October 29, 2020


Cat Ninja 1. By Matthew Cody. Illustrated by YehudĂ­ Mercado. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Undersea Mystery Club #3: The Puzzling Paintings. By Courtney Carbone. Illustrated by Melanie Demmer. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

     The sheer adorableness of the characters in some books for young readers can help save the works from thin and formulaic plots. In fact, adorableness can seem to be the main point of some books, such as the first in a planned graphic-novel series, Cat Ninja. Who could be hardhearted enough not to be charmed by a kitten with head as big as the rest of his body, wearing a nattily designed ninja suit and the inevitable doesn’t-really-conceal-anything mask (and in stylish red, not black)? Toss in some equally adorable villains – the first story in the book features a very plump, monocle-wearing hamster who happens to be a genius inventor riding around in a Transformer-style suit of articulated armor – and you have the recipe for a lot of fun. And never mind that this particular recipe has been followed by so many writers and illustrators in so many other books. Even the words are well-worn: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of hamsters?” dates all the way back to the 1930s radio serial about The Shadow (where evil lurked in the hearts of men, not hamsters). Kids can look it up. And maybe they will, since Cat Ninja has inevitable tie-ins to everyday online life in the 21st century, with young bystanders noticing Cat Ninja (usually after he has an epic fail) and snapping cellphone pictures to be uploaded to the Internet – turning the brave crime fighter into just another meme. In his everyday life, Cat Ninja is “the pampered house cat of an eleven-year-old boy” named Leon – whose sister’s pet, Mr. Squeaks, is none other than the dastardly Master Hamster. The adorableness of the whole arrangement persists even after Cat Ninja triumphs and Master Hamster decides it’s just as well to stuff himself with food and roll around in his hamster ball as to terrify the residents of Metro City. But the cute-ification continues in a story featuring the dapper international jewel thief, Le Chat – and a large, ungainly (but still cute) dog named Adonis who turns out, even later in the book, to be a robot designed for nefarious purposes but just too darned cute to carry them out when the alternative is being a much-loved member of a sweet and loving family (in which the parents are in the middle of a divorce – a plot element given very short shrift, since it could detract from all the endearing charm everywhere). There are some genuinely funny things in Cat Ninja – whose title character, incidentally, has the only non-speaking role, for reasons never explained (he grimaces and points and gestures, but that’s all). Lord Elan Mollusk (an obvious nod to businessman Elon Musk) is hilarious: he is a mollusk, complete with a bodyguard brigade of “flail-wielding snails” who grimace toothily but cannot move quickly enough on their trails of slime to do anything to anybody. Also here is the traditional robot rampage through the city, in which the monstrous machine yells “Take that, fire hydrant!” and “Take that, car!” (Can’t have young readers think any living characters might be harmed, after all.) There is even a brief exploration of the difference between types of on-air and on-Internet commentators: “Newspeople report the news. Pundits shout.” The usual good-vs.-evil stories – the ultimate villain turns out to be named Doctor Von Malice – are much less the point here than the cast of characters. With any luck, future books in the series will give more centrality to a bit player in this first book called The Fury Roach. Yes, an adorable cockroach.

     Being cute-as-can-be is also the main point of the Undersea Mystery Club series, even though the supposed point is the solving of minor mysteries in the undersea city of Aquamarina. But the mysteries are so simple and so un-mysterious, and the central characters so adorably portrayed, that the plots become largely irrelevant – even for very young readers. The two protagonists are Violet the mermaid, with her adorably pointy ears and sweet fish tail and great big eyes and ever-present pearl necklace; and her best friend, Wally the narwhal, with his twisty unicorn-like horn and equally big eyes and nearly constant smile. In the third (+++) book of this series, The Puzzling Paintings, Violet and Wally have to figure out who has put splashes of black swirls on various buildings in Aquamarina. Well, let’s see – early on, a character named Ollie the Octopus is introduced, and he shows Violet and Wally the art he creates using his own black ink, and the art consists of black swirls, and there is always a small “o” at the bottom, and the paintings around town all have that “o,” so who could possibly be responsible? It actually takes a while for Violet and Wally to figure this out; it will take young readers about a second and a half. Of course, since there are no “bad guys” here and since Ollie, like everyone else, is adorable, it turns out that the paintings – which Violet and Wally learn are called graffiti – are all a misunderstanding: Ollie thought he was beautifying things by creating murals, but he neglected to get permission and therefore has to apologize and make amends by cleaning everything up. And at the end of the book, of course he gets to create one of his paintings in a public space with permission. Rather than good-vs.-evil, Undersea Mystery Club is along the lines of good-vs.-gooder, or something like that. But it is the sweetly rendered drawings that are the real attraction here. Even when Violet is imagining that the graffiti could have been done by a would-be robber, the illustration shows an adorable seal with a black hood over his head, pulling what is presumably a bag of loot; and when Wally thinks maybe aliens did the art, those aliens and their flying saucer are just, well, adorable. Undersea Mystery Club is extremely thin on the plot side – but is at least as much fun to look at as it is to read.

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