July 14, 2016


The King of Kazoo. By Norm Feuti. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.

Big Nate Doodlepalooza. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $6.99.

Nancy Clancy, Book 7: Nancy Clancy Seeks a Fortune. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $9.99.

     Words and pictures are complementary in graphic novels, but the effect of these not-quite-comic-books, not-quite-novels tends to depend more on visual elements than plot. Norm Feuti’s The King of Kazoo is a lot of fun, and will appeal to a younger age group than many graphic novels do: there are no adult or almost-adult themes here, no real violence, no significant complexity. Instead there is a straightforward story of a capricious and self-important king who spends his time trying to come up with an appropriate legacy instead of listening to people who might actually help him create one – notably his daughter, Bing, and the royal inventor, Torq. King Cornelius is mostly interested in claiming credit for what others do: Bing knows magic, but when she turns up information of interest, her father takes credit. Torq, who does not speak, invents a “gonkless carriage” (this kingdom has kangaroo-like gonks rather than horses) and suggests calling it “Auto-Mobile,” but the king insists that it is a “Cornelius carriage.” He also insists on driving it, with predictably sloppy results. In fact, whenever the king takes matters into his own hands, he messes things up – he is the traditional bumbling, incompetent father seen in so many movies and TV shows. Thus, when a mysterious explosion on a nearby mountain sends Cornelius, Torq and Bing on the road to find out what is going on, and a damaged bridge forces them to take a detour through Kroaker Swamp, the giant frogs living in the swamp promptly capture the trio – and Cornelius’ attempts to lie their way out of the fix only make matters worse. Eventually Bing explains what really happened, and the frogs’ leader tells Cornelius, “You should listen to advisor. Good leader know how to listen.” The king replies that “a good king doesn’t need an advisor,” and the Grand Kroaker fires back, “Maybe not, but you do.” Score one zinger for the frogs. Eventually, inevitably, Cornelius learns a touch of humility and gives credit where it is due after Bing and Torq rescue the kingdom – with the king himself displaying an unexpected touch of bravery, to show that he is not really all bad. This is not an especially inventive graphic novel: there is little unusual in panel design, character creation, or color. But the drawings propel the story along effectively, and the comment on the cover from Big Nate cartoonist Lincoln Peirce, to the effect that Feuti’s work has “plenty of humor and heart,” pretty well sums things up.

     Peirce actually packs more humor and heart into the Big Nate strip than is to be found in The King of Kazoo, but Big Nate Doodlepalooza is a kind of sidelight on Nate’s adventures rather than a sequential selection of them. It is an activity book, Nate style, abundantly sprinkled with cartoon panels designed not for storytelling but for decoration around Nate-focused puzzles. A Sudoku-like square called “Dance Disasters,” for instance, shows sixth-grade dance scenes and portraits of the four P.S. 38 denizens described by Nate as the school’s worst dancers – the objective is to “fill out the grid so they all appear once in each row, column, and box.” Another entry shows “super-cool toys” (such as a music-playing robot and a customized skateboard) and asks readers to come up with ads for them. There is a section called “What Smells?” in which readers are supposed to rank “outrageous odors from gross (1) to gag-a-thon (10).” There are secret codes to decipher to find out what grown-ups are saying, a place to “list all the possible things Nate might be grounded for,” a blank space in which to draw “your dream school,” a pop quiz based on events that take place in the Big Nate comic strip, a fill-in-the-speech-bubbles “pretend you’re a reporter” page, a quiz to figure out which Big Nate character you most resemble, an unscramble-character-names game, a snow-day word scramble, and much more. Strictly for dyed-in-the-wool Big Nate fans, this book offers a way to participate in Nate’s world, refresh your memory of what happens in the strip, and maybe pick up a few pieces of trivia along the way – all while getting a heaping helping of Peirce’s always-clever art work.

     Robin Preiss Glasser’s illustrations, which are de rigueur in the charming Fancy Nancy books, are also key to the enjoyment of the Nancy Clancy series about a more-grown-up version of the French-loving, always-overdressed charmer of a character. The Nancy Clancy books generally lack the bounce, breeziness and sheer joie de vivre of the picture books about a younger Nancy, but Nancy Clancy Seeks a Fortune is a happy exception: from Glasser’s cover picture of a brightly smiling, dressed-up Nancy in ballet pose in front of an open treasure chest, through a series of illustrations of Nancy and best friend Bree’s earnest but unsuccessful attempts to make money, this is a book that connects the older Nancy with her overdone but endearing roots. Jane O’Connor’s story revolves around one of those TV shows that invite people to bring in all sorts of old junk and perhaps discover that something from the attic is worth a great deal of money. Nancy and Bree connect with the “money” idea and look for various ways to earn some, finding out that doing so is harder than it looks – and eventually, a visit to one of those antique-finding shows leads Nancy to realize that sometimes money is not what matters most even when value turns up in an unexpected way. There is nothing particularly memorable in that lesson, but O’Connor’s pacing here is sure-handed, and Glasser’s illustrations go particularly well with the developing story. From a beauty cream made with food ingredients (which Nancy’s dog, Frenchy, gets into and eats) to gold-foil-covered cardboard crowns that littler girls can wear when they have their hair in a bun, the ideas of Nancy and Bree are seemingly clever but turn out to have flaws that help show them, and readers, that inventing things and making money from them is not so simple. Still, by the end of the book, both girls have found out that they or their families have some valuable items whose worth they had not realized – but, even better, they have each other, and music, and the stars, and other free-but-valuable possessions that all of them can share.

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