fake book reviews

Tales of trash and timbales

February 18th, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Otis Takes a Job
Two Picnic Surprises for Otis
Otis and the Field Day
by Guilherme Bistecca. (Spanner Juvenile, 2008–2009)

The “anthropomorphized truck” subgenre of juvenile literature is certainly oversaturated, and this reviewer’s longstanding opinion is that it is difficult to improve on classic tales like Demosthenes Upsall’s Ack, Another Delivery!, which features an iconic (albeit trademark-scrubbed) brown truck at the end of a long day, or Kensym Mooch’s That Is Not Yet A Pile of Sand, in which a dump truck confronts the Sorites paradox head-on. However, the protagonists of these tales are fully-grown and have entered their vehicular vocations.

otis.png Guilherme Bistecca’s Otis series focuses instead on the day-to-day life of a young anthropomorphized truck (the titular Otis) and his parents, who live in a nondescript ranch house in what appears to be a medium-size town. Otis and his parents have adventures that are sure to be well-known to families with kindergarden or primary-school age children, and indeed Otis often appears to be a little boy in the form of a garbage truck.

The conflicts in these tales revolve around familiar tropes: growing up too fast (Otis Takes a Job, in which he elects to do his father’s trash route and discovers that he is not up to the task), problem solving and care of the environment (Two Picnic Surprises for Otis), and the happy synergy between friendship and sportsmanship (Otis and the Field Day). Many solutions to the problems in these stories seem almost cravenly targeted to the sensibilities of young boys: there is almost no dilemma that cannot be solved by the introduction of a good nap, a bowl of ice cream, or some friendly construction equipment (including a literal deus ex machina when two cranes come to the rescue in one of the Picnic Surprises).

Otis is a likable and recognizable character, though, and his parents are depicted as intelligent and worthy of respect — a delightful contrast to the buffoonish adults in most contemporary children’s fiction. (Apparently, Spanner Juvenile has already begun marketing Otis-branded products; my press kit included an adult-sized t-shirt with the Otis image above and a toddler-sized sweatshirt with a similar image.)

Recommended for toddlers and young children, especially truck-fascinated little boys.

The Unhappy Okapi Practices the Timbales
by Søren and Trine Tyggegummi. (Arbitrary Haus, 2009)

Critics will surely regard 2008 as Søren Tyggegummi’s annus mirabilis. The Arturo, Zoltan, and Gabor characters have made their way onto a staggering range of licensed products. His From Arturo to Zoltan: An Unhappy Okapi Encyclopedia has been a remarkable commercial success despite receiving a great deal of critical derision. (In fact, your scribe has it on good authority that the midnight launch party alone resuscitated one troubled bricks-and-mortar bookseller.) Tyggegummi’s personal life seems to be bright as well: after weeks of nagging rumors, he shed his “international children’s-book-authoring playboy” image, wedding Norwegian bubblegum chanteuse Trine Magnussen in a private ceremony last July.

The former Miss Magnussen joins her new husband in writing this latest effort, which is apparently their attempt to fuse the burgeoning subgenre of Carribean-percussion-themed children’s fiction with the Unhappy Okapi universe. Mrs. Tyggegummi’s musical aspirations — and alas, also her musical capacities — are on full display in this volume, which includes thirty-six full pages of sheet music and a code for digital downloads of several songs involving characters and situations from the familiar Arturo and Zoltan canon.

The story itself is roughly up to the standards that we have come to expect from recent installments in the Unhappy Okapi series, and the illustrations are a welcome change from the coarse and derivative images that defined the Albrecht era. However, the story’s heavy reliance on sung dialog and the hypnotic afro-Caribbean Nyahbinghi rhythm may make it difficult for some parents to read to their children. Furthermore, the near-total absence of narrative conflict (Arturo wants to get better at the timbales, so he practices; end of story) may prove ultimately disappointing for more sophisticated children. Nevertheless, this title is recommended for young toddlers, especially those who have shown disproportionate interest in percussion instruments.

See these, in order, if you have no idea what’s going on here: 1, 2, 3.

Time-out For Contingency

July 22nd, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

I’ve just received an advance copy of K. Mooch’s eagerly anticipated Time-out for Contingency (first mentioned here); I’m glad to be able to share this delightful excerpt with you:


In subsequent pages — which I do not reproduce here for reasons of space and copyright — Daddy demonstrates that, even given a transitive reachability relation between possible worlds, assuming the possible permissibility of placing one’s feet on the table introduces a contradiction. My full review is still pending, but I am already sure that this book will quickly come to be regarded as the Iliad of Kripke-inspired children’s fiction.

A sciurine Werther

June 18th, 2008  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Choppy Goes To School, by Wenceslaus Davies-Jones. (Spanner Juvenile, 2008)

Many authors of juvenile literature have made great contributions to mollifying troubled children in various situations: going to bed, going to the doctor, the arrival of a new sibling (cf. Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight, Moon, Søren Tyggegummi’s Zoltan Pays For His Parents’ Vaccine Panic, and Eric Carle’s The Very Lonely Toddler, respectively). The best of these sorts of didactic books are cherished by children and parents alike, and one gets the sense that Wenceslaus Davies-Jones envisions Choppy Goes to School as a new representative of this fine tradition. Unfortunately, one also gets the sense that he is almost totally wrong.

This treacly tale more-or-less details the antics of Choppy Chipmunk as he prepares to attend school for the first time. The colors are bright and garish; the overall presentation is crude, unrefined, and amateurish. Indeed, if we were not told that Choppy was intended to be a chipmunk, it would be difficult to determine as much from his likeness. One sincerely hopes that Davies-Jones’ incompetent illustrations are meant to evoke the finger-paintings of untalented children, but this conceit cannot excuse the dismal typography, which appears to employ Comic Sans.

The unattractive construction of this slim volume does little to hide the total lack of any redeeming value in the narrative. Choppy is basically a sciurine Werther (note his day-glo coat and the “Lotte Lemur” character), whining his way through a wholly unremarkable first-day-of-school scenario and demonstrating baleful self-pity grossly disproportionate to his circumstances. Unfortunately for the state of children’s literature, Choppy fares rather better than his young German counterpart, although the saccharine ending, in which a cliched, uncritical feel-good-about-yourself message is cheapened by the protagonist’s reliance on particular name-brand toys, might leave parents wishing that Choppy had instead told Lotte Lemur that he was going on a journey.

Cashing in: an extended review

April 8th, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

This is the third in my brief series of capsule reviews of children’s fiction. See here and here first for background on the Arturo and Zoltan stories.

From Arturo To Zoltan: an Unhappy Okapi Encyclopedia, edited by Søren Tyggegummi. (Arbitrary Haus, 2008).

Perhaps no one is more surprised than Søren Tyggegummi at the absurd success of his Unhappy Okapi franchise, which now spans seventeen short books, a lucrative cross-merchandising arrangement with a national fast-food chain, countless plush toys and action figures, two albums of “Okapi Sing-Alongs,” and a trilogy of computer-animated films featuring the voice talents of Alex Winter, Ian McKellen, and Lorraine Bracco, scheduled to hit theaters starting in 2009. Tyggegummi’s personal story makes the tremendous popularity of his tales all the more remarkable: as recently as 2004, he was living in a shack in the slums outside Copenhagen, telling his stories to disaffected youths for spare kroner — now, he is an international celebrity at the head of a multimedia sensation and in no small part responsible for the unexpected resurgence of Arbitrary Haus as a major player in the juvenile literature market.

Unfortunately, this hastily-assembled tome provides clear evidence that the Unhappy Okapi canon suffers greatly when subjected to the “fan encyclopedia” treatment, which demands compromise and filler from even the most meticulously arranged imaginary universes. Few readers will have their enjoyment of the stories enhanced by the trivial, strange, and — in some cases — inconsistent details included here, such as the “fact” that Arturo never learned to write in cursive (unlikely, given his impressive display in The Unhappy Okapi Illuminates), or that safari parties are almost exclusively composed of Methodists. Some entries, like Gabor’s collection of jackdaw recipes, are simply morbid, and there are whole sections devoted to characters (like Kundry the Koala) who never appear in the books or other properties.

A casual observer might see such a thick book (the American edition is over 250 pages) and assume that the Arturo mythology is fully fleshed out; this buyer would do well to reconsider. In fact, only the first forty pages even plausibly relate to the well-known stories; the remainder of the book is dominated by a collection of public-domain material, including several complete entries from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica and a collection of baroque woodcuts of various fantastical creatures (e.g. manticore, cockatrice, and basilisk). The book also includes a sixty-page essay by Slavoj Žižek on the semiotics of wordplay as it relates to contemporary myth and empire. While there is perhaps a tenuous connection between Žižek’s piece and the increasingly wordplay-obsessed later works in the series, this addition is unlikely to be edifying to the target audience for the Unhappy Okapi stories. Recommended for completists only, and with extreme reservation.

Two more book reviews

April 8th, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

See here first for background on the Arturo and Zoltan stories.

Zoltan Goes Home, by Søren Tyggegummi and Jeremy Albrecht. (Arbitrary Haus, 2007)

After a well-received string of adventures with his friend Arturo (see The Unhappy Okapi, The Unhappy Okapi Learns to Unicycle, The Unhappy Okapi and the Best Spinach Sandwich Ever, and The Unhappy Okapi Writes An Impossibly Short Pangram), Zoltan the jackdaw heads home to his family. Illustrator Albrecht shares writing credits with Tyggegummi in this installment, which is rather darker in tone than the Arturo books but shares its immediate predecessor’s nearly prurient obsession with parlor-game wordplay. (For example, Zoltan is only able to escape from Gabor the butcher and his jackdaw-pie machine by offering five versions of a popular nursery rhyme — each avoiding a separate vowel.) While older children may appreciate Zoltan’s linguistic cleverness and ability to escape sticky situations, the setting may be rather grim for younger readers, and it is never made completely clear why Zoltan and his immediate family choose to live in a village in which jackdaws are prized as a delicacy.

Who Moved Daddy’s Ontology?, by Kensym G. Mooch. (University of Chicago Press, 2008)

This whimsical tale, presented in a handsome board book with sturdy pop-up flaps, recounts the metaphysical crisis that ensues one Saturday afternoon when Daddy can’t find his ontology — a situation that is sure to be familiar to most parents of toddlers. The book is rather longer than many board books, and it presents many alternative ontologies as Daddy and Johnny search the house (a particular delight is the melancholy family cat’s Wittgensteinian take, which was hidden inside the piano bench). Sensitive young readers may be concerned by the length of time it takes for Daddy to recover his ontology and his increasing angst as the narrative wears on; some parents may wish to use discretion, especially for children with shorter attention spans or who are easily troubled by metaquestions about the nature of existence. The exciting conclusion is likely to raise more questions than it answers, but the bright colors and easy pop-ups should offer hours of entertainment to small eyes and tiny fingers.

(Editor’s note: expect a review in the near future of Mooch’s anticipated next book, Time-out for Contingency, in which Daddy demonstrates that there is no possible world related to this one in which it is acceptable to put one’s feet on the table.)

Children’s books reviewed

April 7th, 2008  |  Tags: , , , , ,  |  2 Comments

Birthday Trouble and other Martin Mongoose Mysteries, by Ewa Czarnecki (translated from Polish by Pawel Marcik). (Spanner Juvenile, 2008)

This installment in the long-running Martin Mongoose series is the first to make its way to the States. Martin is a clever animal detective who wears an overcoat and — with his bubble-pipe-smoking, monocled sidekick Friedrich Fox — solves various petty crimes by catching suspects in subtle but ultimately trivial contradictions. Since many of these involve absurdly specialist knowledge (e.g., “The case of the Swiss Miss,” in which a character who is putatively from Zurich is caught in a lie when she expresses a preference for slab-serif typefaces), they are unlikely to improve the deductive skills of young readers. Furthermore, Marcik’s rendering preserves the essential meaning of Czarnecki’s original, but not its meter or rhyme schemes. If your child enjoys other stories involving animal detectives or mongooses with birthdays, you might give this a shot, but you may wish to wait until it inevitably reaches the remainder pile.

The Unhappy Okapi, by Søren Tyggegummi. (Arbitrary Haus, 2005)

This heartwarming tale follows the exploits of Arturo, an okapi with a big secret, and his best friend Zoltan, a jackdaw who is far away from home. The two enjoy several comic misadventures before learning valuable lessons about regular motor vehicle maintenance, the importance of family, and proper dining etiquette. The watercolor illustrations, by Eric Carle disciple Jeremy Albrecht, are sparse and derivative (one snide young reader remarked: “what is this, The Very Hungry Jackdaw?“), but they do not detract from the sparkling prose. Recommended for very aggressive toddlers and their parents.

Fume Hoods for Oliver, by Geoff Froberger. (Kruhft & Sons, 2007)

Oliver is a charming sea otter who lives in the Pacific Northwest. While most of his family and friends are content to playfully frolic in the waves, occasionally cracking mussel shells with flat rocks, Oliver is unhappy. His dream is to be a bench scientist and — eventually — to become a principal investigator of important scientific questions. After a visit from some helpful local researchers, Oliver learns how to make his wish a reality and discovers a thing or two about the NSF grant review process along the way. While Oliver’s motivations are unclear, his spirit shines through each of the sixteen pages. Recommended for bright youngsters who love marine mammals and harbor inexplicable ambitions. (Note that this tale is also available in a waterproof board book edition that may be suitable for bathtime use, if not for cracking mussels.)