January 16, 2020

(++++) AND AWAY WE GO!

The Best of Iggy No. 1. By Annie Barrows. Illustrated by Sam Ricks. Putnam. $13.99.

Real Pigeons No. 1: Real Pigeons Fight Crime. By Andrew McDonald. Illustrations by Ben Wood. Random House. $13.99.

     Amply illustrated book series for middle-grade readers, ages 8-12, have to start somewhere, and the way they start provides a plethora of clues to where they will be going. Annie Barrows’ The Best of Iggy, for example, will be going into hilarity by way of a certain degree of underlying seriousness that seasons the adventure without changing the taste of amusement too much. Although narrated in the third person, the first book about Iggy Frangi uses an almost-first-person style by having the narrator talk directly to readers: “All the things [Iggy] does in this book are bad. Every last one of them. It’s really a shame you have to hear about such bad things, nice children like you. You would never do these things. You say.” Now, the things themselves are, by and large, not all that bad, and part of Barrows’ point is that “things we wish we hadn’t done” fall into three categories: ones we actually just wish we hadn’t gotten caught for doing; ones we wish we hadn’t done quite as much as we did them; and ones we really wish we hadn’t done at all. The Best of Iggy is going to be a series showing how Iggy does things in all three categories – and that is emphatically what the first book shows. Along the way, Iggy interacts with characters who are standard “types” in books for preteens, such as insufferable, well-dressed, obedient, cello-playing Jeremy Greerson, with whom Iggy is stuck for a while because Jeremy’s and Iggy’s mothers are friends. There is also Iggy’s little sister, three-year-old Molly, about whom everything “was round: her face, her eyeballs, her curls, and her stomach.” And that is exactly how Sam Ricks, whose illustrations are, ahem, picture-perfect for the book, shows Molly – who, unfortunately for Iggy, takes an instant shine to Jeremy, which leads Iggy to a bad mood (a scene showing him gazing up at dark, grimacing clouds is laugh-aloud funny), and which eventually results in a hilarious scene involving Jeremy jumping from the roof of Iggy’s house. This is a scene that happens one way from Iggy’s perspective and a very different way from the adults’ perspective, and that is Barrows’ point: sometimes there are extenuating circumstances (she uses, explains and makes much of the phrase). But sometimes there are not extenuating circumstances, as when Iggy gets involved with some shaving cream and $13 lipstick (Ricks’ illustration of what Iggy does with those is another laugh-out-loud one). And sometimes there is no excuse whatsoever for doing something that Iggy, who is not really a bad kid but would probably (in the real world) be diagnosed as ADHD and perhaps medicated, really really really wishes he had not done. And that is where the latter part of the book goes, into something Iggy does at school that causes an actual injury – to a teacher, no less – and that results in perhaps fewer consequences than would happen in the real world if Iggy existed in it. Still, Iggy does not entirely “get away” with what he does, and Barrows goes out of her way to show that he is really, truly, genuinely, no-kidding sorry sorry sorry, even though she also says – without giving specifics – that Iggy fails in his determination “not to do anything bad for the rest of the year.” Iggy is a recognizable middle-school “class cutup,” fun to observe but definitely not a role model: “Most of Iggy’s brain was on vacation,” Barrows writes at one point, and that sentence pretty well describes not only his highly amusing-sounding antics (which also look highly amusing, thanks to Ricks) but also what is likely to be the ongoing plot of all the books in The Best of Iggy series.

     There is a certain level of realism to Iggy, and, oddly enough, there is also a certain level of the realistic in Andrew McDonald’s Real Pigeons series, even though it features a cadre of anthropomorphized avian crime fighters. The realism here – and, in a way, a very funny element of the concept – is that the five unreal pigeon heroes are closely based on and named for five types of real-world pigeons. The most-central central character, a “master of disguise” named Rock, is a rock pigeon – that is the super-common type familiar to just about everybody. Homey, designated a “directions champ” and determined to refer to himself and his fellow crime fighters as “pigs” for short, is a homing pigeon. Super-strong Frillback is, yes, a frillback pigeon – that is a type with curly feathers. Rather ditzy Tumbler is a tumbler pigeon, a kind that sometimes does somersaults while flying. And Grandpouter Pigeon, who brings the four youngsters together, is a pouter pigeon, complete with characteristic crop (an anatomical feature that looks like a large, protruding chest). So much for the real-world connections. But everything in the story itself – actually three stories in one book – is ridiculous. These are pigeons, and pigeons love bread crumbs more than anything else, so the initial mystery about a park where there are no more bread crumbs is up close and personal for the group. It turns out that there are no bread crumbs because there are no humans in the park to drop them (well, duh) – and that is true, it turns out, because the people are frightened: the park is haunted by a monster crow that is actually a collection of many crows under the leadership of a bad guy called Jungle Crow, who has a habit of dressing up like a cat because… Well, it doesn’t really matter, because the idea is simply to show the newly formed Real Pigeons group figuring things out and working together and eventually bringing other animals and humans back to the no-longer-haunted park so there will again be bread crumbs. Ben Wood’s pervasive pictures – the book is primarily told pictorially, although it is not designed as a graphic novel – carry this story and the two succeeding ones along very adeptly and very amusingly. The second tale is about a mysterious someone or something that is trapping bats – animals that Rock has never met but decides he really, really likes when he gets to know them. This story involves a wildlife photographer, a garbage collector (the Real Pigeons have their meetings in a garbage can, so things can and do get messy), and a bad-guy bat who turns out to be a traitor to his species. And that brings us to the third story, in which the bad guys from the first two stories team up to cause a stink (literally) at a “food truck fair” where the Real Pigeons are hoping to find “bread crumbs, more bread crumbs and even more bread crumbs.” And a sausage. Yes, sausage: it turns out that Frillback’s strength comes from eating sausages, and the Real Pigeons really need that strength to get rid of the stink bomb that would otherwise spoil everything for everybody. All ends happily, with the bad guys caged (yes, literally) by a convenient fortune teller whose parakeet the Real Pigeons have conveniently freed, leaving the cage conveniently empty and available. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, really, and none of it is intended to: Real Pigeons Fight Crime is simply an amply illustrated romp of a book. And it gives every indication of being the first in an ongoing series of equally amply illustrated, equally silly, and equally enjoyable romps.

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