November 23, 2022


A Million Views. By Aaron Starmer. Penguin Workshop. $17.99.

Cat Ninja 4: Welcome to the ’Burbs. By Matthew Cody and Alejandro Arbona. Illustrated by Chad Thomas and Derek Laufman. Colors by Warren Wucinich. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     The first thing to know about A Million Views is that it is not about a million views. The title is essentially Aaron Starmer’s excuse to dress up a traditional preteen friendship-is-everything novel in suitably up-to-date clothing, centering on a would-be 12-year-old director of YouTube videos and his struggles and successes both online and IRL (“in real life”). The key to the whole book is stated pretty directly about halfway through: “His biggest worry used to be about getting the perfect shots, and now, suddenly, it was about one of the actors, or crew members, being taken away on a stretcher. Whether he got a good shot or not didn’t matter if someone got hurt. Or at least, it wasn’t the only thing that mattered. If he wanted this to succeed – and he did want it to succeed – then he had to think about other people. What a concept!” So this is a tale of Brewster’s maturation and self-discovery, with the usual byways into family matters (his parents have an odd, sort-of-separated relationship, and his 17-year-old sibling, complete with a surfeit of with-it “them/their” pronouns, is uncertain and confused in “their” own way). As for Brewster himself, he has made short YouTube videos before but is now determined to do something much bigger – a three-minute trailer for a movie that does not exist. For this book’s core audience, three minutes will indeed seem like a long time, so the length (or shortness) of the project is not an issue here. What Starmer does is show the many ways in which the trailer becomes a chance not only for Brewster to learn more about filmmaking (one of the other kids involved in the project knows even more moviemaking terms and concepts than he does) but also for him to, in effect, find the power to create his own “family” (his six co-workers on the trailer) to supplement, if not entirely replace, his “official,” dysfunctional one. “Mostly, he wanted a connection, an assurance that his family was in this together,” Starmer writes of Brewster, but Brewster’s “official” family is off in different directions – and it is his self-created family that turns out really to matter. The characters do not have strongly differentiated personalities – there’s the one worthy of being the trailer’s star, the one with the money to finance the project, the two who are “odd” in different ways but whose peculiarities turn out to match perfectly with Brewster’s project, and so on. Along the way to making the trailer for the nonexistent Carly Lee and the Land of Shadows, which maybe, just maybe, might maybe get maybe a million views (maybe), Brewster also meets various other people who just happen to fit perfectly into their needed roles in the project, such as the farmer who provides a crucial piece of equipment at just the right time – and the friend who buys that costly equipment for no really discernible reason when the “producer” backs out at the last minute. There is so much goodness and helpfulness baked into A Million Views that it is almost impossible not to enjoy the book if you are a preteen who dreams of social-media success despite things not going particularly well IRL. Starmer’s foundational message, that real-life friends are what really count and one’s “official” family is far less important than the “family” one creates for a suitable project, is right in line with what preteens will find in many, many other novels targeted at their age group. Also traditional is the book’s message about everyone feeling like an outsider: set in Vermont, A Million Views makes it a point to toss in some unexplained Vermont references to show how a displaced-from-elsewhere person would feel (“creemees and witch windows”), and there is even a subsidiary plot about making a video for school about how it feels to be an outsider. Starmer knits the whole thing together well; and although the plot echoes that of many other books for the same age group and tends to creak at the seams a bit (as with the magical appearance of financing when needed, not once but twice), the book is well-intentioned from start to finish and no creakier than others of the same genre. Many in the target audience will find it worth a read, if scarcely a million of them.

     The “family” is of a different clichéd type – the crime family – in the fourth Cat Ninja graphic novel, which is for just about the same age group as A Million Views but targets readers who do not take themselves nearly as seriously as do Brewster and his friends. In this installment of the utterly silly but somehow endearing series, Cat Ninja and his human family have relocated for the time being from Metro City to the quiet, classy , nothing-much-ever-happens suburb of Peaceful Valley, where obviously there is going to be dirty work afoot. Or, in this case, a-fin. Peaceful Valley is under the boot…err, tail…of The Goldfather, a goldfish evolved to intelligence and nastiness through the use of an evolving unit created by Doctor Von Malice, whose vile genius-ness lies behind pretty much everything bad (and silly) in the Cat Ninja books. Bad guy Fish-Face Malone turns the evolving unit on a particularly nasty-looking goldfish, which promptly evolves legs and turns the evolving unit’s setting to “devolve” and points it at Malone, who ends up even more fish-faced than he was in the first place. And then The Goldfather makes sure that everyone in Peaceful Valley has goldfish in bowls and that everybody is engaged in the manufacture of fish flakes. So while Cat Ninja sits around being bored in the dull suburbs, along with also-bored comrade and onetime nemesis Master Hamster, Metro City is left under the protective aegis of Octopunch, “the eight-fisted defender of justice,” creating a certain amount of jealousy among the various super-things out there. There is also some jealousy in the human family, with Marcie proving a lot better than Leon at making new friends in Peaceful Valley. Adonis the robot dog is part of the family unit as well, adding his brand of comic relief to the other brands, of which there are several. The best scenes in Welcome to the ’Burbs are ones in which Cat Ninja, who has injured his leg doing his usual escapades while breaking into The Goldfather’s headquarters, tries to fight in his typical ninja style anyway and keeps re-harming himself. The title of Chapter 5 is pretty good, too: “He Who Rules the Toilets Rules the World!” It turns out that Master Hamster, who has repaired the broken Evolver Ray under duress, has called on his inner “criminal genius” to create some surprises in the unit for The Goldfather and his minions, and of course everything gets wrapped up neatly. Well, pretty sloppily, actually – The Goldfather’s headquarters is a sewage plant – but you get the idea. The book also contains a bonus story featuring Adonis and a villain named Rhino Blasty, who is determined to enlarge the nose on the Abe Lincoln statue at Mount Rushmore because why not? Absurdities pile on each other pretty much interminably in Welcome to the ’Burbs, and there is sure to be more of the same in a forthcoming new Cat Ninja book, since the main story here ends with the reappearance from earlier episodes of some additional baddies who seem to be all set to team up with The Goldfather for reasons that are sure to be as nefarious as possible. It’s Marcie and Leon, their clueless parents, and Cat Ninja and Master Hamster as one family, plus a slew of feckless evildoers as another. Guesswork not required to figure out who, or what, will inevitably come out on top.

No comments:

Post a Comment