April 22, 2021


Phoebe and Her Unicorn 11: Camping with Unicorns. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn 12: Virtual Unicorn Experience. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn 13: Unicorn Famous. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     Although each of these books is subtitled “Another Phoebe and Her Unicorn Adventure,” singular, each is actually a set of adventures, plural, for Dana Simpson’s characters. And therein lies some of the charm of this long-running cartoon series: Simpson is constantly thinking up new ways for Phoebe and Marigold Heavenly Nostrils to interact, go places, do things, and generally cement their unlikely friendship. But not too unlikely: Marigold is not the only supernatural character in this world, and Phoebe’s parents and friends are well aware of unicorns and other magical beings (an unusual approach: parents in fantasies, if they are present at all, tend to be blissfully unaware of all the magic happening around them).

     Simpson’s multi-adventure approach means that each book’s title is at best slightly accurate, referring to a single element of the enchantments that readers will discover inside. Thus, Camping with Unicorns does indeed have a sequence in which Phoebe and Marigold go camping – along with Phoebe’s parents, Phoebe’s friend Max, his parents, and, as it turns out, Alabaster Goldwithers-Jones, a wilderness-loving unicorn who likes “roughing it” but also enjoys playing video games and therefore forms an instant bond with Max. But plenty of other small-but-enjoyable happenings happen here as well. Phoebe learns that unicorns call playing cards “inedible crackers” because, Marigold explains, “they are rectangular, bite-size, and often seen in the vicinity of onion dip.” Phoebe rereads a mystery because she already knows what happened and likes “feeling smarter than all the characters while they try and figure it out,” so Marigold says the two of them “can feel superior to fictional characters together.” The two friends see the apparently placid outside of Phoebe’s school during summer, and Phoebe thinks it must be “quiet and dark” indoors until Marigold reveals – and Simpson shows – all the magical activity going on inside, involving pixies, wood nymphs, and centaurs. Then, when school starts again, Phoebe brings Marigold with her behind the “shield of boringness” so the unicorn will not be noticed – and Marigold casts a walking-on-the-ceiling spell that has some unintended but not particularly serious consequences. Indeed, there are no serious problems of any type in the Phoebe and Her Unicorn books, which are more about exploring amusing elements of a somewhat skewed friendship than about anything portentous.

     The pattern of mostly mundane (but magical) adventures holds in Virtual Unicorn Experience. The title episode involves Phoebe wearing a magic helmet, invented by Marigold, that turns the world sparkly and colorful and tingly. It is a short sequence, but not the only technology-related one in the book. In another, Marigold’s laptop computer crashes, the cartoon panels display the notorious Windows post-crash blue screen with white lettering, and Marigold explains that a unicorn computer crash “resets everything in the immediate area.” But things are even better after the reset, with Marigold “getting many more sparkles per second.” More significantly here, to the extent that anything is significant, is a series in which Marigold auditions for a role in a unicorn play and fails to get it, leading to some very un-Marigold despondency. This is complemented later in the book when Phoebe gets Marigold’s help with a talent show: Phoebe’s act does not go well at all, but Marigold puts “the shield of boringness on in reverse mode,” so everyone thinks Phoebe was great. These little friends-helping-friends vignettes are at the heart of Phoebe and Her Unicorn, and there are always plenty of them in every collection.

     The latest book, Unicorn Famous, again has a title that refers to one specific element of what happens: humans decide unicorns are cool and start displaying unicorn photos on everything from billboards to clothing – so Marigold decides that unicorns should start to find humans cool, which turns out to be a bit more difficult than the other way around. One of the funniest lines in this book occurs when Marigold takes Phoebe on a “maintenance errand,” pronouncing those two words (as Simpson’s lettering shows) so they are gleamingly attractive, and leading Phoebe to say Marigold has almost managed to make the task sound magical. Marigold then replies, “Things can be magical and also dull.” That is a really good line – but not really reflective of the way Simpson handles magic or friendship in the Phoebe and Her Unicorn books: neither is ever dull. More typical, when Simpson goes for a bit of warmth, is a dialogue in which Phoebe gets upset, but thinks the reason she feels that way is dumb, so she does not want to tell it to Marigold. Marigold tries to promise not to think the reason is dumb, but Phoebe knows it may not be possible to keep that promise, so Marigold promises not to mind if it is dumb – leading Phoebe to remark, “That’s a really good quality in a friend.” And ultimately, the magic of friendship rather than the comparatively mundane magic of unicorns and other imaginary creatures is what all the Phoebe and Her Unicorn books are about. In fact, when some subsidiary characters temporarily share center stage with Phoebe and Marigold, this becomes especially clear – for instance, when Phoebe and her unicorn attend a ceremony where the goblins, who appear from time to time in these books, give an award to Phoebe’s “best frenemy,” Dakota. Simpson manages again and again to explore pleasantly amusing aspects of friendship through these books, with no sign of her inventiveness flagging and no fraying whatsoever of the relationship between Phoebe and her unicorn.

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