Saturday, June 30, 2018

Review: Big Nate In a Class By Himself, by Lincoln Peirce

Further proof of Jeff Kinney's influence on modern YA novels, Big Nate is another in a line of books that combine prose with graphics. Lincoln Peirce's style is more in line with James Patterson's Middle School books (or vice versa, as Big Nate is first), but it is also aimed at a much younger audience. Big Nate is not quite as good as the other big name graphic novel series (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Middle School, Dork Diaries), but it does provide plenty of laughs. It is interesting that these books seek to attract young male readers by using young male protagonists who hate school, cause trouble at school, and do poorly in their classes. I can see parents worrying about what morals these books teach, but in most cases, those who don't enjoy school don't learn that behavior from a book. If reading about a character like Nate, whose hobby is getting detention slips from teachers, gets kids to start reading, that at least opens up the door for further reading.

Nate is much meaner than his counterparts, Greg Heffley or Rafe or Charlie Joe Jackson. He says nasty things about his teachers and other students, the kinds of things that boys do really say. Perhaps Nate does go a bit far, and you don't want a book to be pedantic, but you also don't want to normalize cruel behavior. Nate gets in as much trouble as Rafe, but Rafe is a kinder soul. The story in Big Nate is rather predictable. Nate gets a fortune saying he is going to surpass all others by the end of the day, and while it becomes clear to the reader just how he will surpass all others, Nate plots ways that he can accomplish that fortune. Most of the time his antics are mildly amusing, the kind of thing a much younger audience might find hilarious, but that comes off as pretty vanilla for a more experienced audience. Big Nate's at its funniest when Nate unintentionally gets himself in trouble. I found myself laughing out loud when Nate accidentally put on the substitute gym teacher's shorts, and when his ink pen began leaking in his teacher's shirt pocket. These moments were absurd, but there was good build up to them, and Nate did not cause them purposely.

As a teacher I cringe at the depictions of teachers in books like these as dull, unsentimental beings whose only emotion is anger or irritation. Are teachers really like that? Where I work most teachers are passionate and do their best to make a positive connection with students (even when those students do get on our nerves, ahem). It saddens me to see fictional schools filled with curmudgeon teachers. Then again, from the perspective of a egocentric pre-teen or teenager, perhaps that's just what adults look like in general, as creatures who serve to get in the way of your freedom. Big Nate represents rebellion against this system, unsuccessful as this rebellion is. He serves vicariously as a stand-in for the kinds of things readers of these books would like to do themselves, had they only the guts. Big Nate's behavior also shows the consequence of such behavior, allowing readers to live through that vicariously as well, without having the face such consequences in their reality. So I say, let the boys read the books.

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