November 08, 2018


Phoebe and Her Unicorn 8: Unicorn Theater. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

My Life in Smiley 2: I Got This! (mostly…) By Anne Kalicky. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.

     Real-world life may not be adorable, but adorableness is only a page or two away for young readers looking for a touch of illustrated escapism. The very simple graphic novels in the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series can be fun for readers looking for easy-to-follow, easy-to-understand mild adventures in which magic is so widely accepted that just about every child character has his or her own magical accompanying beast/friend (adults, of course, do not, although they are quite accepting of the ones the children have). Dana Simpson’s latest Phoebe and Her Unicorn story is a camp tale – specifically drama camp – and assumes readers are already familiar with Phoebe, her unicorn, and various other characters: for instance, one reference to “how you became friends because of a rock you skipped” is inserted and immediately dropped, and will make no sense to readers here meeting Phoebe and her unicorn for the first time. Simpson makes unicorns not only adorable but also well aware of their beauty: in one panel here, a unicorn says, “I am so beautiful,” while one standing nearby says, “What? I could not hear you over the sound of how beautiful I am!” But beauty takes a back seat to friendship in this and the other books of the series. In Unicorn Theater, Phoebe and her unicorn, whose full name is Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, have a minor falling-out because Marigold is using the occasion of Phoebe’s trip to drama camp to clear the air with Marigold’s younger sister, Florence Unfortunate Nostrils (so called because she used to sneeze spiders, although that little problem is absent in this book, thanks to a unicorn-specific nasal spray). The two sisters had an argument involving a play in the past, and Marigold wants to talk things through and move beyond the mutual irritation, and so does Florence, so everything goes perfectly well and everybody is quite happy with everyone else. There is very little interpersonal drama or even disagreement here: the Phoebe and Her Unicorn books are determinedly good-natured. In addition to Marigold and Florence, mythical-but-real characters here include a lake monster named Ringo (friend of a girl named Sue) and an electrical monster named Voltina (friend of a boy named Max). Everybody collaborates on a play that stars Phoebe and Sue and repairs whatever little bit of residual anger may exist between Marigold and Florence, and it is all just too cute for words – if you like this sort of thing. Some young readers will enjoy Unicorn Theater for its simplicity and straightforward message about friendship, but others may find the whole tale just too doggone nice.

     “Nice” is scarcely a word that is applied to middle school in many, if not most, books for middle-school-aged readers. The books show this stage of education and socialization as having plenty of elements of gamesmanship, including teams, opponents, coaches (parents and teachers), and cheerleaders (friends or crushes). The basic idea is that the whole experience frequently feels like a battle, often an unsportsmanlike one, to middle-schoolers themselves. Based on the uncountable number of books about middle-school angst, which come at the topic from an uncountable number of angles, it certainly seems that the phrase “it’s how you play the game” applies. And how Max, the 12-year-old narrator of the My Life in Smiley series (no relation to the Max in Phoebe and Her Unicorn), plays the game is with emoticons. Lots and lots and lots of them. The second My Life in Smiley series entry is all about seventh grade, and it does help to have read the first, It’s All Good, to get the full flavor of the characters and their interactions. It is not absolutely necessary, though – certainly not where Max himself is concerned, since he peppers every page of this diary-style book with smiley faces that, although they do sometimes smile, more often frown or turn green or change into a panda or puppy or fish, or stick out a tongue or show big bright teeth or become an orange or…well, the possible variations on the simple, circular face seem nearly infinite, and a big slice of that infinity shows up here. The smileys are in fact the main attraction of what is otherwise a largely straightforward middle-school novel about friends, groups, crushes, games, and clueless parents (Max’s father makes a “mixed salad” that includes sardines, melon, blue cheese, anchovies, pickles and more). What is not quite straightforward here, for a North American audience, is the fact that this Anne Kalicky book is set in France and was originally published there in 2016. The translation by Leigh-Ann Haggerty and Kevin Kotur reads well enough, but not all the concepts and names make it seamlessly across the ocean: Max’s full name is Maxime, his crush is Naïs, other classmates include Célia and Louison Toinou and Tristan Le Bouzec, there is a reference to “American basketball” and one to “a super trendy American rapper,” Max’s grandparents live in Brittany, and so on. And there is even a section about sending a comic called “Extreme Excavator” to “that ole Brit Conrad…for Conrad to make progress on his French” – complete with a drawing of Conrad reading the comic with a sort-of-French accent: “It ways a terrayble slooghter.” Some young readers may find these elements exotic or extra-amusing, while others are likely simply to be puzzled. In any case, My Life in Smiley 2 is all in good fun, featuring activities that will mostly be familiar to middle-schoolers on either side of the Atlantic, and if there is nothing very special in the plotting or minimal characterization, at least the presentation is enough to make you smile. Or perhaps, after seeing a few hundred of the smileys, grimace.

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