That Timmy Failure: Sanitized For Your Protection, the latest in cartoonist-turned-author Stephan Pastis’ series for younger readers, is the best yet comes at no surprise. OK, so it’s a little surprising, especially as I’ve towed a somewhat critical tone in my reviews of the series so far. Previously, I’ve been hesitant to recommend this series – so obviously modeled after Jeff Kinney’s disgustingly successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid series that it almost felt like plagiarism.
Also surprising, or tragic, is that my somewhat negative reviews have thus far drawn scorn from many in the educational elite, and by elite I mean mediocre teachers and failed educators, a sad little group I imagine are all too eager to follow crappy curriculums and lap up the latest stamp-approved bile labeled ‘Educational’ that comes their way. Mendacity!
You know the type; the ones who continually yammer about caring for students (note: such yammers are usually followed by reminders of low salaries). In reality, these nincompoops seem to care more about their own bruised egos than the bruised ‘education’ they’re foisting on their hapless students.
Children’s literature has, can, and will be so much better than it currently is, but only if we agree to collectively stop settling for the processed toilet paper-in-waiting that passes for quality. As I mentioned in my review for the last book in this series, Timmy Failure: We Meet Again, things are clearly on the rise for a misunderstood boy detective and his polar bear pal.
Without question, Sanitized For Your Protection (number 4 in the series if you’re cataloging) is easily the best and most enjoyable yet, for several reasons. First, it’s a well-plotted road trip that focuses on a smaller cast of fleshed-out characters having a grand adventure in a Big City (i.e. Chicago). It’s king of like Adventures in Babysitting meets Home Alone, only with crazy superhero cleaning ladies and polar bears. I’m pretty sure only author Pastis will get the reference (he so shamelessly names his chapter titles in such a fashion) but there’s nothing stopping you from LOOKING IT UP for yourselves. This will be a common theme here.
Secondly, and this one is purely selfish, the book’s cover has Timmy emerging from a toilet, Ghoulies-style. And if you don’t know who – or what – the Ghoulies are, go look them up on Google, Bing, or whatever’s handy. That a toilet should feature so prominently in a kid’s book, on cover and in the story, delights me to no end.
Oh, and for those teachers and educational ‘facilitators’ who might gripe that having children pop out from toilet bowls isn’t appropriate classroom behavior…I honestly don’t care. So many of you suffer from educational apathy a good swift kick in the tuckus might do you – and your poor students – some good.
Okay – story time! Moved after seeing poor Yergi Plimkin’s chubby face in a newspaper ad lamenting his lack of reading material the “peace-loving, world-saving” Toody Tululu quickly organizes a charity to help: YIP YAP, which stands for Yergi Ismavitch Plimkin, You Are Poor.
And what a success! After bake sales, bike races, and other charitable fundraising activities the group manages to raise a respectable $120 (one hundred and twenty dollars) for poor Yergi’s literary needs. Unfortunately, he won’t be flipping through pages anytime soon. It seems a thief has pilfered YIP YAP’s funds, reducing them to a paltry $.12 (zero dollars and twelve cents,” reads the group’s vice president, Nunzio Benedici. Upset over the missing loot, the otherwise peaceful Toody makes a bold promise to all those listening: “Someone will die for this!!!!!”
When Rollo Tookus, Timmy’s grade-grubbing best friend, mentions YIP YAP’s lost money to his detective friend the gears of another Timmy Failure (mis)adventure are set in motion, and it isn’t long before a suspect for the supposed crime is suspected: Molly Moskins, Timmy’s classmate and the nation’s most wanted criminal, who also smells like tangerines. Even worse, she’s got a huge crush on our hero; apparently there’s no end to her fiendish ways.
Just before Timmy can apprehend and prove Molly’s guilt, his mother springs a major surprise on him: Doorman Dave, and Timmy’s mom’s new boyfriend, has landed a plum new job in the city of Chicago, and the family is going to help him pack and move cross-country. And that’s not all: the Failure family will be traveling with mom’s best new friend, Esther Moskins, mom of not just criminal-at-large Molly Moskins, but also her little brother Micah, who prefers to go by the nickname Snot (can you blame him?). Oh, also Molly’s somewhat overbearing dad. Let’s not forget the dads, people.
What follows is a road trip of epic proportions, at least for the demographic, that sees our hero Timmy, Polar, and a cast of zany characters taking shelter in not just the E-Z Daze Motel, but criss-crossing across the mean streets of Chi-Town (i.e. Chicago) to solve the mystery of not only the missing YIP YAP funds but why Timmy’s mom is so eager to move her new boyfriend across the country in the first place.
Also, longtime Timmy fans will appreciate the shadowy allusions to his best and most frequent nemesis, that ‘other’ professional detective with the double-name whom we last saw getting just a little bit too friendly with the series’ namesake. What makes this scenario so interesting is how it challenges readers to think laterally, both spatially and in dimensionally, to keep track of where these characters are at any given time.
So much of today’s Kid’s Lit is overstuffed with transparent hand-holding that it’s simply not fun; there’s a knowing wink in this series I think the kids get, at least those kids who’ve yet to be chemically lobotomized by crazed educators who equate stillness with obedience. Pink Floyd said it best: “Hey! teacher! leave us kids alone!”
That author Stephan Pastis is something of an expert in the ways of curmudgeonly comic strip behavior in his Pearls Before Swine comic strip helps. Timmy Failure, the character, may share all the rude, antisocial antics of Rat, but underneath that scarfed exterior beat the heart of the sweet, misunderstood Pig. If none of that makes any sense, Google it. I’m not here to do all your work.
In Timmy Failure’s world the dreaded ‘real world’ is a constant and never-ending presence, one that runs parallel – if unkindly overlapping – to the equally disappointing one he’s created in his imagination. It’s always him against the world, even if his victories/defeats are the result of unintentional consequences. If Charlie Brown was the eternal optimist, Timmy is the consummate self-defeatist; yet, both never, ever give up the fight. That’s got to mean something. It has to.
No more story spoilers – what fun would that be? So let’s back up for a moment to talk about names. Pastis’ comic strip Pearls Before Swine is, essentially, little more than a pun factory (indeed, the latest collection shows him – as its creator – being burned at the stake for being Le Punster). Yet, all its characters are mono-named: Pig, Rat, Goat, the suicidal Lemmings, or even Pastis himself (who shamelessly makes himself the foil of his own comic universe, albeit one portrayed as a cigarette-chomping alcoholic). Again, Google if you don’t understand. Have we learned nothing, people?
So it’s a nice surprise to see the Timmy Failure series having, by wide margins, some of the funniest names I’ve ever seen in a series like this. Pity the poor parent, teacher, or totally awesome babysitter attempting to read aloud a book that DOESN’T have characters with names like Yergi Plimkin. Toody Tululu. Rollo Tookus…Don’t get me started on Killer Katy Kumquat, the crime-fighting hotel maid. Let’s not forget Timmy’s mother’s favorite country musician, Slim Chitlins.
And, lest we forget, there’s Total, Timmy’s bonbon-scarfing polar bear who was once his business partner in the Total Failure Detective agency. Oh, he also might be imaginary, but such things matter little in this universe.
Clearly, these are books meant to be read aloud, putting the proper emphasis on just the right syllables for maximum laughter. Like the book’s hilarious toilet gag (which factors into the story – bless you, Stephan) having such a ridiculously enjoyable roll call of silly names to read aloud only helps to keep attention spans focused.
I’m as shocked as you are that I liked Timmy Failure: Sanitized For Your Protection as much as I did, and I’m actually quite happy to see this series continue its slow climb from the bog of mediocrity to become something better. Am I the target audience for this series, or any Kid’s Lit series, for that matter? Nope, but why should that matter when evaluating the pros and cons of anything designed for consumption? I wouldn’t give my – or your – kids rotten rutabagas and call it salad. Likewise, those of us in positions authority (i.e. parents and snarky editors) should take our jobs seriously, demanding better and more encouraging reading material. And rutabagas. Apathetic educators may disagree, but rotten is rotten, folks, and I’m glad to say that Timmy Failure Book 4 is anything but.