January 24, 2019


Will Giraffe Laugh? By Hilary Leung. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

Mr. Wolf’s Class #2: Mystery Club. By Aron Nels Steinke. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Hilary Leung has assembled a delightful cast of board-book characters and is marching them one by one through simple, funny and very pleasantly drawn adventures, the latest being Will Giraffe Laugh? Each of the books has a question as a title. So far, she has produced Will Bear Share? And Will Sheep Sleep? And Will Ladybug Hug? Everything starts with some sort of mild, age-appropriate trouble, and everything is happily resolved by the end of the book. In the case of Giraffe’s book, the title character is first seen in bed – half in it, anyway – looking rather sleepy-eyed and being described as “grumpy.” So his five friends – Bear, Sheep, Ladybug, Crocodile and Frog – decide to cheer him up. Easier said than done! Bear tries a juggling act that ends with a toilet plunger on Giraffe’s head. Crocodile opts for sock puppets, one of which manages to get onto, and almost into, Giraffe’s nose. Sheep tries making a balloon animal, but it gets loose, flies in a crazy pattern, and slams right into Giraffe’s eye. “Ouch! No.” Frog goes for funny faces, using his long and sticky tongue to advantage. But it is too long and sticky, and Giraffe ends up wrapped in it. “Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.” Ladybug gives Giraffe a pretty flower – which makes Giraffe sneeze. Everyone fails and everyone is miserable – so miserable that Giraffe feels really, really bad and decides to cheer up the whole group. That goes about as well as expected, with Giraffe falling down a slope into a mud puddle. But that is funny, and now everybody laughs, Giraffe included. The only slight problem comes at the very end, after everybody jumps into the mud to join Giraffe: sighting a tasty bug, Frog sends out his long, long, sticky, sticky tongue, and – oops – everyone ends up wrapped in it. The tongue even spells out the word “oops.” The whole romp is delightful, and it fits well with the three earlier books in the series – although each of them is entirely independent. The only real question is what Leung will come up with for the two friends who do not yet have their own book titles. For one of them, there is a pretty straightforward guess: Will Crocodile Smile? But what rhymes with “frog”? Hmm. How about Will Frog Blog?

     The titles are not in question for Aron Nels Steinke’s graphic-novel series about assorted wide-eyed animals attending school together: each entry is Mr. Wolf’s Class. Thankfully, the second book in the series, Mystery Club, is a good deal better than the first and gets a (+++) rating. The first book was so focused on the everyday realities of going to school that it was simply dull: nothing happened to or with the animal characters to distinguish them or to offer human readers any experiences beyond the ones they would themselves have in fourth grade. That may have been Steinke’s point, but if so, it did not work. Fourth-graders did not need to read the first book – they were living it. Third-graders who picked it up would get little to look forward to in fourth grade. And fifth-graders would not have wanted to read it – it would have been old news to them. Mystery Club is somewhat more interesting and somewhat funnier, too: the two different ways in which Mr. Wolf gets accidentally spattered with drinks are high points. Most of what happens here, as in the first book, is strictly quotidian: tardy slips, gym class, hall passes, outdoor activities, and classroom work. The Mystery Club designation has to do with some students getting together to try to figure out what happened to a missing Frisbee, whether the girls’ bathroom is haunted, and why a teacher from the previous year is no longer at school. The answers are inconsequential: the toy was accidentally thrown over a fence, the bathroom is just fine, and the teacher retired. But Steinke uses the “club” notion simply to show ways in which students – whether they are human or just happen to be a mixture of animals – relate to each other. In the main, Steinke bends over backwards to make the cast diverse (it is hard to be sure who is male and who is female) and politically correct (one student has “two mothers”). But there is an oddity here in a subplot: all the animals work and play happily together, but all are worried and frightened by rats, which appear occasionally during the story and are themselves dressed in the same sort of human clothing as everyone else. There is no explanation for the omission of rats from the all-inclusiveness and 100% toleration of the book – and the attitude is even less understandable when it turns out, at the book’s conclusion, that the rats as well as the classmates throw birthday parties for each other. The other off-putting oddity here has to do with the drawing style. Steinke draws a number of characters, including Mr. Wolf, in cubist profile, with both eyes and mouth clustered on the same side of their noses. This is fine and is a standard cartooning style. But Steinke sometimes has difficulty with it and runs into perspective trouble. On page 83, Mr. Wolf’s smile and the eyes behind his glasses are positioned in such a way that his nose, sticking out to the left, looks like a gigantic wart. On page 126, there is a similar error involving Mr. Wolf’s eyes and smile: kids can put a finger over the sticking-out nose to see what looks like a properly drawn cartoon face. And on page 153, the story’s final one, three birthday-party rats all have the same perspective mistake, the one in the center most of all: that one’s appearance is truly grotesque. Steinke is not drawing the characters this way for purposes of deliberate exaggeration, since the same characters appear elsewhere in correct proportion and with their features spaced and oriented properly. It may be that Steinke is still finding his way as a cartoonist in these graphic novels, just as his characters are supposed to be finding their way through the everyday world of fourth grade.

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