Call it the attack of the syndicated cartoonists. For whatever reason, in the year 2013 we are seeing droves of escapees from the comic strip pages leaping from the burning remains of the newspaper industry into the slightly less volatile world of books for kids. How different could it be, right? As a result you’ve The Odd Squad by Michael Fry (Over the Hedge) and Zits Chillax by Jerry Scott (Zits). Even editorial cartoonists are getting in on the act with Pulitzer prize winner Matt Davies and his picture book Ben Rides On. In the old days it was usually animators, greeting card designers, and Magic the Gathering illustrators who joined the children’s book fray. But now with graphic novels getting better than ever and libraries willing to buy the bloody things, the world has been made safe for cartoonists too. Into this state of affairs comes Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. It is, without a doubt, the best of the cartoonist fare (author Stephan Pastis is the man behind the strip Pearls Before Swine), completely and utterly understanding its genre, its pacing, and the importance of leveling humor with down-to-earth human problems. Funnier than it deserves to be, here’s the book to hand the kind who has been told to read something with an unreliable narrator. Trust me, you’ll be the kid’s best friend if you give them this.
Meet Detective Failure. No, not really. Instead, meet Timmy Failure, just a normal kid with dreams so big they make Walter Mitty’s fantasies look like idle fancies. Living with just his single mom and his sidekick Total (a 1,500 pound polar bear but that’s neither here nor there), Timmy spends his days solving crimes for the other kids in his class. He may not be very good at it but it’s a living. Timmy’s sure his talents will launch him into a future of fame an fortune. That is, if he can defeat his nemesis Corrina Corrina, get his mom to stop grounding him, deal with the loser she’s dating, and figure out how to keep Total out of a zoo. It’s a big job. Fortunately, Timmy has a more than hefty ego to handle it.
I am a grown woman with a child of my own. I am an adult. I pay bills and watch Masterpiece Theater. In other words, my grown-up cred is in place. That said, I can’t tell you how many debates I’ve already had with folks over whether or not Timmy’s darn polar bear is real or not. My husband claims that the bear is a manifestation of Timmy’s break with reality in the same way that Hobbes seemed to walk around in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. I like to point out that Hobbes had an actual physical form as a stuffed tiger and where precisely is the stuffed polar bear in all this? Maybe I have a hard time acknowledging the fact that Total isn’t real because if that’s true then Timmy’s life is even sadder than I initially thought.
Because, you see, that’s the real joy of Timmy Failure; the misery. On the one hand we are meant to yell and scream at our oblivious hero and to mock him for his inability to face reality. On the other hand, when you see how sad his life is, you cannot help but feel for him. That poignancy almost makes it funny again. His mom, for example, is single and holding down a low-income job as best she can. It’s not her fault her kiddo is as detached from the world around him as he is. And Timmy, truth be told, pretends to be a detective mostly because he wants to give his mom a better life. His bravado is hiding some pretty desperate hopes and dreams. You get glimpses past that bravado from time to time, and those are the moments that lift the book up and out of the world of pseudo-Diary of a Wimpy Kid notebook novel knock-offs that clog library and bookseller shelves. For example, there’s one moment when Timmy’s mom cuddles him then blows into his ear because he finds it funny. He objects in his usual staunch way then . . . “Do it again”. The book also dares to take potshots at folks who might actually deserve it. Timmy’s teacher has checked out of teaching long since. He’s the kind of guy who hasn’t cared about what he’s doing in years. Should’ve retired a decade or more ago. When you see that, can you help but love the hell Timmy drags him through?
I wonder to myself how far kids will go to believe Timmy. The book sets you up pretty early to understand how unreliable he is but there may be times when gullible readers believe what he says. They might actually think that Flo the librarian (a guy who looks like he’d be more comfortable pounding rocks on a chain gang than running a library) really does read books about crushing things with your fists. All the more reason Timmy is confused when he catches the man reading Emily Dickinson. “And if she can crush things with her fist, her photo is somewhat misleading.”
In the course of any of this have I actually mentioned that the book is guffaw-worthy? Laugh-out-loud funny? Look, any book where the main character reasons that since the name “Chang” is the most common in the world he should automatically fill it in on all his test papers because the odds would be with him has my interest. Add in the fact that you’ve titles of chapters with names like, “You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile” (well played, Pastis) and visual moments where Timmy is holding a box of rice krispie treats above his head ala Say Anything. Clearly this is adult humor, but when he hits it on the kid level (which is all the time) the readers will be rolling.
The art is, of course, sublime. Look at Timmy himself if you don’t believe me. On the cover of the book he looks pretty okay but turn the pages and there’s definitely something a little bit off about him. Did you figure out what it was? Look at his eyes. With the greatest of care Pastis has places one pupil dead in the center of Timmy’s eye and the in the other eye the pupil is juuuuuuuuust barely off-center. It’s not the kind of thing you’d necessarily notice consciously. You’d just be left with the clear sense that there’s something off about this kid. Then there’s the fact that all the characters are often staring right at you. Right in the eye. It reminded me of Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. Same school play feel. Same wary characters.
It should be of little surprise that the guy behind the Pearls Before Swine comic strip should also produce some fan-tastic animals. My favorite is Senor Burrito, a cat who dunks her paw into Timmy’s tea whenever he turns his head. The image of her sitting there, one paw well past her elbow in a teacup, is so good I’d rip it out of the book and frame it if I could justify the act of defacement.
When Seinfeld first came out the unofficial slogan was “No hugging. No learning.” If there’s a motto to be ascribed to Timmy Failure it may have to be “No learning. No growing. Hugs allowed.” Basically this is Calvin and Hobbes if Calvin’s fantasies were based entirely on how great he is. A step above the usual notebook novel fare, it dares to have a little bit of heart embedded amidst the madcap craziness. Timmy won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but for a certain segment of the population his adventures will prove to be precisely the kind of balm they need. Top notch stuff. A cut above the cartoons.
On shelves February 26th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
First Line: “It’s harder to drive a polar bear into somebody’s living room than you’d think.”
Like This? Then Try:
- Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg
- The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
- Griff Carver: Hallway Patrol by Jim Krieg
Professional Reviews: Kirkus
Other Reviews: Shelf Awareness
- There are games n’ such galore in connection with the book.
- I’ve been enjoying the blog for the book. Particularly the posts by Flo the Librarian. Such a sweet feller. The next guybrarian who dresses up as Flo for Halloween has my undying love.
- Some info on the marketing behind the book.
- Read a sample chapter here.
Here’s a sneaky peek.
Here’s the full-length trailer:
And here’s the author himself on the polar bear. Actually, this clears quite a lot of stuff up.