September 17, 2020


Big Nate: The Gerbil Ate My Homework. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Little Big Nate: No Nap! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $7.99.

     Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate has been caught in a time warp for more than a quarter of a century. Big Nate is, when you think deeply about it (which you probably shouldn’t), a rather strange comic strip. Nate is a perpetual sixth-grader, either 11 or 12 years old (that has varied a little bit over the years). But he moves through a normal school-year calendar, with Peirce showing him arriving after summer, going through the usual holidays (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.), taking midterm and (eventually) final exams, and then bouncing joyously out of school and into summer vacation. But then, after some summertime hijinks, Nate goes back to school – and sixth grade starts all over again, as if the previous school year (indeed, many previous school years) never happened. This goes even beyond the usual “willing suspension of disbelief” (apologies to Coleridge) that comic strips, like other creative works, require. And it is harder to accept in some Big Nate collections than in others. The Gerbil Ate My Homework poses a particular puzzle. It opens with continuations of two stories collected previously, one involving the health emergency of art teacher Mr. Rosa and one involving Nate dating a seventh-grader named Trudy. Clearly these stories must progress through time, and so they do. Things quickly return to normal in Mr. Rosa’s class, which again exists in a kind of eternal present. But matters are more complicated with Nate and Trudy: he breaks up with her because he misses spending time with his sixth-grade friends, while she insists on doing things only with other seventh-graders. Nate’s friends do not believe he would initiate a breakup with such a good catch, but they eventually understand that he did, and Nate claims to be moving on with some newfound maturity (to which his behavior quickly gives the lie, of course). Trudy too is shown (briefly) to have moved on. But now what? Is Trudy going to be a perpetual seventh-grader and Nate’s ex? Will she transfer out of P.S. 38 so Peirce can ignore any awkwardness of keeping her around? What will happen in the future, or rather the “future present,” in which Nate lives? This gets complicated. In contrast, many of the things that happen in Big Nate are time-independent. The Gerbil Ate My Homework has a title that comes from a sequence in which Nate, who has forgotten to do homework for his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, gets the class gerbil to chew up a piece of paper so Nate can claim he did the work but the fact that it is gone is the gerbil’s fault. Nate’s friend, Francis, asks Sherman, the gerbil, “How’s it feel to be drawn into a tawdry web of lies and deceit?” And Sherman gets a thought balloon showing him thinking, “It’s a living.” That scene could happen anytime, in any of Nate’s many sixth-grade years. And so could the sequence in which Nate tries to think up alternative names for Francis, mentioning that if he had not been Nate, his name would have been Ethan. That is interesting: could it be that his name is really Nathan, with Nate being a nickname? Peirce provides no further information on that compelling topic. What he does do, here as in all the Big Nate collections, is cycle through an apparently endless series of variations on a theme, that theme being Nate’s personality and the way it interacts with those of his friends, including Francis, Teddy, and Dee Dee (who is becoming a more important part of the group); with his hapless father and teenaged older sister; and with the various denizens of P.S. 38 – principal, teachers, and classmates. Big Nate works so well precisely because so much of it is timeless. But every once in a while, time-sensitive elements such as the Mr. Rosa and Trudy stories draw a bit more attention than usual to the fact that the eternal present of the strip is really more of a Möbius strip, always circling back on itself and never giving Nate – or his fans – a chance to embrace a real-world timeline.

     Yet there is some sense in which Nate has surely progressed in time – witness Peirce’s board books for younger readers and pre-readers, featuring not-so-big Nate. The new one in this series is called Little Big Nate: No Nap! It is fun to look at this book and The Gerbil Ate My Homework side by side and see just how Peirce modifies Nate’s traditional six-grade look for toddler purposes. The same strange seven-clump hair appears at both ages, as do the semicircular ears, but Little Big Nate has a much more rounded face, almost but not quite in Charlie Brown mode. More importantly, Nate’s attitudes and fantasies have continuity between his two ages. The new Little Big Nate book appears to take place at preschool. No adults are seen, but the book starts with someone saying “Nap time, everybody!” to younger versions of Francis, Teddy and Dee Dee. “Ugh. Nate hates naps,” writes Peirce, and unhappy Nate’s scowling, one-eyed teddy bear reflects the feeling. Nate obediently lies down (as does the teddy bear) and starts to think of all the things he would like to do instead of taking a nap – each thing shown in a drawing style intended to be more or less what Little Big Nate himself would produce (just as, in the sixth-grade Big Nate books, Nate is responsible for cartoons whose style differs from the one usually employed by Peirce). So we see Nate sitting on huge piles of cookies and happily munching them, flying a kite, being a crime-fighting superhero, riding a mammoth, even walking on the moon. Then, suddenly, Nate wakes up! Yes, all that imagining, it turns out, happened while Nate had the nap that he didn’t want to have – and at the end he admits, “That was fun!” And his teddy bear, now smiling, clearly agrees. These short board books show a side of Nate that differs from the one displayed in the usual Big Nate comic strips and the books that collect them – and young kids who enjoy the board books will presumably, at some point, be drawn into the adventures of an older Nate. The question remains, though: at what point did Little Big Nate morph into Big Nate, and at what point did Big Nate enter into the endless circle (or Möbius strip) that represents his sixth-grade life? There is probably a deep philosophical explanation of all this somewhere out there, but readers – both of the Little Big Nate board books and the Big Nate collections – will most likely be too busy enjoying Peirce’s productions to search hard for the answer. Besides, the gerbil probably ate it.

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