Skip School, Fly to Space: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The Berenstain Bears: When I Grow Up. By Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $3.99.
The Berenstain Bears Are SuperBears! By Mike Berenstain. Harper. $16.99.
There are many ways to try to get kids interested in books and their special method of communicating in our video-saturated age, and plenty of different approaches to take – depending on what authors and publishers want to communicate. Most of the material in Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine comic strip exists for purely comedic purposes, and much of the strip is dark, sarcastic and very much of the adult world (with smoking, beer drinking and other behaviors that no one wants to encourage in kids). This makes the inclusion of Pastis’ material in Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Comics for Kids series rather problematic – but doggone it, a lot of what Pastis creates really is funny, and just wry enough to amuse kids and maybe help them see the world around them a bit differently from the way they did before they encountered Pig, Rat, Goat, the always inept crocodiles, and Pastis’ other poorly drawn but immediately recognizable characters. Hence we have Skip School, Fly to Space, whose title is taken from the very last strip in the book – one of the more thought-provoking ones Pastis has produced. In it, the ever-playful and ever-optimistic Pig invites neighbor boy Willy into a cardboard box “to fly to Mars,” but Willy explains that he cannot play, because he has to study to do super-well in school to get into a super-good college to work super-hard for a super-long time and make a super-large amount of money so he can have a super-comfortable retirement for “maybe…a couple years left before I die.” Then there is a wordless panel, with Pig and Willy considering the implications of what Willy has laid out for life, and the final (also wordless) panel has the two of them heading off in the cardboard “Rockitt Ship.” Clearly this is not a suggestion that kids should skip school – it is Pastis’ way of sneaking some perspective on life into a strip that often seems to lack it. And it is well-placed at the end of the book, since young readers by then will have absorbed a lot of other Pastis material, such as the sad tale of “Kiko, the lonely cactus,” whose spines prevent anyone from giving him the hugs he wants; Rat’s erection of a “cool fence” for himself and a much smaller “uncool fence” for Pig; croc dad Larry’s suggestion that his son could dissect a frog for class much more quickly by using a blender; Pig’s creation of an “Internet happy box” that escapes online meanness because it is “not hooked up to anything and you can’t communicate with anyone and it’s dark”; the hapless crocs’ attempt to create their own Fantastic Four, even though there are only three of them, and (in a separate sequence) the crocs’ attack on the all-knowing force known as “Da Google”; and much more. There are a few misfirings in this collection, such as a strip in which “J. Rutherford Shrimp” wants Pig and Goat to sign a petition giving shrimp their rights, including the right not to be eaten simply because they are tasty – at which point Pig eats him (which is out of character: it is something Rat would do, but does not really fit Pig’s personality). By and large, though, this selection of Pearls Before Swine strips is both funny and occasionally insightful, and manages to convey the overall spirit of Pastis’ work without including any of its beer-and-smoking elements and not even having very much death in it – quite an accomplishment, since Pastis is noted for killing off characters as casually as he disposes of J. Rutherford Shrimp.
There is nothing remotely like the sensibilities of Pearls Before Swine in the long-running Berenstain Bears sequence, which has been around for more than half a century and is now handled by Mike Berenstain. The humor in Berenstain Bears books is always gentle if it is present at all, and the books’ avowed purpose is to teach, inform and instruct as well as entertain. Unfortunately, they tend to become preachy and to overdo some of the instructional elements, and Mike Berenstain is even more prone to these flaws than were Stan and Jan Berenstain, who started the series – not that the creators of this family of bears would consider the preachiness a problem. The pluses and minuses of the Berenstain Bears books are equally apparent in two new (+++) entries, When I Grow Up and The Berenstain Bears Are SuperBears! The first of these simply has Brother and Sister Bear riding around with Professor Actual Factual and his nephew, Ferdy, to see all the jobs available in Bear Country. Things are, however, laid on a touch too thickly, as usual. For instance, the professor offers to give Brother and Sister a ride, then says they “can use my cell phone to ask your mama and papa” – which, all right, is a small manners lesson and perhaps especially useful in our can’t-be-too-careful age. But then, on the very next page, the professor calls Mama and Papa a second time about taking a little longer with Brother and Sister so he can show them various jobs – and that really is overdoing the “phone home” safety angle. Also overdone are the job portrayals themselves – not because they are simplified, which is inevitable in a short picture book, but because virtually everyone doing virtually every job is smiling all the time, even including almost all the firefighters and paramedics battling a blaze and doing rescues. Construction workers smile; farmers smile; doctors smile; painters, mechanics, road crews – everyone smiles. And then comes the final suggestion: that doing “the job of a parent…may be about the most important job there is!” All right, yes, fine, this is good to know and good to say – but it is all just a bit overstated and overemphasized, as is often the case in Berenstain Bears books.
Things are slightly different in The Berenstain Bears Are SuperBears! That is because this is an entry in the “I Can Read!” series – specifically a Level 1 book, featuring “simple sentences for eager new readers.” So there is less overt preachiness here, although some lesson-learning is certainly implied. The setup is that Brother likes to pretend to be Bat Bear and Sister pretends to be Spider Bear; little Honey is their sidekick, Cubby Bear. The three pretend that the adults they see doing everyday things are baddies who need to be stopped: the mail carrier is “Dr. Sleezo,” the trash collectors are evil Space Grizzlies, someone repairing power lines is “the mad villain Joker Bear,” and so on. Every “bad guy” accepts what the young bears say, plays along, and even talks like a stereotypical villain: “Curses. Foiled again!” Then the “SuperBears” encounter a more-mundane matter when a neighbor cub falls while riding a bike and hurts his knee. Brother, Sister and Honey help get him home and patched up, the cub’s mom says they really are super, and of course everything ends happily, the lesson being that “super-ness” begins at home and in small, everyday ways. That is actually not a bad thing to learn, even if it is told here in a somewhat overdone manner – but overdoing in the name of teaching goodness is integral to a lot of the reaching-out of the Berenstain Bears books .