August 01, 2019
(+++) MORE OF THE MUNDANE
Mr. Wolf’s Class #3: Lucky Stars. By Aron Nels Steinke. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
The non-adventures of the everyday fourth graders taught by Mr. Wolf continue in Aron Nels Steinke’s third Mr. Wolf’s Class graphic novel in much the same way in which they began in the first book and proceeded in the second. The books are so determinedly quotidian that it remains a bit hard to see their attraction: third-graders will find little to look forward to in this series, fourth-graders are already living most of it, and fifth-graders will find little about which to wax nostalgic. The main areas of interest are the way in which Steinke draws the various animal students and, for those so inclined, the care with which he adheres to tropes of political correctness. “Real life is boring. My life is boring,” says a frog student named Sampson in Lucky Stars. And in truth, much of what happens in these books is familiar to the point of being dull. But Mr. Wolf replies, “Real life is not boring,” and sure enough, Sampson is going to have an experience that is outside the norm – an unpleasant one, but one through which he will emerge with improved self-knowledge and a better self-image (of course).
Aside from positivity of that sort, Steinke does not always seem sure what he wants to do with these books – or where he wants them to go. The most interesting part of the second book, Mystery Club, had to do with the school’s rats, which (like all the other animals) wear clothes and interact in highly anthropomorphic ways – but which, unlike Mr. Wolf’s students, are treated as irritants and, well, pretty much as vermin, for no discernible reason. It eventually turns out that the rats have a kind of culture or subculture of their own – but it barely makes an appearance in the third book. There is a brief reference at the start to Mr. Wolf’s students giving the rats food and getting gifts from the rats in return, at unexpected times; there is a budding subplot in which the “gifts” are shown to be items that the rats take from one place or person and bring to another; and there is a conclusion, setting up the next book, in which Steinke shows that what the rats are doing is basically theft – which is perhaps going to cause significant problems at the school in the future.
But those elements constitute a brief throwback and a look ahead and are not the main point of Lucky Stars. Likewise, the delving into politically correct territory is only a small element here: one student, a cat named Randy, announces that she is going to Hawaii, but instead of this being for an innocuous vacation, Steinke goes out of his way to have her say, “My moms are finally getting married,” and everyone thinks that is just swell – although it is irrelevant to the story and is not mentioned again when, near the end of the book, Randy returns and wonders why people are not making a bigger fuss over her after her extended absence.
The reason Randy does not draw more attention has to do with what happens to Sampson and what is central to Lucky Stars. The book’s cover shows Sampson and another student, a rabbit named Margot, riding bikes together, of course with helmets carefully in place and tightly buckled – Sampson is actually shown touching his helmet. But the cover is not what Steinke shows in the story. What happens in the narrative is that while the bike ride does take place, Sampson dons his helmet but does not buckle it, with the result that when he has an accident, he is badly hurt and loses consciousness (for a time period shown by Steinke through the inclusion of 20 consecutive all-black panels). When Sampson awakens in the hospital, it is in a chapter called “Thank You Lucky Stars” – hence the book’s title. And much of the remainder of the book has to do with Sampson’s recovery from his broken arm (his worst injury), the way he learns to use his left hand for activities he had formerly done with his right (he is right-handed), and the eventual celebration when he returns to Mr. Wolf’s class (hence the less-than-overwhelming reception for Randy, who comes back from Hawaii just when Sampson starts school again).
This is a determinedly down-to-earth story, and subplots – such as one involving being a good sport while playing the playground game “four square” – are also handled in a straightforward manner. That is a characteristic of this entire series. So is the peculiarity with which Steinke draws the characters: sometimes they make perfect sense in a world of cartoons; sometimes the conventions of cartooning are used with skill (as when Mr. Wolf is shown with two noses and three mouths while talking to students, to indicate that he is turning his head from side to side rapidly); but sometimes Steinke literally loses his sense of perspective, turning characters into Picasso-ish cubist creations for no reason – and, in so doing, making them seem less “real” in an anthropomorphic sense than they are when he draws these clothes-wearing talking animals so they look as much like humans as possible. Of course, there is nothing “really realistic” about the characters in the Mr. Wolf’s Class books, no matter how they are drawn; but Steinke takes such pains to keep them and their activities ordinary and straightforward that his periodic “arty” drawings of some faces seem arbitrary and intrusive. It is never quite clear what audience Steinke wants for these graphic novels, but young readers who liked the first two will be pleased to discover that Lucky Stars delivers more of whatever they have found to enjoy.