April 02, 2020
(++++) CLASSICS AND WANNABES
“Peanuts” Collection No. 14—Snoopy: First Beagle in Space. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.
Creature Campers #2: Surprise under the Stars. By Joe McGee. Illustrated by Bea Tormo. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.
Undersea Mystery Club #2: Trouble with Treasure. By Courtney Carbone. Illustrated by Melanie Demmer. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.
Although Charles Schulz died 20 years ago, the characteristics that made Peanuts so special are every bit as evident now as they were during the strip’s remarkable half-century run. The latest Peanuts collection offers some especially interesting ways to become aware of that, because it focuses on strips associated with space travel – the first moon landing itself is now a 50-years-ago event – and includes, at the very end, six strips from the 1950s that show Schulz’s long-term interest in the heavens above and the way he handled material (and character design) in the early days of the strip. The main portion of the book includes all the usual characters having their usual opinions. Lucy decides that “the whole solar system needs adjusting.” Linus reads in a book that the moon moves away from Earth at the rate of about five feet per hundred years and comments that “I thought it looked a little farther away than before.” Snoopy declares himself “a great believer in our space program” because astronauts have discovered that there are no spiders on the moon. And Charlie Brown reassures a worried Snoopy that the moon will not fall on his head during the night. All the concerns and frustrations are entirely in character for the Peanuts cast, and that is one reason the long-running strip remained so excellent for so many years: it was low-key character comedy, an ensemble piece that could center for a time on any individual while having the others temporarily in his or her orbit. In the latest collection, for example, Charlie Brown’s enormous baseball expertise – that is, his ability to lose every single game in which he participates – is put to the test when top athlete Peppermint Patty lets him pitch when her team is leading 50-0 and there are two outs in the final inning. Charlie Brown accidentally hits her with a ball, so she has to go home, and when she later finds out the result of the game, it turns out that her team lost 51-50. That is just as much a part of Charlie Brown’s life as his never-ending quest to kick the football held by Lucy (one of those failures appears in the latest book). As for Peppermint Patty’s life, it revolves around sports – there is a sequence here in which she decides to become a pro golfer so she can avoid school until she is rich and famous, although her plan does not quite work out. However, she does discover that she enjoys a book – Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, an 1865 novel more familiar in the mid-20th century than it is today – and tells her teacher, “Thank you for forcing us to read it.” Elsewhere, Lucy decides that a picture is not worth a thousand words – only 810. And in a typical exchange with Beethoven fanatic Schroeder, Lucy reads from a paper she is writing, “Beethoven was born in 1770. He never played hockey.” It is true that some elements of Peanuts have not stood the test of time: Schulz did occasionally make specific references to people or events that were highly familiar in past decades but are comparatively obscure now. But thanks to the careful selection of strips in Snoopy: First Beagle in Space and other posthumous collections, what comes through again and again is how much of the gentle, somewhat wistful, slightly dark humor of Peanuts is just as enjoyable today as it was when Schulz first created it.
Schulz was by all accounts modest and unassuming, and the many later cartoonists he influenced have said he was never one to seek fame for himself or his creation. The situation is quite different with many creators today. For example, the avowed intent of “Epic! Originals,” an Internet-based reading platform for kids that now has some creations in traditional book form, is “to nurture a lifelong love of reading and learning in kids everywhere.” Certainly that is a laudable goal, but it tends to result in works whose lessons are laid on a bit too thickly and a touch too simplistically – even for kids in the 5-8 age range, for whom two new “Epic!” books are intended. These are second entries in (+++) series called, respectively, Creature Campers and Undersea Mystery Club. And the new books assume that kids are already familiar with the settings established in the initial volumes. This is especially true in the case of Surprise under the Stars, because there is not even a single page explaining who the campers are and how the ill-assorted (but supposedly well-assorted) group came to be. Readers will either have to pick things up in snippets as the book goes on or refer back to the previous volume to understand how a human (Oliver) has ended up at a camp in the same group as a bigfoot (Norm), a fairy who has trouble flying (Wisp), and a rather hyperactive jackalope (Hazel). The camp is run by a gnome (Grumplestick); the group’s counselor is an alien (Zeena). The characters’ appearances define them and become part of the “lesson” element, which is all about accepting and reveling in differences and learning how everybody (and everything) has different but equal skills that blend perfectly with everybody else’s (and everything else’s). The story, which gets going immediately, has to do with learning map and compass skills by following clues that require cooperation. For example, a map shows the number of footsteps needed to get to various places, but whose footsteps? Also, it is necessary at one point to catch (and release) a bullfrog, but who is best suited to do that, and how? Hovering just beyond most of the scenes is a non-frightening bad guy named Barnaby Snoop, who collects creatures for his carnival, is determined to capture Norm, and of course is thoroughly incompetent (and inclined to talk directly to the reader). The book’s climax involves Barnaby almost catching Norm, but instead being rescued by him and the other campers, and deciding by book’s end that maybe he should be nice instead of nasty. The way that plays out, if it does, will be the topic of the next book. Everything here is so earnest, so well-meaning, that it more or less asks adults for praise – which, however, is not quite the same as earning the kind of admiration that someone like Charles Schulz obtained through careful planning and long-term diligence.
The second Undersea Mystery Club has a specific lesson of its own to teach: history is important, the past matters, and today’s young people will enjoy learning about things that happened long ago if they will only focus on them instead of on the topic of the moment. Actually, Trouble with Treasure is careful not to criticize modern kids’ predilections in any way – one reason these series are a bit saccharine is that they do not really suggest that anything they favor is “better” than anything else, since that would apparently be too judgmental for “Epic!” The protagonists in Undersea Mystery Club are a mermaid named Violet and her buddy, a narwhal named Wally. The plot of Trouble with Treasure is designed as a “teachable” moment from the beginning: during spring cleaning, Violet sorts out her old drawings and photos to be thrown away; her mother says that is a bad idea, because history is important; later, Violet and Wally find a treasure chest that turns out to be a time capsule from their town, Aquamarina; everyone is happy to recover the town’s history; and Violet realizes how important it is to stay in touch with the past. After the story ends, there are several pages explaining what historians do and why they are important – and suggesting that kids make time capsules of their own. Undersea Mystery Club goes even further than Creature Campers in its determination to guide and instruct readers and get them to accept and appreciate specific things that they might otherwise be disinclined to care about. Trouble with Treasure is as much a lecture as a story: it is certainly well-intentioned, but whether the thin plot and little-developed characters will be enough to convince young readers of the joys of paying attention to history is very much an open question.