CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 41. . . .June 21, 2013
Best friends Matt Worfle and Larry "Craz" Crazinski love drawing comic strips, but their strips are constantly rejected by their school newspaper. When they buy a special fountain pen from a website that promises to make them into professional artists, they find that what they draw and then photocopy becomes reality. Drunk with their new-found power, they use the pen to conjure up money, bikes, dates, and then use it to fix their families: Matt to bring his estranged father home, Craz to reduce his family to one child from five. When the pen accidentally falls into the hands of school newspaper cartoonist Diesel McKenzie, it turns the entire school council into a group of aliens, from which Matt and Craz save the school by some swift drawing. Craz's new smaller family comes with a twist: parents who have time to concentrate on their careers, resulting in an impending move to Shanghai for a promotion, just as the ink runs out in the magic pen. In order to rectify that situation, Matt finds a previous cartoon depicting the full ink bottle and copies it just in time to save his best friend.
A novel with obvious appeal to reluctant readers, The Awesome Almost 100% True Adventures of Matt & Craz combines text with comic strips depicting both scenes from the plot and the friends' magic drawings. The aim is clearly to entertain in a slapstick, hyperbolic way while subtly introducing a plot about friendship and being careful what you wish for. On the surface, it succeeds: the premise of the book is intriguing and fantastical; Matt is disappointed when his reunited parents re-start the quarreling that led to their divorce in the first place; and Craz is totally surprised when his cartoon depicting him taking a long shower—something he's never been able to do in such a large family—becomes reality by eliminating his four siblings.
But in some regards, this book never gets off the ground. The text is often flat, matter-of-fact, and overly technical rather than witty and truly funny. The few tender moments seem like afterthoughts, almost in the way television sitcoms introduce serious themes by only scratching the surface, almost too much of a contrast to the boys' usual selfish dreams of instant success to be believable. Still, Matt's evening out with his older brother Ricky, who'd abandoned his younger brother in a typical teenage development but is also feeling uneasy about their parents' relationship, does bring out some true feelings, and there is some excitement in the action of saving the school from the aliens and Craz from an overseas move. And having Matt's money-obsessed father reappear in the fancy sports car Matt draws him in is a good way to show how "cool stuff" isn't always that cool.
But there are numerous instances of unsatisfying and unfunny details. The two banish their English teacher to her own "Treasure Island"to escape having to write a paper on her favourite book—an almost-funny twist that comes across more as cruel, not to mention a highly caricatured portrayal of an overweight teacher completely oblivious to her students' interests. The website that introduces the pen to the boys comes across as a pre-Internet "computer taken over"scenario. When Matt is imprisoned by the "aliens”, Craz inexplicably draws killer bees to attack them, forgetting that Matt has an anaphylactic allergy to bees. The boys discover the pen's magic when a bag of money they drew appears, and they gleefully exclaim their delight at the number of bills it must contain—yet never mention the denomination of the bills. And on the technical side, there were at least two places in the review copy where the text was partially obscured by a corner illustration.
At 329 pages, The Awesome Almost 100% True Adventures of Matt & Craz may be too lengthy for the audience it is seeking, and while it does have some moments of humour and of emotion, there isn't enough respect for either to make this a must-read.
Recommended with reservations.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario.
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