Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wednesday, January 9, 2013: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Timmy Failure


Candlewick: Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis

Candlewick: Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis

Candlewick: Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis

Candlewick: Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made

by Stephan Pastis

Readers will quickly take to Timmy Failure, an unreliable narrator to stand alongside such antiheroes as Charlie Brown and Greg Heffley.

Timmy's passion is detective work, and his sidekick is a 1,500-pound polar bear named Total. Together they tackle such mysteries as classmate Gunnar's missing Halloween candy, the death of Max Hodges's hamster, and the TP'd trees at the Webers' home. As Timmy overlooks vital clues, and sees what he wants to see, readers will find the humor in his miscues. But there are also touching moments between Timmy and his mother, who's raising her son solo, and between Timmy and Total. The comical dynamic between Timmy and high-achieving Rollo Tookus is one of the highlights of the book. Timmy's teacher groups him with the smart kids (including Rollo) in an effort to improve the boy's performance, but Timmy instead changes their answers, resulting in a group score of zero. As a result, Rollo's anxiety turns him into a bobblehead at the prospect of any group test, but also camouflages the fact that he comes through when Timmy really needs him.

Stephan Pastis, the creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine, here makes his children's book debut, liberally illustrating the novel with images of a wide-eyed hero and his supporting cast. (Timmy naturally claims authorship of the book and credit for the pen-and-inks.) Initially, Timmy's mother appears only as the index finger of authority, letting her son know when he may borrow her Segway: "Never. Ever. Ever," says the dialogue balloon belonging to the wagging finger. Timmy, however, "thought that was vague," so he rides what he calls the "Failuremobile" without her knowledge. The Failuremobile goes missing a dozen chapters in, however, and it's unfortunate on a number of levels. "[W]hen you're a detective, you cannot be the victim of an unsolved crime," Timmy says. "It is like a dentist with missing teeth. Or a gardener with dead flowers. And dead is what I will be if my mother finds out the Failuremobile is gone." Timmy suspects the girl whose face he obscures in his artwork, referred to as "the One Whose Name Shall Not Be Uttered" (a nod to Harry Potter's nemesis). It's Rollo who finally speaks her name: Corrina Corrina, their classmate and Timmy's rival detective.

Some children may question whether or not Total is real. But Total is real to Timmy ("Two against the world," Timmy calls them, alongside a poignant picture of the duo walking into the sunset), and that is what matters most. Pastis also leaves evidence that other adults look out for Timmy in addition to his mother, such as Flo the librarian, Dondi the yard lady (who gives Timmy Rice Krispies Treats for Total at recess) and, eventually, Mr. Jenkins, "the New Guy," who figures out how to teach Timmy a few things. One classmate, Molly Moskins (with "bizarrely mismatched pupils" and smelling of tangerine), has a crush on Timmy, which Rollo points out to the narrator, but which Timmy denies. Timmy's mother becomes more fully formed in both the boy's narrative and in his pictures as his schoolwork suffers and she gets more involved. In one of the most moving chapters, Timmy assures his mother that income from his detective agency, Total Failure, Inc., will easily help pay their bills, which come to $1,485.23. A secondary story line involving his mother dating a "bowling turkey" named Crispin also underscores the closeness between mother and son. As much as Timmy purports to be independent of both his mother and Rollo, they are the only two to whom he admits, "Mistakes were made"--his form of an apology. Eventually, Timmy does solve all his mysteries, to his own satisfaction, while also leaving readers with the understanding that he still has some growing up to do.

Pastis tucks into his chapter heads some fun puns for adults (e.g., "A Change Is Gonna Come"; "No Teacher Left Behind"; and "Happiness Is Not a Dumb Blanket," a riff on Linus's quote in the animated Peanuts film Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, on which Pastis was a co-author). No matter how often Timmy may seem in the dark, we never doubt Pastis's compassion for his protagonist, nor his mother's love for Timmy. Readers will be eager to welcome Timmy back in his next adventure, and cheer on the success of Total Failure, Inc. --Jennifer M. Brown

Candlewick Press, $14.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 8-12, 9780763660505

Candlewick: Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis


Stephan Pastis: A Boy Hero with a Blind Spot

How does a lawyer become a cartoonist? Perhaps the better question is, How does a cartoonist become a lawyer? Pastis loved cartooning as a kid, but never thought he could make a go of it, so he went to law school instead. A conversation with Charles Shulz put him back on course. Pastis's strip Pearls Before Swine, syndicated in 650 newspapers around the globe, was named the Best Newspaper Comic Strip in 2003 and 2006 by the National Cartoonists Society, and was also nominated for the Reuben Award, in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Here he discusses Peanuts, Pearls Before Swine and his first novel, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.

photo: Susan Young  

You are a comics artist. What have comics taught you about pacing a scene and character development?

Comics is all about pacing. I literally control the shutter of a camera. I give you four panels and each operates as a beat. You have to strip away everything that's extraneous. Comics teach you to be very direct. You have to be able to describe each of your characters in one word. Mean. Dumb. Smart.

Describe Timmy Failure in one word.

I see Timmy as an example of a blind spot. I need two words: arrogant and dumb. He was built entirely around the notion that a blind spot is what makes a character compelling. He sees himself one way, and the rest of the world sees him another way. Confederacy of Dunces was my model: Ignatius Reilly.

But Timmy is also very sympathetic.

In at least one aspect of our lives, we see ourselves in one way and the rest of the world sees us as another. We all lie to ourselves to some extent. In that way, Timmy is relatable. If you see Total [his polar bear sidekick] as a figment of his imagination, that's a measure of how alone he is. I think people respond to that. Despite his arrogance and pomposity, he is sort of sympathetic.

How did Total evolve?

I knew Timmy needed a partner, and I wanted it to be an animal because animals are fun for me. Timmy doesn't have a dad, and the polar bear is large and therefore subliminally protective; soft, so subliminally comforting. Then I thought it would be fun to have an animal who's just a polar bear, as opposed to the anthropomorphic animals in my strip. Timmy takes Total as much more, as a partner, as secretary, as filer, and he's terrible because he's just a bear. Without Total, there's no Timmy. The question I've heard the most is whether he's real, and I think that's a fascinating question. I like people to see it if they want to see it.

How did you come up with Timmy's voice?

His voice is really just mine. Timmy has a lot of me in him. A little bit arrogant, a big dreamer, but not that great at anything. A little bit oblivious. He shares a lot with the characters in the strip. I probably only have one voice, and that's it. Someone who's dumb but thought himself smart. I just write and what comes out, comes out. I have to figure out logically what I created instinctively.

With which character do you identify, if any?

When I was a kid, I was Rollo. I was the one who studied incessantly, got really high grades, panicked before a test. I had an ulcer by third grade. At that age, that would be me. Anything you create is a weird mixture of everything that went into you, that formed you and the people around you.

In the second book, Timmy has an aunt who plays a big role. I made myself cry writing a chapter. I thought, "That's my Yaya." That's my grandmother, how understanding she is toward Timmy, how she treats him.

Timmy is close to his mother, even though initially we see her only as hands, in silhouette or from the back. Through this bond, we realize what a big heart he has.

I liked not showing his mother because it emphasized Timmy being in his own mind. Sort of like how in Peanuts, Charlie Brown is a dad figure among the kids, but if you saw his dad, that would throw it off. I liked showing [Timmy's mother] when things were crumbling, at that table, when you have to confront reality.  There's an adult in his life changing his life because he's done something wrong.

Tell us how you met Charles Schulz.

I was a lawyer in San Francisco, and I was burned out. I read in a weekly newspaper that Charles Schulz had breakfast every day in the same place. I got in my car and drove for an hour to Santa Rosa to this diner, near an ice rink, and watched the skaters. I just waited and waited, and about an hour later, I see a man with white hair walk in, and I knew it was him. This was huge for me. I watched him eat his breakfast. He finally finishes, and I get up my courage and kneel down at the side of the table. I said, "I'm Stephan Pastis and I'm an attorney." I saw him withdraw immediately. I caught myself and told him I was a cartoonist, and that changed everything.

He talked to me for an hour. He asked if I had my drawings with me. They were in the car, and I showed them to him. He said nice things. He gave me some tips about changing the pen I used. How often do you get to meet your hero? The last 60 years of cartooning stems directly from Peanuts. He was to cartooning what Brando was to acting. Brando had a new style of acting, the Method. It changed acting forever. That's what Schulz did in cartooning--the timing, the dryness, the melancholy--that all comes from Peanuts.

For comics, you must have a rigorous schedule. How does creating a book compare?

I'm ridiculously disciplined, I'm six months ahead of schedule with my strips. I was the same with the book. I gave myself six weeks, and a schedule where I'd start working at 8, stop at noon, sit outside and eat lunch for an hour, then write from 1-7. I'd try to write four to five pages in the morning and four to five pages in the afternoon. I was suspicious if it was more. How good could it be? I'm building it chapter by chapter.

That is such a special thing. I don't think a lot of people get that. When it's going well, it's the happiest you could be. It's this moment when you're in touch with something that's bigger than you. You can feel it. Like when your kids are born or you're in a room when somebody dies. I don't care if you're spiritual or not, If you're open to it, you can feel that. It's like I'm the first person who gets to see it as opposed to being the person who wrote it. --Jennifer M. Brown


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