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Review: ‘The Worst Book Ever’

The Worst Book Ever
Writer/artist: Elise Gravel
Drawn & Quarterly; $17.95

Don’t worry, the title of the book is a joke, and not indicative of its actual quality. In fact, the real worst book ever is the book within The Worst Book Ever, cartoonist Elise Gravel’s latest weird and silly book for young readers.

Perhaps I should explain.

The real stars of The Worst Book Ever are a trio of simple, doodled characters who appear on the blank pages before the title page, staring out at the reader. They are a little red spider, dangling from a web, a character that looks a bit like a chewed up wad of bubble gum, and a character that looks a bit like a black starburst. You can see those last two there on the cover above.

These three read the worst book ever, commenting on it as it unfolds. After the title page (“Interesting title choice, isn’t it?” says the spider), each two-page spread features a page from a picture book on the left page, while the right page features the characters and their reactions to that page they have just read.

The story they are reading is pretty bad. Gravel, whose style is stripped down to the most abstract essentials, does a pretty great impression of a bad artist on those pages, with uneven lines on the castle setting and human characters shaped a bit like cocktail weenies with tiny arms and legs attached. These are the “prinsess” Barbarotte and the “prinse” Putrick, spelled just so. Their dumb, boring, poorly told story exists mainly for the other three to question.

While the spider and the chewing gum are pretty down on it from the outset, the starburst tends to hold out hope the longest (“Well, I’m intrigued,” it says when learning the title), and occasionally even defends the work (“To be fair, horses are really hard to draw,” it quite rightly says when Putrick’s horse enters the narrative, and chewing gum remarks on how ugly the poor horse is). Additionally, the starburst tends to find the bright side in things like, say, finding crumbs on the pages left by the author when she was drawing the book, or even proposing they make a game out of counting the typos. Watching the story break starburst down is perhaps the greatest dramatic arc of the book.

Gravel basically catalogs all of the “don’ts” in writing and/or drawing a book, generally highlighting one big don’t per page, like repetitive dialogue, or using inappropriately too-big words to try to sound smart, or engaging in cliche.

Some of the criticisms are more likely the sort that grown-ups might make instead of children, of course, as when Barborette is attacked by a monster and calls for help, prompting the doodle characters to accuse the book of sexism, or relying on potty humor, violence or inserting an advertisement for a soda at the climax of the book. But then, it’s never too early to teach kids to be discerning readers.

And discerning readers of any age should find plenty to like about The Worst Book Ever, which is, in actuality, the very best kind of worst book —the kind that is actually secretly good.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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