In the past, it was easy to figure out what children’s books fit where. Thirty-two pages that are 11 X 8 inches? Picture books. Thirty-two chapters of smallish print? Older middle-grade fiction. See? Piece o’ cake. Then graphic novels had to come in and throw the whole system in the blender. At first it was easy to catalog them. You have comic book panels and speech balloons? In the new Graphic Novel section of the library you go. Then Captain Underpants came along and ruined everything. Wait . . you have speech balloons and long passages of text? Images and words mixing it up willy-nilly with nary a by-your-leave? Impossible! Inconceivable! But there it was. The result? Meet Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom. The first in a series, Frankie’s books are the natural successor to Captain Underpants, stirring together pictures and words in a raucous melding that’s bound to entrance reluctant readers, but still be enough fun to lure in hardcore comic book fans. Expertly penned with a wry sense of humor entirely its own, Frankie’s a welcome addition to a difficult to define category.
It’s the worst of all possible worlds. A beautiful day, video games to be played, and what does Franklin Lorenzo Piccolini (a.k.a. Frankie Pickle)’s mom tell him to do? Clean his room. Fortunately Frankie has a wild enough imagination to get him through anything. One gigantic robot fight later and his room isn’t the least bit clean. In fact, it’s worse! But instead of punishing him, Frankie’s mom strikes a deal. He doesn’t have to clean up his room, but whatever the consequences are, he’ll have to deal with them himself. Frankie agrees readily, but soon the delights of filth turn out to have problems enough of their own.
When it comes down to the writing and the art, they both work but I’m probably more a fan of the latter than the former. Not that the plotting has anything wrong with it. Wight includes plenty of details that I’ve not seen done in a children’s book before. While everything from Calvin & Hobbes to Harold and the Purple Crayon has used the motif of bringing a child’s imagination to life, there are some ideas in here that are wholly Wight. For example, at one point Frankie falls through a veritable ocean of his own stuff. In doing so he is able to see all the stuff he might own in the past, present, and future. Other things I liked, a mock version of Dora the Explorer as the French Avril the Traveler ("Bonjour, mes amis!"). The rat sidekick in the beret is a nice touch. Or the robot with the catchphrase "It’s Hammerin’ Time". A pity it’s not wearing Hammer Pants as well. Finally, any book that shows a clean room and then calls it "a museum of awesome" has my love.
Still, it’s Wight’s art that’s the real draw. There’s a clean-lined, almost angular style to it. Wight takes the time to shake up the panels, angles, and fonts when needs be. I’m also going to assume that it’s not easy to constantly have to figure out where the written text, as opposed to the panel text, goes on a given page. In a comic book an artist has to be constantly aware of where the speech balloons and narrative appear. But at least the characters aren’t constantly peeking out from behind a paragraph, or twisting to avoid a run-on sentence. On each page Wight has to constantly keep in mind where image gives way to text or text bows in the face of image. He makes it look easy, and it’s not. There’s some sophisticated work going on behind the scenes here.
Let’s now talk about Frankie’s mom. For reasons entirely of my own, Frankie’s mom became my favorite character in the book (sorry, Argyle). Here’s my reasoning on this. At one point in the novel Frankie pretends that he is defending the city against a malicious giant robot attack. Grateful Mayor Mom then enters the room and is wearing the greatest outfit of all time. It’s kind of tiny, so you may miss it, but essentially she’s decked out in a top hat, mayoral sash, and fishnet stockings. Between the grandmother in the Magic Trixie books sporting open toed leopard print boots and these stockings, children’s literary fare is getting its share of eccentric outfitting. I have other reasons for enjoying the presence of Frankie’s mom besides her son’s strange interpretations of mayoral fashion, though. To look at her, Mrs. Piccolini is every bit the 1950s housewife, from her neat bob to her Capri pants. However, if you happen to take a close look at the family dynamics at work here, you’ll see that it’s actually Frankie’s dad who does the cooking in the household. Woot!
I doubt not that in some libraries Frankie Pickle is going to get seriously confused with Magic Pickle (another great graphic novel series, only that one actually stars a real pickle). However, for those library systems in the know Frankie Pickle is going to find its fan base without any difficulty or confusion. For those kids in need of a transitional book between comics and novels, Wight provides. A good early chapter book, and fun to boot. Boys, girls, and small white well-read dogs will all be able to enjoy Frankie’s adventure and hope that the future yields more. Real good.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Jen Robinson’s Book Page
- Book Dads
- A Year of Reading
- Eye on Comics
- Comics Worth Reading
- Jean Little Library
- Maw Books Blog
- BSC Review
- Critique de Mr. Chompchomp
- Poop and Boogies
- Of course if you read nothing else you should immediately check out the feature on Mr. Wight over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Them’s good reading!
- There’s an interview with Eric Wight about the book over at The Children’s Book Review which is worth checking out.
- Plus there’s a piece on the book in Comic Book Resources.
- Read some of the book here for kicks.