This book stars a guinea pig by the name of Sasspants.
There. I’ve just told you everything you need to know to enjoy it. No need to thank me. Unfortunately, I have the creeping suspicion in the back of my medulla oblongata that there may be folks out there for whom “Sasspants”-monikered rodentia is not enough. Perhaps you are wondering what else there is to find in this bite-sized graphic novel. It’s a slight little thing, after all. Coming in at a mere 48 pages you might be inclined to take it for a picture book or some such nonsense. Nonsense, I say, because this is a fantastic mystery rolled up in a small comic format. Cute as a button and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny too. Sometimes the best discoveries come in the smallest packages. And did I mention the guinea pig was named Sasspants? I did? Hm. Moving on.
The place: Mr. Venezi’s Pets & Stuff. The time: late afternoon. The crime: Pet shop owner and general bonehead Mr. Venezi has discovered that his sandwich disappeared during lunchtime and he blames his koalas (they’re actually hamsters but Mr. Venezi isn’t exactly a pro at the whole identifying-the-pets-you’re-selling thing). If the sandwich disappears one more time then that’s it for the “koalas”. So when Hamisher the hamster sees that there’s a resident Guinea PI in the shop (the “G” has fallen off her sign) he decides to hire guinea pig Sasspants to solve the crime. Sasspants, for her part, would like nothing better than to be left alone, but that’s not going to happen as long as Hamisher’s around. They strike up a deal: Sasspants will solve the mystery and Hamisher will leave her alone. What follows is a good old-fashioned mystery, complete with red herrings, false suspects, and the occasional sandwich-shaped turtle. A nonfiction section at the end gives some additional pet and animal facts.
We’re looking at a first time children’s book author and first time children’s book artist with this book. One thing Venable does well right from the get-go is voice. You have no trouble distinguishing between your two heroes, after all. Imagine Nero Wolfe as a female guinea pig and Archie Goodwin as a hyper hamster. That’s essentially the storyline we’re facing here. Sasspants is a good egg but all she wants out of life is to be left alone. Hamisher, in contrast, is an upbeat social sort. All the other characters fall into place as well. From the idiotic pet shop owner to the easy-to-distract fish to the uppity bunnies, everyone is distinct. You’d never guess that this was Venable’s first outing in the literary realm.
I can only imagine the tension a graphic novel author must feel when they don’t know what artist they’ll be paired with. Stephanie Yue’s a relative newcomer to the field of children’s literature, but boy does she have a way with a comic panel. It’s not enough to have funny writing in a book like this. The visual gags have to be spot on or you’re sunk. But from the moment Yue paired Hamisher’s verbal onslaught with a single wordless panel of Sasspants closing the little hamster’s mouth, I was hooked. Timing is everything. Yue also has a keen sense of design going on here. Panels get broken up constantly, shifting from long shots to short boxes and back again. In spite of the small page size the images and speech balloons never look cramped. Add in tiny visual details like the twitch of Sasspants’ eye when irritated or Hamisher dressed like Andy Warhol (a detail I missed until about the fourth reading) and you’ve the impression that this artist was paying attention to her material.
Now the fact that Sasspants is female was a definite plus. Particularly since in most comics/animated movies/television shows, female animals usually sport foot-long eyelashes or little strategically placed powder pink bows. Sometimes there’s even the hint of breasts. It’s unpleasant. Full credit to artist Stephanie Yue for rejecting the usual ladyparts for our heroine then. Sasspants reads books, thinks about things logically, and wants to be left alone. I’ll take my strong females where I can get them. Even if they are short and furry.
The nonfiction section at the end called Hamisher Explains is rather delightful as well. It gives basic facts about everyday pets, then shows why Mr. Venezi is wrong when he calls finches “llamas” or chinchillas “camels”. Pet loving young `uns will learn random information, like the fact that “no two finches sing the same song, but dads pass similar songs down to sons.”
If I’ve any objections to the book I’m concerned that it’s so short. It worries me that libraries might not place it in the graphic novel section because of its strange page count and format. It’s smaller than a picture book, so if it ends up in picture book sections it’ll get lost. It’s also thin, so if it’s placed on graphic novel shelves it may be too skinny to draw the eye. So I guess I’m just going to pin my hopes on the chance that this book and the ones that follow it will sell well and then, someday, they’ll be compiled into a delightful compendium volume with enough pages not to scare off the kids who feel they’re too old to be reading 48 page books. As it stands, I’ll be talking this book up left and right with my young readers. It’s funny, smart, and full of slam-bang visuals. For graphic novel enthusiasts who are into mysteries, pet shop politics may not be their first pick. It’ll be exactly what they’re looking for if they’re smart enough to pick it up, though. A hoot.
On shelves April 1st.
Source: Copy sent from publisher.
Other Blog Reviews:
- The Graphic Universe blog speaks to both Colleen and Stephanie about the book.