Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Dunderheads, by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by David Roberts - review

The Dunderheads, by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by David Roberts
Do you want to live in David Roberts's world? I want to live in David Roberts's world. In David Roberts's world, no trip to the thrift store does NOT yield a polyester caftan in a trippy geometric pattern. Or at least a pair of green Chucks. In David Roberts's world, every surface is there to be customized with gaffer's tape in lots of colors. In David Roberts's world, it is impossible to pass by a jacket with a circle zipper pull and not want to put it on. (The circle zipper pull being, of course, the sexiest item ever to appear in the notions aisle.) In David Roberts's world, even a lawn chair with yellow and gray webbing is the coolest webbed lawn chair I have ever seen. That part's actually a bit frustrating. I'm never going to find a lawn chair that looks that good.

But what makes Dunderheads the perfect storm of quirky greatness is that David Roberts's world has somehow overlaid and merged with Paul Fleischman's world. Paul Fleischman, whose previous world, Weslandia, was also a world I wanted to live in. Not least because it's just a darn clever name.

In Paul Fleischman's world, every child feels free to express his or her individuality in every way possible - through the acquisition and deployment of bizarrely abstruse knowledge; by discovering and practicing (and in some cases, inventing) an unique talent; or? by filing one's fingernails into handy tools. In Paul Fleischman's world, Pluck Conquers All.

The Dunderheads are a group of kids so labeled by their villainous teacher, a towering bully who despises children and loves things with pointy teeth and/or spikes. Miss Breakbone keeps an electric chair in her classroom and awards herself a gold star whenever she makes a child cry. In other words, she is a Miss Trunchbull in dire need of a Matilda to scare her off. But this is Paul Fleischman's world, remember?

What follows is not a Use of Underage Magic story - what follows is a classic American Kids Get Even tall tale. Didn't you hear those stories when you were growing up? The story about how those kids, a few years older than you, finally got back at Coach Wolf by putting a potato in his tailpipe? Or how Miss Park lost her eyebrows one time because somebody doctored her makeup? Those kids in those stories were HEROES. Like Paul Fleischman's heroes. Everyday, funny, underdog heroes.

Man, I am really babbling along here, aren't I? It's because I just keep paging through the book and finding more to love. I am pretty darn sure David Roberts has quoted a couple of his own characters from Iggy Peck, Architect and Dumpster Diver, but I can't be fussed to go get those books to check, because they're in the room where my sons are (supposedly) sleeping.

So, one day, Miss Breakbone goes too far. She confiscates an item that the smallest kid, a boy called Junkyard, who wears a rainbow on his sweater and a Quadrophenia patch on his jeans, had been planning to give to his mom for her birthday. She makes him cry. The kids embark upon a daring plan that will humiliate Miss Breakbone and restore Junkyard's pride, not to mention his property.

It's worth mentioning that Dunderheads is a long-form picture book, almost a graphic novel, really. My rising third grader read it to me and to his younger brother with no trouble (their faces shining - they love it when the bad guy gets his due). In the picture above, 5th grader Rabbit is reading it to rapt 3rd graders Legolas, Zee, & Mao, plus my 1st grade Zhou. Although not a chapter book, it falls into that short-long space that is so hard to keep populated when the second graders come around. Thanks, Mr. Fleischman!

It is also worth mentioning that while David Roberts is a master of stylized, expressive characters sporting fearless fashion choices ("from the sixties, seventies, AND eighties" as the classic rock station trumpets), there are many many illustration and design elements quoted from various sources and executed in different styles, all of which he does well. It gives his world a lot of depth. As Laurie Anderson said, "You know? I think we should put some mountains here. Otherwise, what are all the characters going to fall off of?"

And I'm out. Go find this one.

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