while it is still new; and certainly Bieber’s fans won’t care in the least, because the book is packed with photos and anecdotes and carefully chosen behind-the-scenes information and homey comments such as, “Mom and I boarded our first ever airplane flight in the fall of 2007.” There is an inherent absurdity in creating a biography of someone who is not, by any stretch of the imagination, even an adult yet; but in an age of instantaneous stardom, instantaneous transmission of music and information and videos worldwide, and instant opinions (which must be right!), there is nothing really surprising about the creation of something seemingly permanent about an entertainer whose eventual steps anywhere in the direction of “forever” must charitably be described as very, very small indeed. This Justin Bieber sort-of biography – wrapped in, quite unsurprisingly, a poster of Bieber, suitable for framing, oohing and aahing – makes complete sense in our modern media age. It is even marked “100% Official” right on the cover!!! Fans had better get it quickly, before the entertainment world – and the fans themselves – move on to someone else who is taking a whole different set of steps “2 forever.”

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