January 26, 2023


Grumpy Monkey: Valentine Gross-Out. By Suzanne Lang. Illustrated by Max Lang. Random House Studio. $10.99.

Big Nate: Prank You Very Much. Based on Nickelodeon episodes written by Sarah Allen, Mitch Watson, Emily Brundige, and Eric Shaw. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     The curmudgeon with a heart of gold is a longstanding trope of stories of all kinds, and can be especially appealing when readers get to see the complainer’s expressions in addition to reading about them. That makes grump-focused children’s books a natural fit for characters of this sort, and grumps just don’t come more entertaining than Suzanne Lang’s Grumpy Monkey – with Max Lang’s picture-prefect illustrations showcasing the simian shenanigans to excellent effect. The latest incarnation of Grumpy Monkey is love-themed, which seems a contradiction in terms. But it isn’t, really: Valentine Gross-Out allows Jim Panzee, aka Grumpy Monkey, plenty of pages to complain about all the lovey-dovey stuff that animals are doing, and the best pictures in the book appear on those pages – the ones of lovingly entwined snakes and of turtles slow-dancing are laugh-out-loud funny and thoroughly appropriate. Of course, this being a book for children, the complaints can be taken only so far – which means about halfway through the narrative. At that point, the thoroughly grossed-out Jim hears from buddy Norman the gorilla that “Valentine’s Day isn’t just about couples” because “there are lots of kinds of love” – parents’ and children’s love for each other, for example, and love for one’s friends. This starts the inevitable transition from grumpiness to pleasure, as the increasingly wide-eyed Grumpy Monkey sets about “showing the people you love that you love them.” And so Jim Panzee makes valentines for all his friends and family, gives them out to everybody, and basks in the smiles and enjoyment of all those around him – except…well, even Norman has said that “all the kissing is pretty gross,” and this wouldn’t be a Grumpy Monkey book unless a touch of grumpiness had a chance to re-emerge at the end. So it does – with an illustration of two birds pecking bills with each other as Jim shouts, “GROSS!” Kids who share Jim’s disdain for kissing will especially enjoy one of the more than three dozen stickers included with the book – the one showing two smooching frogs with a cross-out line through the scene and the words “NO kissing.” The close-up of Jim saying “GROSS!” makes a pretty neat sticker, too. Other stickers are simple hearts, scenes of individual animals and animal pairs, a touch of word play (the words “Heads Over Peels” with Jim leaping over a banana), and even one sticker that adults will have to explain to kids and may need look up themselves: a bear with heart and honeycomb and the words “You Are the Bee’s Knees.” Good luck with that. But little luck is needed to enjoy Grumpy Monkey: Valentine Gross-Out, because the whole lighthearted book is created with so much un-gross skill.

     The pleasures are of a different order in a new Big Nate book based loosely on Lincoln Peirce’s long-running comic strip but illustrated in the style of the Nickelodeon animated series about Nate and his friends. Followers of Peirce’s original will have a strong sense of anticipation when reading the title Prank You Very Much, since Nate, in the strip, is the grand master of Prank Day at P.S. 38, and the creative weirdnesses that Peirce creates to showcase Nate’s mischief-making ability are always delightful. Alas, the (+++) Prank You Very Much has far too little to do with pranks: of the book’s four chapters, only the two short sequences are prank-focused, with the two much longer stories trying much, much too hard to be clever and illustrative of…well, of something-or-other, although just what that might be is never quite clear. The first prank-oriented short piece has Nate discussing how to create successful pranks, but the examples do not rise to the level of the ones in Peirce’s strips. In fact, they are actually out of character at times – for instance, when shy and neurotic neighbor dog Spitsy is here portrayed as a menacing pooch attaching himself to the rear end of Nate’s feckless father. The second prank story is somewhat better: Nate pranks yearbook editor Gina, his student nemesis, by getting into the yearbook’s photo file, “improving” the pictures of his friends and himself, and making a mess of other visuals. Again, consistency with Peirce’s strip is not a hallmark of this story: Principal Nichols, usually a benign (if often overwrought) figure in Nate’s life, here becomes explosively angry – his head is actually rendered as an erupting volcano at one point. This might be funny on TV, but in a book, it draws too much attention to the ways in which the adaptation of Peirce’s strip falls somewhat short. As for the longer stories in Prank You Very Much, they are focused less on Nate himself and more on the groups, or groupies, with which he interacts – in fact, the de-emphasis on Nate and the attempt to create multi-person “character comedy” is a significant difference between the TV series and the comic strip, and does not work to the television show’s benefit. One long story is about the huge pimple that Nate finds on his forehead one day, and the ways in which it becomes a source of power and miracles throughout the school – a premise so ridiculous that it never quite gets off the ground, and is made worse by an attempt to mingle it with a story about a stuck-up and incompetent drama teacher and his relationship with Nate’s drama-queen friend Dee Dee. The kids’ shouts of “Blessed be the pimple!” and Nate’s own, later on, of “Pimple, pimple, why have you forsaken me?” are a touch too far on the sacrilegious side to be genuinely funny, and the ways in which characters learn that the pimple has no real power are also overdone: for example, Principal Nichols is here again misused, saying, “my big score didn’t pay off and now I gotta skip town before some very angry monkeys tear my face off!” The other extended story has Nate’s friend Francis tutoring a girl from P.S. 38’s arch-rival school, Jefferson – although just why Principal Nichols would arrange this is never explained. The tutoring occurs as the two schools’ very different costume balls are being planned, with the theme of the P.S. 38 one involving a sort-of-scary “Corn Girl” school legend that makes no sense at all. In addition to all this, Nate plans to have his whole friend group (including Francis) costumed as “Time Disruptors,” a ridiculous superhero squad – but Francis becomes involved with Sabina, the girl he is tutoring, which complicates matters. One extended section of this story has Francis singing to and about Sabina – another of those elements that might work on TV but that just come across as rather pathetic in print. And speaking of pathos, again there is Principal Nichols being thoroughly demeaned as a character: “Please don’t judge me. I’m an underpaid middle school academic with a 401k matching at two percent.” Oh well – individual elements in Prank You Very Much are enjoyable, even if the overall story arcs are disappointing. The couple of pages of actual Peirce drawings in the book, however, show just how far the TV show has drifted from the Big Nate comic strip – and not to the show’s advantage.

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