The Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York: A Yarn for the Strange at Heart. By Kory Merritt. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Heart and Brain. By Nick Seluk. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures. By Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater. Illustrations by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. $16.99.
Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two, #6: Live Each Day to the Dumbest. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.
The stories may be fun, and funny, but sometimes the illustrations are what really make a book sing. Or shriek, as the case may be. “Shriek” is closer when it comes to The Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York, an absolutely hilarious illustrated novel that feels like a graphic novel but isn’t one, quite, because it does have narrative separate from the illustrations. But without Kory Merritt’s picture-perfect picture making, the narrative would have little punch. After all, how much can one enjoy text that merely says, “What’s an eldritch abomination gotta do to get some steak sauce with its human sacrifices?” Hmm. Bad example. Well, actually, the text really is wonderful, strange and outré and peculiar and sometimes in rhyme and sometimes completely absent – hmm, then it’s not text, is it? The thing is, The Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York is hard to describe without seeing it, and wonderful to experience with seeing it, because seeing what Merritt does here is the whole point. Mr. York is a typical mild-mannered hero, a clerk at a general store; he takes what he thinks is a shortcut through a swamp, and finds himself enmeshed in some outstandingly strange adventures. Speaking to a toad is the least of them: “Lost a few hours and already he was talking to amphibians,” he thinks. On the whole, it turns out that he would have been better off sticking with ectotherms. Soon Mr. York encounters three others seeking nighttime shelter in the swamp, and all four go to a place called the Cankerbury Inn, where they must pay for their rooms with stories, one story per person per room. The other people scare up – yes, scare up – some suitable tales. The first, told in rhyme, is about how Slynderfell’s Ice Cream, the most super-delicious of all, “that makes Wonka seem like cuttlefish snot,” is really made, using a torture rack to get information and draining cows of their milk until they are nothing but skin-covered skeletons, testing head-exploding flavors on monkeys in a room where a notice says “Dilbert cartoon posters will be hanged” (one of Merritt’s many subtle and hilarious references to comic strips), and much more. The second story, also told in rhyme, is about a lost engagement ring, some elaborately toothy water monsters, and a man’s discovery that for all the terrors he barely escapes, “life was saner in the deep.” The third tale, told strictly in pictures, is an alien-abduction story that results in missing eyebrows. But poor Mr. York cannot come up with a story and so is turned out into the swamp – where his story involves the evil, gnomelike C. Percival Trullus and the West Bleekport Gang (one “with a long, gar-like snoot,” a second with “eight spidery limbs,” and so forth). The gang members need Mr. York to help them recover a treasure, so they spare him and send him off to be swallowed by a Bogglemyre and then – well, there is a lot of “and then” here, all of it illustrated in such a toothily terrible and tremendously tingly way that readers will want to laugh and shiver simultaneously (try it!). The story is deliciously bizarre, the pictures are wonderfully wacky, and The Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York is an anything-but-dreadful delight.
One thing missing from Merritt’s book of monsters is a yeti, but no worries – one is readily available elsewhere. Trouble is, it’s an awkward one. Heart and Brain is a spinoff from a Web comic called The Awkward Yeti, which features a blue, bow-tied, big-eyed something-or-other (presumably a yeti) who also makes guest appearances in the Heart and Brain book. But most of the book is devoted to its title characters, who go through life with completely opposite attitudes. For instance, when they are about to confront a fire-breathing dragon with only a sword and bow-and-arrows to defend themselves, Brain says, “The odds are not in our favor, Heart,” and Heart replies, “That’ll make it feel EVEN BETTER when we win!” Nick Seluk’s whole book is like that. Heart wants a kitty, Brain asks who will take care of it, Heart says Brain can do that while Heart can “reap the benefits of companionship,” Brain says no, and Heart immediately presents Brain with a kitty. Brain, listening to music, comments that the singer is not very good, but Heart says “it’s really cool to like this band right now.” Brain calls for moderation, but Heart says that if something feels good, then more of it must be great and “TOO MUCH would be BEST” – and goes in search of “more vices.” Looking at a map, Brain points to “the most efficient route,” while Heart looks at a long and rambling one and says, “But this one could be full of ADVENTURE!” The notion of head-vs.-heart is an old one, but Seluk gives it a whole series of new, contemporary twists, and the way he draws the characters has a lot to do with how enjoyable his story lines are. Brain is a large pink blob with no features except tiny arms and legs, while Heart is bright red, has the ends of blood vessels decorating his head, and sports huge googly eyes and an almost-always-smiling mouth that combine to give him, most of the time, an expression of wide-eyed wonder and enthusiasm. Much of the time, the characters’ personalities are straightforward – a fact that makes deviations from their normal interactions more effective, as when Heart is seen bandaged and injured and, when Brain asks what happened, Heart replies, “I watched the news.” Seluk manages to make both Heart and Brain interesting, each in a different way, and uses his illustrations to illuminate everyone’s heart/brain duality in ways that words alone could not accomplish so well – for instance, Brain signs “Brain” in simple block letters at the bottom of a piece of paper, but Heart says that a signature “should be an expression of your SOUL” and then produces a gigantic multi-colored mural of the word “Heart,” graffiti-style, on a nearby wall. Ultimately, of course, Heart and Brain need and complement each other – in real life as well as in Seluk’s drawings.
The drawings in Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures actually come from Jeffrey Higgleston’s Guide to Magical Creatures, the book that Pip carries around with her constantly – but Pip makes changes and additions to the illustrations as she learns more by talking to the animals. Yes, talking. And no, this is not some sort of “magical Dr. Doolittle” story – it is much funnier than that. Pip, who is nine years old, has the apparently unique talent of talking to the magical creatures that seem to pop out everywhere in her world, and they in turn can speak with her; but only she can hear them, so no one – not even her geologist father – believes she really communicates with unicorns, pegasi, Common HobGrackles and the like. So there is the basic plot of the novel by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater. But of course there is much more to it. What Pip is not good at is communicating with human beings, such as her 13-year-old cousin (who has no interest in magical creatures) and a boy named Tomas Ramirez, who is allergic to pretty much everything in the world, including magical things – which cause him to have magical allergic reactions, such as one in which he hiccups multicolored bubbles. Stiefvater, the illustrator of this jointly written book, makes the pictures absolutely integral to the story – there are drawings of both Pip and Tomas, for example, both with Pip’s comments: on her self-portrait, for example, she shows Higgleston’s book and writes, “Best book ever,” and then “Best book EVER,” and then “BEST BOOK EVER.” Well, that book may be good, but it is scarcely complete, as Pip discovers each time she encounters and communicates with something else from the magical realm. Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures actually starts with an in-school disaster in which Pip rides a unicorn and a stampede of unicorns results, which leads Pip to make multiple emendations to the Higgleston guide, all of them unflattering to unicorns. Later, Pip encounters a strange little thing called a Fuzzle, regarding which the Higgleston book offers only a one-word description: “Pest.” It falls to Pip to find out more about the creatures, starting with information from her Aunt Emma, who runs the Cloverton Clinic for Magical Creatures and with whom Pip is staying for the summer. The Fuzzle adventure becomes the main part of a book that gets more and more intricate and turns into a sort of magical mystery tour of a world that gets more interesting by the creature, if not by the minute. The story would work quite well without illustrations, but it works far better with them – and so will succeeding stories, since there is certainly more of Pip, the Guide, and magical creatures to come.
Illustrations are also crucial to the Dear Dumb Diary sequence by Jim Benton – which has now reached the sixth book of its second series, Year Two. These diaries of middle-schooler Jamie Kelly are funny enough in words, but the illustrations are what really make them hilarious. Live Each Day to the Dumbest, for instance, is funny about death. Now, that might not seem like something to be funny about in a book for middle-school readers, but Benton makes it work. What happens is that Jamie’s grandma dies, and Jamie the diarist finds her grandma’s diary and discovers that her grandma had some of the same thoughts back in the distant past that Jamie has in the present: “It sounded EXACTLY like something I would write. And it made me feel a little sick that Grandma was back there, in the past, wasting the time that I know she doesn’t have an infinite amount of, since I’m here in her future and I know – well, I know that she doesn’t have any time left at all now.” This is the way Benton writes (as Jamie) – and it is fine – but what makes it much better is the illustration showing Jamie using her cell phone to make a call to someone using a very old-fashioned phone, with the caption, “We need a way to call people in the past and tell them what we think.” Of course, then Jamie thinks of her own future, and she wonders if maybe her own granddaughter is reading Jamie’s diary and thinking Jamie is dumb, and Jamie says that is “disrespectful of your old Granny. Go spank yourself. Unless they have robots for that now. Go tell your Spankbot to spank you.” And the illustration? Well, it shows an alternative possibility: a TIMEOUTBOT sitting on a misbehaving future grandchild and using its single eye to be sure the miscreant stays in timeout long enough. Jamie’s personality remains essentially the same from book to book, and that means some of her interactions stay the same, too – for instance, with best friend and occasional enemy Isabella, of whose computer use Jamie thinks, “I figured she was doing homework, or trying to crash the Internet, or bidding on a boa constrictor.” Isabella, Jamie points out, is fond of boas: “‘They’re just like kittens,’ she always says. ‘Legless kittens that choke people sometimes.’” The illustration here gets the caption, “She also thinks spiders are just eight-eyed kittens that can shoot yarn out their butts,” and yes, the spider with a kitten face looks both cute and icky. Also here, as usual, is super-sweet and super-smart and therefore super-annoying Angeline. “I know that she is attractive on purpose, and I feel that this is a hurtful action on her part, maybe even a form of nonaggressive and deeply pleasant bullying.” And this illustration shows a two-halves Angeline, the first half being clean and cute and generally sweet and adorable, the other (wished-for) half having wrecked hair, a nasty expression and “immense hairy feet.” The thin plots in the Dear Dumb Diary series are never really the point of the books, nor are they in Live Each Day to the Dumbest. But this book does have a nice ending, in which Jamie does dumb things that work out just fine, and eventually comes to terms with her grandma’s death – not so much on her own behalf as on that of her mother, who, after all, has lost her own mom. This is more touching than Benton usually gets in this series – but it works. And why? Because of the illustration showing Jamie’s mom finally being able to laugh again, and Jamie enjoying the sound even though she has previously said it reminds her of a “goat with bronchitis that accidentally ate a crow.” And yes, there’s a picture for that.