April 13, 2017


And the Robot Went… By Michelle Robinson. Illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier. Clarion. $16.99.

Evil Emperor Penguin. By Laura Ellen Anderson. David Fickling Books. $8.99.

     Sometimes an author has so much fun playing games with a conventional element of children’s books and stories that what results is something wholly UN-conventional. And when an author plays games with more than one standard element of kids’ books, what results is – well, something like And the Robot Went… The ellipsis in the title makes it clear (to adults, anyway) that this will be yet another book in which lots of things happen to or with a robot. And so it is – that’s one convention. How they happen is another: various characters do things to the robot, and the results are piled onto each other in house-that-Jack-built fashion. That’s another convention. And to make sure that young readers remember who elicited what from the robot, each page of Michelle Robinson’s book combines a large Sergio Ruzzier illustration of the latest thing happening with small ovals within which the characters that made earlier things happen are seen again. That’s a third convention. But Robinson and Ruzzier refuse to treat any of the conventions conventionally. First of all, the robot is pieced together by a Nosy Fox, Eager Beaver, Wicked Witch and other improbable characters, and what it does as each character performs some action is make a noise – it is the noises that pile up as the book progresses. Secondly, the things done to or with the robot are as entertaining and offbeat as the characters: “The Bear in the Blazer fired the laser,” for instance, and “the Crocodile turned the dial,” and “the Band of Knights polished the lights.” Thirdly, the characters refuse to sit calmly in their oval portraits as the book progresses: the fox falls asleep on one page, the witch ducks down so only her hat is visible on another, the beaver appears upside-down at one point, and so on. Things get mighty elaborate as well as mighty funny. By the time “the King of Dogs [wearing a crown of bones] clobbered the cogs,” the robot is in pieces all over the place and making sounds that include (but are not limited to) Tippa-Tappa, Flash, Clang, Zap and Boooo. And then it turns out that the book’s narrator is a little girl, and she announces, “Then along came me,” and she has a key to get the robot going, and she commands all the other characters to redo what they have already done to the robot – and by now, the robot has a distinct look of alarm on his face. And even though he has no choice but to go along with the manhandling he receives on the girl’s instructions, he certainly does not seem to be enjoying himself. And that would explain why, when everyone is finished doing everything, the robot is fully assembled, no longer in pieces or coming apart, and says “Thank. You.” to everyone – and then gets as far away from this crew of characters as he can. So And the Robot Went… (with ellipsis) turns, at the end, to “And the Robot…went.” The re-placement of those three dots turns out to be what the whole book is about. And a very clever, funny and oddly wistful book it is.

     Evil Emperor Penguin is a (+++) book that tries to be clever, but tries rather too hard and stumbles over its own would-be ingenuity. The title is about the neatest thing here: yes, there are emperor penguins, and yes, in various fantasy stories there are evil emperors, so why not create a portmanteau title? Well, that works pretty well. But the rest of Laura Ellen Anderson’s graphic novel is much more forced. Evil Emperor Penguin (EEP to his friends, if he had any friends) loves spaghetti rings and hates pretty much everything else. His chief minion is a small and adorable abominable snowman named Eugene who loves hugs, rainbows and unicorns, but still hangs around with EEP and supports EEP’s plans for world domination. His other cohort is a very tall, intellectual, monocle-wearing purple octopus named Number 8, always called “Squid” by EEP. The headquarters of EEP, Eugene and Number 8 includes a Spy Room of Evil, Parking Space of Evil, Evil Hat Closet of Evil, Living Room of Evil, and so on. The stories in the book – each short but all interconnected – have to do with EEP’s feckless plots to take over the world, and the way they either fail on their own or fail because Eugene inadvertently (or sometimes deliberately) turns the bad stuff into cute rainbows, unicorns and such. The dialogue here wears thin rather quickly: “We have urgent evil matters to discuss.” “Yes, evil master.” And although some plot elements are amusing (Eugene’s greatest fear turns out to be jelly babies in one chapter; in another, the “big red evil button” releases unicorns because EEP is “still working on its evil-ness”), others drag (Number 8 buys a cat that turns out to be an evil, anti-EEP mastermind; EEP’s greatest fear is his mother; EEP’s sister shows up wearing a cape like his and says she wants to be called Ruth-less rather than just Ruth). Actually, the summaries of the events are more interesting than the way they are worked out in the book: Evil Emperor Penguin has enough silliness so young fans of easy-to-read graphic novels will enjoy it. But really, yet another sure-to-fail robot invention that is supposed to be amusing just because it is called “Evil Emperor-Bot of Icy Doom” and is supposed to operate based on EEP’s use of a “Control Pad of Evil”? There is too much predictability and too much repetitiveness in the plotting for Evil Emperor Penguin to be fun for even slightly older graphic-novel readers. But kids just coming to the graphic-novel format will likely enjoy the book before moving on to something a tad less frothy.

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