June 30, 2016
(++++) WHAT THEY LEARNED
How to Eat an Airplane. By Peter Pearson. Illustrated by Mircea Catusanu. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Winnie & Waldorf: Disobedience School. By Kati Hites. Harper. $17.99.
Cat Shaming. By Pedro Andrade. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
The 39 Clues: Doublecross—Book Four: Mission Atomic. By Sarwat Chadda. Scholastic. $12.99.
Just in case anyone out there considers taking the title of Peter Pearson’s book too seriously as a recommendation-cum-cookbook, please make note of the full title. It is The Bad Idea Book Club Presents: How to Eat an Airplane. And now that that’s settled, readers can go at once to the end of Pearson’s book and learn that it was inspired by the real-life, real story of a man who really did eat an entire airplane. His unusual (“unusual” seems too mild a word) stomach had no problem with bicycle parts, lightbulbs, pieces of television sets, or airplane parts, but he did get a tummy ache from, ahem, hard-boiled eggs and bananas. Well. Pearson, inspired (if that is the right word) by this weird bit of information, creates a picture book that starts by explaining that most airplanes are too big to eat by yourself, so if you really want to eat one, you need to have a party. The book is all about how to make the party happen, starting with sending out invitations (that is, tickets) to each guest – with the help of your dog, who not only talks but also wears an old-fashioned aviator’s hat and goggles and vaguely resembles Snoopy from Peanuts. Getting the dinner ready requires “knives, spoons, and forklifts,” and then when the guests arrive, it is time for a suitable toast and a first course of airplane fuel. There are many courses: the “delicious dials and tasty instruments” from the cockpit, warm bowls of engine oil, a salad consisting of ailerons with French dressing, nicely cooked landing gear, and eventually the engines; and, during a break in the festivities, something light in the form of the plane’s snack carts. Not the snacks in the carts – the carts themselves. As Pearson proceeds methodically through the plane parts, Mircea Catusanu shows everything that is going on in illustrations that are a marvelous mixture of the ordinary (these are just regular kids who happen to be eating an airplane) and the bizarre (they are eating an airplane). The main course proves to be the fuselage, although Pearson recommends eating around the lavatories, which “are not luscious.” Eventually the feast is finished and everyone packs “a suitcase full of leftovers to bring home.” But wait! What about dessert? Yes, Pearson explains that it is always polite to offer some, and sure enough, an ice-cream truck drives up, giving the kids a final treat. Not the ice cream: they eat the truck. And what have we learned from all this? For one thing, do not turn Pearson and Catusanu loose at any airports. But beyond that, the book really does teach about airplanes, indirectly during the main story and directly in four end-of-book pages that explain a lot about airplane parts while providing some fascinating facts – for instance, that the paint on a commercial airliner weighs between 400 and 1,000 pounds. Oh yes, and one more thing readers will learn: not to eat an airplane, OK?
The dog in How to Eat an Airplane is an able assistant and instructor, but Winnie’s dog, Waldorf, is far less helpful. In fact, he is downright uncooperative and trouble-prone. So Winnie decides to teach him better behavior in Kati Hites’ Winnie & Waldorf: Disobedience School. This is not a school for disobedience but a school to un-learn disobedience, but whether Waldorf will be successful at this is anyone’s guess. An enthusiastic bulldog (maybe a bulldog mix), Waldorf looks properly befuddled when Winnie announces that he has been accepted at her “Disobedience School” and must go through a series of courses. Waldorf does well with ABCs when Winnie ensures that C is for cookie, and he offers a fine solo in music class, where he is “a talented baritone.” His reading is only so-so, Winnie explains, but he is great at napping during nap time and at creating some super-messy art in art class. Gym, though, proves to be a problem – and a potentially serious one. Excited at catching a tennis ball hit by Winnie, Waldorf runs away with it – then notices that the neighbor’s little dog has gotten loose and is heading right for a busy street. Quick-thinking Waldorf flips the ball into the air, and the little dog instantly goes into “fetch” mode instead of continuing to run toward danger. Waldorf “is so heroic,” says Winnie. “Especially when he is just being himself.” And that is the ultimate lesson here: Waldorf learns how to be himself, Winnie learns to accept him just as he is, and at the book’s end, Winnie and Waldorf clean up everything from the Disobedience School so Winnie can get ready to go to her school the next day – escorted, of course, by Waldorf, wearing his own graduation cap and toting his very own backpack as he helps Winnie on her way to kindergarten. The story here is gentle and charming, and Hites’ illustrations are delightful in helping tell it and also in some unexpected ways that young readers will delight in discovering, such as the fact that one of Winnie’s socks is always falling down, her backpack has a Waldorf pull, and there is a very befuddled-looking pigeon observing girl and dog head for school at the book’s very end.
What makes dogs so much instructional fun in both fact and fiction is that they genuinely want to please their human companions. Often dogs’ high spirits get in the way of their doing what people want them to do, but by and large, they are willing to be taught because they want to coexist all the more happily in their human-led packs. Not so cats. The reason “herding cats” is a cliché for something impossible to do is that cats are solitary by nature, and they are the self-proclaimed rulers of all that they see (and most that they smell). They tolerate human companionship but, in most cases, are indifferent to it unless it provides them with distinct immediate benefits (such as food or the occasional gentle stroking). This is why “dog shaming” is a longtime hit concept online and in print, while “cat shaming,” based on the same idea, is only moderately successful. Cats simply do not shame well: dogs at least look guilty when they misbehave, but cats generally look just as smug and self-satisfied as ever. Nevertheless, Pedro Andrade makes a valiant attempt to establish a modicum of cat guilt in Cat Shaming, and the (+++) book has a number of amusing feline pages along the lines of its canine model. For example, the owner’s note next to an adorable-looking little grey kitten reads, “I poop in the bathtub.” Another owner’s note reads, “I drank Dad’s beer,” and another says, “I steal pizza off the counter.” A lot of the misbehavior here is food-related, and a lot of it is puke-related and poop-related – in fact, those three somewhat connected categories come up again and again in Cat Shaming. “I steal dog food because they put me on a diet!” “I’ve pooped in the bathtub every day for 11 years.” “I have lost less than one pound on my 10-year-long diet.” “I harass my sisters when they poop.” “I ate my food too fast and puked on the carpet.” The relatively few “creative” misbehaviors here also have a repetitive quality to them: “I’m a butt licker.” “I bite my mom’s butt – often.” “I stick my butt in people’s faces. I think my butt is God’s gift to the world!” A lot of this is fun, and cat owners (not that anyone ever really “owns” a cat) will certainly recognize plenty of the behaviors and the total lack of remorse exhibited by all the felines in the book. But that is what makes Cat Shaming less amusing than the canine variety: no cat in the book ever looks ashamed, guilty, upset, uncertain, sorry, unhappy, or (for that matter) happy. Every cat has the usual inscrutable, self-satisfied look patented by the feline race many thousands of years ago. Whether dogs are or are not ashamed of some of their behavior, they at least look expressive in being apologetic or, for that matter, unapologetic. The generic cat-ness of the expressions of the cats in Andrade’s book undercuts the humor that their human cohabitants see, or try to see, in feline behavior. But hey, cat “owners” will find plenty with which to identify here – and will learn, if they have not learned already, that cats choose to learn absolutely nothing from anything they may do of which humans may disapprove.
Learning may best be done through adversity – that appears to be one message of the books in various sequences of The 39 Clues. The novels themselves are a rather thin gruel of educational elements intermingled with a series of world-spanning and wholly unbelievable adventures in which readers get to participate vicariously through online tie-ins involving “digital game cards” provided with each book. The fourth and last (+++) book in the series called Doublecross is by an author new to The 39 Clues, Sarwat Chadda, but the books are so formulaic (by intention) that there is no evidence here of anything approaching a personal style. Nor should there be – style is no more the point of these books than is characterization. What matters is criss-crossing the world to solve improbable mysteries and arrange nick-of-time rescues of good and/or innocent people from the evil machinations of the bad guys. In Doublecross the protagonists of all the series, Dan (now 13) and Amy (now 16), have to head off the fourth of four famous disasters being engineered, or re-engineered, by a disaffected member of their Cahill family known as the Outcast. This time the Outcast plans to re-create the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and cause great loss of life and all sorts of destruction and the usual things that nefarious evildoers nefariously do. To prevent this, Dan and Amy, who consistently do better when working together, split up. At one point Amy has to play dead so realistically that Dan believes she really is dead, because this is necessary to fool the baddies; and in this Amy is helped by a killer who helpfully points out, “I am an assassin, not a mass murderer.” Thanks largely to his aid, Amy and Dan survive, the Outcast is (as so often happens with fictional villains) destroyed by his own almost-perfect plot, and what Dan and Amy and the rest of the Cahills, all the branches of the family, learn is – democracy. Yes, that wildly improbable twist is what ends this four-book sub-series of The 39 Clues, as the feuding Cahill family branches decide that each group should be in charge of the family as a whole for four years, then hand the reins of power to the next group. With disasters averted, lessons learned, bad guys vanquished, good guys rewarded, and fans of The 39 Clues presumably satisfied, the Doublecross sequence concludes; and now readers can look forward to the upcoming Superspecial, which is a final book called Outbreak that is scheduled to conclude these learning-and-adventuring preteen thrillers after their very successful eight-year run.