Following my review for the last book in Stephan Pastis’ blockbuster Timmy Failure series, Now Look What You’ve Done, I received angry letters from educators and others (who consider themselves educators) who didn’t take kindly to my parting shot at their lazy colleagues:
“In a school system seemingly at war with male adolescence there may be little rejoicing when the effects of hijinks leads to very real consequences, unlike the fictional Timmy. Still, the artwork is fun and for many incompetent educators that’s all that really counts.”
OK, they weren’t angry ‘letters’ as much as they were angry posts, but that’s what passes for criticism of criticism these days. But I stand by this analysis of previous Timmy Failure books, and of all cookie-cutter nonsense being drip-fed to kids. Yeah, I take it a little seriously. Why don’t you?
But opinions not shared by motley mobs of educators, mommy blog shills, and others like them aren’t to be tolerated. The point is, using mediocre material to placate students instead of educate them means you’re part of the problem. That you can’t or fail to understand the material isn’t shocking, but demonstrating such glowing ignorance in your profession speaks highly of the state of things; may the gods of academia have mercy on you. Mendacity!, as Timmy might say.
At least Stephan Pastis appears to be stepping his game up, thank goodness. Timmy Failure: We Meet Again (i.e. Timmy Failure Book 3) is the best book yet in a mediocre series, albeit one that’s getting better with each release. On the surface, little has changed since we last left Timmy and his crew of friends and agitators, the artwork as fun as ever as Pastis uses his cartooning gifts to illustrate Timmy’s endless crusade against the tide of others’ stupidity.
Fans may be disappointed to hear that Timmy’s 1,500 polar bear and business partner, Total, doesn’t quite play as big a role in this adventure as before. Fear not, animals fans, as there’s a new furry face in the form of Molly Moskins’ cat Señor Burrito, who Timmy’s mother agreed to watch while Molly is in Peru with her father (and busy smuggling shoes across the border, obviously).
Thanks to the hijinks seen in his last adventure, Timmy is now on academic and behavioral probation at school, meaning one wrong move and it’s game-over. For good this time. Begrudgingly, he’s agreed to behave, even taking up baseball to get him out of the house (and away from mischief, I’d reckon).
But as the wind blows, so does the need for narrative, and it isn’t long before his detective prowess is tapped by Angel de Manzanas Naranjas, the only student to ever repeat a grade (twice) for a mission that required the best. Angel wants to hire Timmy to track down the Miracle Report, a legendary collection of sticks, leaves and other rare stuff by ‘some chick’ Tracy Miracle. The report was so amazing that it earned an unprecedented A plus plus plus plus plus grade. That’s a lot of pluses.
Angel wants the report to copy off of, thereby securing a passing grade and getting the heck out of Dodge. Not copy the whole thing, mind you – the plagiarism would be too obvious. Just enough to earn a passing “B” grade.
Of course, things wouldn’t play out that smoothly, not when there’s adventure to be had. New to the school is Scutaro Holmes, winner of the last book’s detective content, class president, and creator and parader of the school’s new mascot (a giant Praying Mantis). He’s also Molly Moskin’s boyfriend, apparently, and doesn’t care much for Timmy. He also likes to wear silly costumes all the time so his appearance may be the greatest mystery of them all.
Things get even pricklier when Timmy’s arch-nemesis and detective competitor “The Beast”, aka Corinna Corinna, agrees to take Angel’s case. For free. And before long its off to Camp Monkeychuck for a field trip to help the kids finish their all-important Nature Reports. If the mythical Scrum Bolo Chihuahua doesn’t devour them first. Better watch your backs.
The adults don’t fare much better, but at least they’re not paper-thin throwaways that only exist for snotty, overly precocious kids to dismiss. Grownups are so often marginalized in books for kids that I’ll grant this one area the Timmy series has always handled well, and continues to here.
Coach Drillashick, Timmy’s hairy chested baseball coach, attempts to teach our hero how to catch ‘cannonball’ sized balls, but with little success. Then there’s kindly Doorman Dave, the doorman (naturally) to the tallest building in the city where Timmy and his mother now live. He shows interest in Timmy’s welfare from the start, though my cynical suspicions why these two would put up with Timmy’s behavior may have been confirmed by story’s end (no spoilers).
On the academic side there’s kindly Mr. Jenkins, Timmy’s teacher (and the series’ stand-in for writer/artist Pastis) wants Timmy to succeed on his nature report, though his role here seems intentionally downgraded. Principal Scrimshaw, the agitator, seems to take pleasure in delivering the kid bad news. Or maybe that’s just Timmy’s warped sense of perspective. In this series, one never knows for sure.
Timmy remains a clearly disturbed little boy, one whose pathology affects those in his social life (his best friend, the rotund grade-grubbing Rollo Tuckus, claims his GPA actually went up during Timmy’s absence) to personal life (his struggling mom suggests Timmy’s behavior lost her a good job). His emotional and behavioral issues are played for laughs and not sympathy. The more his family and friends make excuses for his behavior, shield him from responsibility, the longer he’ll continue down his path of self-destruction and fail to grow as an individual.
All this side, there are moments that help this third volume rise above its predecessors, often in genuinely surprising ways. One interaction between two characters felt more real (and revealing) then anything these books have attempted thus far. I won’t spoil it here, but longtime fans of Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine comic strip will pick up on the nuances, and this alone makes me recommend the book over all prior misgivings.
Pastis also seems to be stretching past the stifling confines of by-the-numbers serialized kid fiction, showing Calvin-like imagination for kids being munched (the Scrum Bolo Chihuahua), a nod to Douglas Adams, one very funny dung beetle gag (“I like dung!”), and I’m certain he’s having a ball making up character names that are fun to say out loud – and no doubt will have kids in stitches attempting to do just that.
I’m still not completely on board with the Timmy Failure books, but We Meet Again is the best one yet and the quality jump from the previous two bodes well for future chapters. I want to love these books as much as kids seem to, and will assume Pastis has a long game that will continue to make itself clear as time goes by. This isn’t a series built on Greatness just yet, but we’re getting there.