Gr 3-6–Fans of Calvin and Hobbes will gravitate to this graphic-novel chapter book featuring an inventive kid and his talking dog.
Mal has typical social trouble at school, hiding his intelligence and struggling to make his feelings known to a cute girl while trying to avoid the class blowhard. His single mom doesn’t seem to be very supportive, sending him to bed without supper, threatening to ground him, and spanking him in the first three chapters, but these travails set him up as an underdog who will prevail in the end.
Mal’s great ideas are augmented by his miraculous inventions (shrink ray, jet pack, time machine), which take him and his dog, Chad, on exciting adventures to exotic locales, all in service to the overall story line. The great buddy relationship and some sweet moments (look for the pals dancing to the elevator music in the time machine) will keep readers emotionally connected.
But the bottom line nowadays is - will this appeal to readers of Diary of a Wimpy Kid? And in my experience at the library, the answer is kind of no. Some kids will take it home after I've talked it up, but a lot of Wimpy Kid fans look at the cover and conclude that it is kind of baby for them - I think it's Mal's big head and short stature. The kids who like it best are accomplished readers in the first and second grades.
There is this second grade graphic novel phase that a lot of boys go through: their parents despair of them ever reading a text block again, but I have observed it to wear off. Those kids continue to enjoy graphic novels, but they start branching out to conventional chapter books in third grade. It's kind of a thing, and I wonder if it has to do with using the pictures to reinforce their interpretation of the story.
Adapted from my review originally published in School Library Journal, July, 2011