June 02, 2022


Big Problems, Little Problems. By Ben Feller. Illustrated by Mercè López. Tilbury House. $18.95.

Cat Kid Comic Club No. 3: On Purpose. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.

     A sweet, well-intentioned attempt to teach young children to have appropriate perspective on the major and not-so-major things in life, Ben Feller’s Big Problems, Little Problems is distinguished for the delightful two-way communication it shows between the father and son in the book (closely modeled on Feller and his own son). Despite its title, though, it is somewhat less effective in drawing a line between big and little problems, because the book indicates that all problems – at least all of those on display in the book – are small ones, or can be turned into small ones with a little bit of rethinking. That is actually a pretty darned good lesson for the specifics shown in the book, although less so for the realities that real dads and sons (and moms and daughters) will face in everyday life. One reason the teaching works so well here is that Mercè López illustrates the book so attractively – and unusually. The father-and-son drawings are accurate to the point of being almost photographic, and some of them – such as one showing dad and son getting dressed for the day, facing opposite ways and wearing clothing in complementary colors – are exceptional. But the strong sense of reality conveyed by the interactions is mitigated by the pages filled with scribbles, or with a maze through which both dad and son have to find their way, or with big blotches of color that convey everything from a missing child’s cape to a major coffee spill. About that spill: it actually shows both the strengths and weaknesses of Feller’s storytelling. Until then, the problems that seem big but turn out to be little are ones faced by the son, Sam: an uncooperative zipper, a missing article of clothing. But the coffee spill is a dad problem: Sam accidentally knocks into his dad’s coffee in the morning, causing a spill that ruins dad’s paperwork and will make him miss his train to the office. Having learned from his dad how to turn a seemingly big problem into a small one, Sam points out that his father can call the boss about being late, make more coffee, and print out more documents. So everything is fine and put into just-right perspective. Except: in the real world, coffee can spill on irreplaceable papers, or on the computer from which the printouts need to be made (in the book, it narrowly misses dad’s laptop); bosses are not invariably understanding; and later trains are not necessarily available. The idealization of the father’s situation is necessary to create a teachable moment from son to father, and certainly that is well-conveyed; but in this book, there is no quotidian problem that can be construed as a big one, and that is, to say the least, somewhat unrealistic. Still, Feller is so well-meaning, so earnest, so devoted to displaying an idealized father-and-son relationship, and so blessed to have a first-rate illustrator, that Big Problems, Little Problems is a delight to read, even though the problems that deserve to be called “big” are notable entirely by their absence.

     Putting things into perspective has also become the sole reason for being of Dav Pilkey’s Cat Kid Comic Club series – in fact, the second book in the sequence was actually called Perspectives. Unfortunately, the teaching in these (+++) books is considerably more heavy-handed and dedicated to a narrow kind of political correctness than is the instruction underlying Fuller’s work. Pilkey started Cat Kid Comic Club as a spinoff from the Dog Man series, but after the first book, he veered (or, rather, steered: this is clearly deliberate) into societal issues and very narrowly focused social commentary. In addition, these books now must be read one after the other: Pilkey makes no attempt in the later ones to explain the scene-setting or any earlier events, and in fact the third book, On Purpose, makes almost no sense if you have not read the second, which makes some sense (but not a great deal of it) if you have not read the first. Pilkey, once an unending fount of jocularity, bad puns and generalized silliness, has by now descended into a largely joyless, narrow and ugly world where “wokeness” rules and, as in Through the Looking-Glass, quoting Humpty Dumpty, “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Unfortunately, what a word or illustration now means to Pilkey is what others insist it means, which is why he has apologized for and withdrawn his Captain Underpants spinoff, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future, for having “unintended racist imagery.” Students of history – there must still be some out there – will remember that this sort of falling on one’s proverbial sword was a requirement in the Soviet Union (and other dictatorships) for one to prove one’s bona fides and be allowed again a measure of autonomy; in one example among many, composer Dmitri Shostakovich designated his Fifth Symphony “the reply of a Soviet artist to just criticism,” since otherwise his further creativity would be forbidden and his life could have been in danger. So that is the kind of world where Pilkey now chooses to live – as is shown very clearly in On Purpose when one recurring character, Naomi, tries to get a book published called The Under Werewolves. It celebrates the notion that even though people (or creatures) sometimes fight because they look different or think differently, underneath everyone is the same, as shown by the fact that everyone wears (and soon displays) underwear. It turns out that this is a bad and evil message because it fails to celebrate the required assertion that everyone is not the same underneath, but everyone is equally good and special. And this is the lesson around which Pilkey builds On Purpose. Along the way, Pilkey lets other members of the club show their latest in-club comic creations, which turn out to follow up on the creations from previous books – so, again, anyone who has not read the prior volumes in this series will be at a major disadvantage in this one. It is all rather sad: Pilkey, for all his talent and previous willingness to step gingerly beyond the usual boundaries of books for young readers, now marches in lockstep with the ugliest, most narrow-minded thinking of the day – the sort of thinking that leads to even uglier, even narrower-minded responses from people who overreact to one set of demands by creating an entirely new and opposite set of them. Ugh. So much for fun – that element of Cat Kid Comic Club has largely fallen by the wayside, which is really too bad, since it occasionally rears its harmless head in stories about “Supa Fail” and “Chubbs McSpiderbutt.” But “harmless” must be the wrong word, since the underlying lesson of On Purpose, and of Pilkey’s own mea culpa about himself, is that nothing is harmless unless sufficiently sanitized and approved by the denizens of the Court of Star Chamber, whose self-chosen mission is to stamp out all dissent from a specified worldview, with the undermining of amusement being construed as no more than collateral damage.

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