October 06, 2011


Big Nate 3: Big Nate on a Roll. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $12.99.

The Girls’ Book of Secrets. By Ellen Bailey. Illustrated by Nellie Ryan. Scholastic. $7.99.

     Nate Wright is up to more of the same shenanigans in Big Nate on a Roll, which is just as entertaining a comic-strip-driven ride as its predecessors, In a Class by Himself and Big Nate Strikes Again. All these books are based on the Big Nate comic strip by Lincoln Peirce (whose name is not a misspelling of “Pierce” – it is pronounced “purse”). But unlike straightforward comic-strip collections – Peirce has produced some of those as well – these books are middle-school graphic novels filled with illustrations from the strip and others created especially for the books themselves. Many of the illustrations are about Nate and his world; others are by Nate, since he is himself a budding cartoonist (as Peirce says he really was in sixth grade). The “Nate-created” art appears on the front and back inside covers of the book (“Trivia Trove,” “Gnome Name Game” and so on), and from time to time within the narrative (“Dr. Cesspool,” “Hike to Nowhere,” “Ultra-Nate”). All the characters in 12-year-old Nate’s world show up in Big Nate on a Roll: friends Francis and Teddy, crush Jenny, super-smart Gina, teachers from Miss Godfrey to Mr. Ortiz, Nate’s dad, school bully Chester, and – in particular – Artur. The plot of the book revolves around Nate’s jealousy of Artur and competitiveness with him: Nate admits that Artur is friendly, helpful, hard-working, respectful and more, and all that, in Nate’s book, adds up to “sickening.” Artur succeeds at everything (including becoming Jenny’s boyfriend), and Nate is determined that, at least once, he will defeat “Mr. Perfect.” He will do so by selling more fundraising items for the Timber Scout troop to which both he and Artur belong – thereby getting himself a new skateboard, which he needs because his old one ended up in the creek after a bizarre dog-walking incident. A personalized skateboard is the top prize in the troop’s fundraiser, so Nate has two reasons to win: the prize and besting Artur. The comic complications are scarcely surprising, especially for those who already know Nate’s style and his frequent miscalculations and mishaps. But Peirce works through the intertwined themes skillfully and amusingly, and because there is underlying good humor throughout the story – Nate is too full of himself, but is scarcely a bad kid – the eventual working-out of the plot satisfies all the characters, and will make real-world sixth-graders (and other middle-school students) as happy as it makes Nate and his friends.

     Nate’s stories, although intended for all middle-schoolers, will likely be more fun for boys than girls, but The Girls’ Book of Secrets is for girls only. The pictures that count here are not so much the rather ordinary ones already in the book as the ones that readers create on their own. This is one of those get-to-know-yourself-better books, encouraging girls to test themselves (“What’s Your Style?” and “Personal Profiler,” for instance), make lists (“Best Books of All Time,” “Sweet Dreams”), and create doodles, invent fortune-cookie fortunes, draw or write about your favorite things in each season of the year, get four friends to draw pictures of you, and more. This is not an especially inventive book, but it gets a (+++) rating for having at least a few out-of-the-ordinary things to think about. For example, girls must choose whether they would rather have no eyebrows or have eyebrows that meet in the middle…and whether they would rather never wash their hair again – or never wash their pants again. One question asks, “What is the most important news event that has happened in your lifetime?” There is a horoscope section – but it is based on ancient Egyptian gods. A section called “All in a Night’s Sleep” asks whether you sleep like Sleeping Beauty or wake up in a bed that looks as if you fought a monster in it. Nothing in The Girls’ Book of Secrets is difficult to answer, but the book does have fun with its premise from time to time, and that makes it more interesting. For example, on a page about travel, girls are supposed to check off boxes if they have ever been on a ferry, cable car, helicopter, train, plane, boat – or unicycle. As lighthearted fun that can be enjoyable to share with friends, the book makes a pleasant diversion as long as middle-school girls don’t take too much of it too seriously.

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