December 11, 2014


Big Bad Detective Agency. By Bruce Hale. Scholastic. $4.99.

What if You Had Animal Feet!? By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.

Batman: The Penguin’s Arctic Adventure. By Donald Lemke. Illustrated by Jeremy Roberts. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Batman: Winter Wasteland. By Donald Lemke. Pictures by Steven E. Gordon. Colors by Eric A. Gordon. Harper. $3.99.

     Bruce Hale has a thing about weird detectives, and so will anyone who stumbles upon Big Bad Detective Agency, which features Wolfgang the misunderstood and unfairly accused wolf and his enthusiastic helper, Ferkel the tiny pig, both of whom are on the trail of housebreakers in the kingdom of Fairylandia, which is ruled by a prince rather than a king for reasons best known to the rather choleric prince himself. Anyway, fans of Hale’s Chet Gecko series (Chet is the fourth-grade lizard detective at Emerson Hicky Elementary School) will welcome this new take on the detecting biz, which lacks some of Chet’s wisecracks and nemeses but makes up for it by standing the whole Three Little Pigs fairy-tale concept on its head (the little pigs here are hugely oversized porkers, and nasty ones, to boot). Big Bad Detective Agency features chapters “in which nobody is turned into a newt,” “in which the world’s ugliest granny comes to call,” and in which there are guest appearances by Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and other favorites from, well, Fairylandia, where “giants accidentally stepped on houses, and you couldn’t get insurance to cover the damage. And don’t even get me started on the magic goose poop.” Hale’s typically skewed sense of humor is hard at work (or hard at play) here, with Wolfgang getting increasingly desperate to prove that he was not the one who trashed the pigs’ houses and should not therefore be thrown into a dungeon forevermore and fed, yuck, porridge. The twists and turns through which Wolfgang and his porky helper go in order to pursue and eventually track down the culprit are amusing in Hale’s typically ridiculous way, and the eventual solution – with everyone living more or less happily more or less after – is both satisfying and the recipe for a sequel. Which readers will no doubt eagerly await.

     Animals take on a different role, and for that matter so does fantasy, in a rather odd fact-based book called What if You Had Animal Feet!? Here, Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam present things that make various animals’ feet special, then show cartoon kids with those feet doing things that they could do if they actually had those feet, which of course they don’t. A housefly’s feet have tiny claws for gripping, for example, so the fly can stick anywhere, even upside down – and a basketball-playing kid with fly feet “could run up the wall and across the ceiling to drop the ball through the hoop.” A green basilisk lizard’s back feet “have long toes fringed with skin,” which spreads out when the lizard slaps its foot on water – allowing the lizard to run on top of the water for at least 15 feet; so a kid with these feet “wouldn’t need a bridge to cross a stream.” A duck-billed platypus has feet with skin connecting the toes, which are “perfect swimming flippers,” plus (in the males) back feet with spur-like nails that can inject venom, so a kid with those feet would be “a fast-swimming superhero with a built-in weapon.” There are 11 creatures’ feet discussed in all – including, among  others, those of the aardvark, cheetah, and giant African millipede – and then matters get serious (and, to tell the truth, less interesting) with a discussion of human feet and how kids can take good care of them. Well, there probably had to be some sort of educational orientation here, beyond the descriptive material about animals and their appendages, and the concluding “keep your feet healthy” section is harmless enough and actually contains reasonable advice. The real attraction of the book, though, lies in the fanciful notion of kids with decidedly non-human feet – and in drawings that manage to make the use of such feet look like a tremendous amount of fun.

     The fun is more limited in two new (+++) books featuring the redoubtable comic-book superhero, Batman, who is nowadays shown with a craggier and generally angrier look than he used to have as he battles villains who seem far more incompetent than they really ought to be. Kids who are fans of the modern incarnation of Batman will briefly enjoy these books, which are super-simply written and instantly forgettable once read. The Penguin’s Arctic Adventure involves disappearing businessmen, courtesy of the human Penguin, who hatches a nefarious scheme (of course) that draws in both Batman and his equally craggy sidekick, Robin (whose mask appears to stay put by magic and who seems to have no eyeballs). The slight story pits B&R against “the evil sorceress Circe,” who really does do magic – which is countered when Batman gets some help from Zatanna, who is able to rescue the Dynamic Duo but cannot figure out what to do next (a rather sexist story twist, if anyone happens to notice), so she has to follow the guys’ lead. Winter Wasteland is a Level 2 book in the “I Can Read!” series (this level consists of “high-interest stories for developing readers”), and it includes not only Batman (without Robin) but also the Flash and Wonder Woman. The three team up to stop “a group of frosty felons” called the Ice Pack. The baddies, Captain Cold, Mr. Freeze, and Killer Frost, are using weapons to make everything, like, really cold and frozen, for no apparent reason other than mischief-making – but hey, after all, they are baddies, so the goodies get together and stop them. These Batman-based books are very thinly plotted and clearly intended only as very quick reads requiring little attention and no real involvement with the characters. As fantasies, they fall short, but for providing a modicum of short-term excitement to existing Batman fans, they do have a niche to fill.

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