March 08, 2018


Marty Pants #2: Keep Your Paws Off! By Mark Parisi. Harper. $12.99.

My Weirdest School #10: Miss Newman Isn’t Human! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $4.99.

     Why change a formula that seems to be working? Mark Parisi came up with a workable one in the first Marty Pants adventure, Do Not Open! Marty is the typical wisecracking preteen protagonist with a good sense of humor and minimal sense of reality – plus ambitions to be an artist, which explains why the book, although not quite a graphic novel, is told partly in text and very heavily in “Marty’s” illustrations. Having established the basic idea – in which plot is very much secondary to character comedy – Parisi understandably uses it essentially the same way in the second Marty book, Keep Your Paws Off! The plot this time has to do with Marty becoming convinced, on extremely minimal (essentially nonexistent) evidence, that he is a werewolf. The main reason he believes this is that he finds a damaged page torn from his older sister’s diary, saying there is no doubt that her brother (that is, Marty) “is a we.” The rest of the word is missing, so it must be werewolf, not, say, “weakling,” “weasel,” “weirdo,” “wendigo,” “westerner,” “webmaster,” “weisenheimer,” “weed,” “welcher” – well, it turns out eventually that Erica was using one of those other words to describe Marty; “werewolf” was not it. But never mind: the misapprehension leads Marty to a series of misadventures, which are the whole point here. For example, he asks his friend Roongrat if werewolves are real, because “Roongrat is so full of baloney that I basically believe the opposite of what he says.” So when Roongrat knowingly explains that, yes, werewolves really exist, Marty knows they don’t and the book ends. Ha, ha, ha! No, of course that isn’t the end of it! Roongrat later says he was wrong about werewolves – dragons are the creatures that definitely exist – so now Roongrat says there are no werewolves, so they must be real, and Marty starts enumerating all the things that prove he is one, from growling (when he is frustrated after a school-picture session) to having a craving for meat (cafeteria lunch). Oh, the evidence just mounts and mounts! After a while, Marty’s conclusion that he is a werewolf becomes inescapable, and so he ends up huddled in a dog crate to protect the world when he transforms. Which, of course, he doesn’t, even after wrapping himself in couch cushions (after the door of the dog crate pops open) and finding himself directly under the full moon. None of this makes a lick of sense, but “sense” is not in the Marty Pants formula, and does not have to be: everything here is fun, much of it is funny, and some of the illustrations (including those of couch-cushion Marty) are hilarious. Readers who enjoyed Marty’s first adventure will have an equally good time with his second.

     The kids in the My Weirdest School series – and its predecessors, My Weird School and My Weirder School – have been going at it much longer than Marty has been going at anything. What have they been going at? Mostly each other, with bits of plot thrown in to keep things moderately interesting. Dan Gutman enjoys coming up with what are frequently weird-adult (rather than weird-school) plots, and Jim Paillot inevitably illustrates them in a way that, if not weird, is certainly strange enough to justify the series’ title. The latest mostly predictable entry in My Weirdest School is called Miss Newman Isn’t Human! And, for a change, the title makes a weird sort of sense even though Miss Newman is human. See, Miss Newman (whose first name is, ahem, Sprinkles) is a weather reporter for a local TV station, and if you ever suspected that TV presenters are incapable of thinking of anything to say on their own, being wholly dependent on the teleprompter and the person running it, you will have those suspicions amply confirmed here. The only difference is that, instead of needing a teleprompter to know what to say, Miss Newman needs old-fashioned (pre-teleprompter) cue cards, which are helpfully supplied to her by her able assistant, Luke Warm. And all appears to be going just fine when the two of them come to Ella Mentry School – until a big storm suddenly blows up and Luke Warm is hit by lightning. Now Miss Newman does not know what to say – really does not know, proving incapable of putting together even a slightly coherent sentence in the absence of her loyal assistant and ever-present cue cards. Most of the book involves the kids interacting with Miss Newman as Miss Newman learns to talk like a real live human being. And there is also a whole thing about haboobs (huge sandstorms), which narrator A.J. explains cannot possibly occur at Ella Mentry School, which is a signal that one will certainly occur there, which it eventually does. And Luke Warm turns out to be just fine despite the lightning strike, and it turns out there is something personal between him and Miss Newman, and it is cutely communicated using cue cards, and everything is just as flippant and silly as in all these books – right down to the inevitable final sentence, “But it won’t be easy!” The My Weirdest School books are quite unchallenging, following a wholly predictable story arc time after time – but for that very reason, kids who like any of them are likely to enjoy pretty much all of them, including Miss Newman Isn’t Human!

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