April 14, 2016
(++++) CHARACTER COMEDIES
Big Nate: Thunka, Thunka, Thunka. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Shivers! Book II: The Pirate Who’s Back in Bunny Slippers. By Annabeth Bondor-Stone & Connor White. Illustrated by Anthony Holden. Harper. $12.99.
Many books for preteens are all about adventure, with plot and pacing designed to distract readers from the fact that the characters do not have much, well, character. Some books, though, take the opposite approach, with plot being almost incidental to involvement with the protagonist and those in his or her orbit. These are books kids read to find out how the central characters’ foibles and fears hold up in the face of whatever happens to or around them. The approach works particularly well for cartoonist Lincoln Peirce in his Big Nate comic strips and the books that collect them, such as Thunka, Thunka, Thunka. The title is the sound that an empty plastic bottle makes when Nate hits himself or someone else gently on the head with it as a relaxation tool. That is a perfect example of character-driven rather than plot-driven comedy: it takes someone like Nate to think up the plastic-bottle relaxation in the first place and someone like him to use it not only on himself but also on others, such as his feckless father. Unfortunately, Nate gets a little too enthusiastically rhythmic while trying to de-stress his dad, and ends up needing the plastic-bottle relaxation treatment himself. But that is the whole point of Big Nate: the central character is who he is and remains very much himself through all the everyday adventures and misadventures that Peirce creates for him. Some of those in Thunka, Thunka, Thunka are particularly amusing. Nate’s neighbor’s dog, Spitsy, always wearing an Elizabethan collar as if perpetually recovering from an injury, falls in love with and becomes “engaged” to Pickles the cat, which leads cat-hating Nate to try having “the talk” with Spitsy before realizing, “This might be the stupidest conversation I’ve ever had.” (Spitsy, by the way, learns to speak “cat” and also likes to knit, even making Nate a sweater.) In another sequence, Nate makes a bet with his student nemesis, Gina, that he can go a week without being given detention by his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey – and things do not go quite as Gina expects them to. Sixth-grader Nate’s first-grade book buddy, Peter, is absent, so Nate is assigned to another first-grader, Miranda, who says, “I want to read the label on the bottom of your sneakers. While you’re lying on your back. After I deck you.” Nate’s class is visited by the local TV station’s chief meteorologist, and Nate tries to trick him into resigning so the previous meteorologist, whom Nate prefers, can get his job back. Nate buys his big sister a comic-strip collection she wants for Christmas, managing to get it torn, soaked in water and chewed by Spitsy before he gives it to her. Nate does his best, which is not very good, to avoid classmate Kim Cressly, who has a crush on him (literally, when she hugs him), who calls him “punkin,” and who says, “You’re cute when you act stupid.” Hint to Kim: that’s not acting. Nate is not really stupid, though – he is just too self-involved and self-important to realize how he comes across to other people, kids and adults alike. And that blissful lack of self-awareness is a big part of Big Nate’s charm, and a big reason the comic strip featuring him comes across so well.
Anthony Holden’s illustrations of Shivers, the frightened-of-everything boy pirate, are hilariously apt for the stories by Annabeth Bondor-Stone and Connor White, and they would not be out of place in a comic strip or graphic novel. The Shivers series, though, consists of conventional novels-with-illustrations, although neither the books nor the pictures can really be called “conventional.” The first book’s climax had Shivers rescuing his parents and lots of other pirates from the evil clutches of a hot-dog-making French chef who had trapped them all inside the Statue of Liberty – this, despite the fact that Shivers was covered in mustard and snails at the time. That first book also introduced Margo, daughter of Chief Clomp’n’Stomps of the local police force, who is about as different from Shivers as it is possible to be – which of course means the two become fast friends after Shivers discovers, to his own amazement, that he actually isn’t scared of Margo’s overbearing and over-enthusiastic overdoing of just about everything. These two actually make one heck of a team – Margo is nobody’s sidekick, that’s for sure – and they need all their wits and bravery about them for their second adventure, which more or less picks up where the first one ended and goes in some thoroughly bizarre (and always hilarious) directions. This time Lady Liberty’s torch, or rather the Treasure Torch, which is actually the statue’s torch but is also “the most valuable treasure in the Seven Seas, a majestic, towering flame made entirely of gold,” has gone missing, and Shivers is being blamed for the disappearance by none other than Mayor President. That is to say Mayor Sheila B. President, who is so intimidating that for once Shivers, who is afraid of pretty much everything, has every right to be scared of her. Eventually, it turns out that Mayor President is not what she seems to be – she is worse. But before readers learn that, Shivers and Margo have to go on an adventure (Shivers hates adventures) that involves a convention of Franks, not to be confused with the franks (as in hot dogs) of the first book, although there is indeed some overlap when it comes to some of the characters – in fact, Shivers has to win a hot-dog-eating contest so he and Margo can pick up one of the clues needed to locate and recapture the Treasure Torch. Shivers’ terror at just about everything serves him and Margo in good stead again in this book, notably when Margo, to help get everyone out of a desperate situation, informs Shivers that “popcorn is really made from parrot poop,” which means that “if it’s true that you are what you eat, then Shivers was mostly made of parrot poop,” which leads to a sufficiently loud Shivers scream to save the day. Well, actually it only saves the minute, because things quickly get worse again, but the day is eventually saved, thanks mostly to Shivers and Margo but also to Shivers’ first mate, Albee the fish, who thinks a lot but never says anything that anyone else in the book can understand; and to Shivers’ parents, genuinely fearsome pirates Bob and Tilda; and to Shivers’ brother, Brock, who has the approximate intelligence of a brick but has a good heart and a good ship that unfortunately lasts only a few pages. The Pirate Who’s Back in Bunny Slippers is just as wild, weird, wet and wonderful as the first book about Shivers; and although adults may find a bit too many projectile-vomiting-as-a-weapon scenes here, readers ages 8-12 – the book’s target audience – will likely find there to be just enough such occurrences to keep things interesting. The Shivers books are listed as being “based on a really funny idea by Harrison Blanz, age 9,” and if that is true, Harrison deserves a generous percentage of the royalties, because the underlying very funny idea of a landlocked pirate character who is the opposite of brave and bold is amusing enough – and what Bondor-Stone, White and Holden have done with that foundation is flat-out hysterical.