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Got a whale of a tale to tell you lad, a whale of a tale or two...
on December 4, 2005
Some people feel completely frustrated when they've found that a good author has written a bad book. Maybe so. Still, I feel that far worse and far more frustrating is the good author who writes a so-so book. Have you ever experienced this? You're reading a mediocre title that once in a while contains a bright flash of brilliance. And as you are reading you slowly come to the conclusion that these flashes of brilliance could be far more frequent and the writing far less inane if the doggone writer had just put some EFFORT into what he or she was writing. M.T. Anderson is the fabulous author of "Feed" and "The Game of Sunken Places". Usually he writes for the young adult crowd (though he has earned high marks for non-fiction children's titles like "Strange Mr. Satie" and "Handel Who Knew What He Liked"). Here he skews for a younger crowd and inadvertently (I like to give him the benefit of the doubt here) has written a book that reads like a knock-off of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" crossed with several different kids v. villain genres. Anderson gets so doggone wrapped up in his own cleverness that his book veers in five different directions and suffers as a result. What we have here is a title that could have been very very good had its author been able to reconcile its goofiness with its storytelling. Instead, we've the ultimate frustration. A good author with a palpably mediocre title to his name.
Lily is a normal kid and has never had a lot of excitement in her life. That all changes on Career Day when Lily discover that her dad's boss is... well, evil. Nice and all. But evil. Her dad works in a supposedly "abandoned warehouse" (a misspelled sign on the door half-heartedly warns that there are probably scorpions) where he helps make cetacean pedestrian opportunities. In other words, stilts for whales. Lily doesn't like this one bit at all and it's not long before she'd discovered a nasty scheme on the part of Larry, the half-man half-whale, bent on world domination via mobile whales with eye-lasers. She turns in desperation to her two best friends. One of them is Katie Mulligan, star of her own book series, "Horror Hollow" in which she battles flesh-eating viruses, mind-sloths, and earwigs. Her other friend is Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut. He invents "futuristic" gadgets and also has a book series of his own with titles like, "Jasper Dash and the Creosote Jungle" and "Jasper Dash Down the Volga with Nary a Paddle". With these two adventurers at her side, Lily's ready to realize that she's just as heroic as they are and that it's up to her to save the world from, as her dad would put it, cetacean pedestrians.
In that little description I've just written you can see the gleam of inspiration that occasionally shoots out while reading this text. Fans of this book will look at me and shake their heads, patronizing smiles plastered to their faces. "Poor girl", they will say. "She just doesn't get what Anderson's trying to do here". Bull. I know exactly what Anderson's doing here and I'm telling you loud and clear that it didn't work. Not one jot. It's a great idea to have two completely different child adventure heroes helping the book's actual heroine in her quest to save the world. Kate Mulligan's books and adventures are a kind of "Goosebumps" and "Zack Files" series with a healthy dose of Scooby-Doo for good measure. Jasper Dash, on the other hand, is like a 1950's boy adventurer character who's supposedly futuristic creations would only have been considered so back in the day. He also speaks like an early 20th century gentleman explorer with lots of "Great Scott"s and "chums". This is a great idea on the author's part (and obviously he agrees with me since he expanded the idea in the sequel to this book, "The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen"). Unfortunately, he doesn't carry it off.
I loved the title. I loved the cover illustration. And I loved the first sentence in the book. "On Career Day Lily visited her dad's work with him and discovered he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation". As you can see, there is much to love:
Things to Love About This Book: The illustrations by Kurt Cyrus come to mind. Having until now only illustrated some below-the-radar picture books, Cyrus comes fully into his own with the book's wood-cut like diagrams and clever compositions. Because these pictures are such a large part of "Whales on Stilts", I was shocked to find that Mr. Cyrus isn't mentioned AT ALL on the bookflap. You can read all about Mr. Anderson (about whom so many of us already know so much) but Mr. Cyrus apparently doesn't even warrant a whimper. Bad Harcourt Books! Bad! Other bright points in "Whales On Stilts" include funny sections like the conversation between two hired goons in which they discuss how wonderful it is to have a boss that thinks up such inspirational sentences like, "Guards!" and "Get them!". There's also a long footnote that starts on page 173 and continues until page 179 that's oddly touching. It talks about summer cottages and the odds and ends you find there and the language becomes almost a beautiful little story in and of itself. I would have loved to have read that story rather than this one. Which brings us too....
Things to Not Love About This Book: It's trying to be quirky and kooky. It ends up confusing. Sentences that read, "It is a general rule that things on stilts never strike the same place twice. Except some clowns, when you don't pay them back for some stupid old Dutch painting they bought you. But that's another story", may be fun to write, but they're not particularly funny. Just confusing. The fact that the narrator keeps digressing and talks at length about his or her own adventures is so horribly similar to Lemony Snicket in "A Series of Unfortunate Events" but written so poorly that it was all I could do not to throw the silly book against the wall. Ditto the definitions of difficult words. What Anderson has failed to do is reconcile who his audience is. In many ways, this is a book for adults but sold to children. Adults will find the references to David Bowie's eyes amusing. Kids won't. They'll find them annoying. Which they are. Had Anderson written for a slightly younger crowd (the ones who enjoy the "Time Warp Trio" so much) and included many more illustrations then the book would have worked beautifully. Instead, he tries to please everyone and spreads himself too thin, thereby pleasing no one.
It's a disappointment to be sure. I was so happy to see a new M.T. Anderson book and even happier with the whiz-bang title and cover. And there are wonderful parts in this story. It simply does not hang together as a whole. If you want a book that spoofs other children's books, try "Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs", edited by the Editors of McSweeney's. Otherwise, "Whales On Stilts" just comes off as an interesting exercise that wasn't written particularly well. There's stuff to like here, no question. But don't be surprised if your child doesn't take to it.