Creating entertainment for children is always a difficult road to traverse. On the one hand, you have to tailor your efforts to keep a kid interested—this is hard for an adult mind to do, what with us being all cynical and everything; on the other hand, you can’t make it too kid-centric, as it’s frequently an adult who has to put the disk in or open the book, and much as you want the kids to like what you’ve done, there should be a still small voice in the back of your head that hopes the adult isn’t thinking, Oh, crap, not this again.
Of course, children like the same things that adults do when it comes to entertainment—first and foremost, they want a good story, with characters that they can identify with, doing things that they themselves might think, Yes, I’d do that too, if I were there. Or at least I hope I would.
Too often, children’s entertainment has taken the road of condescension. Oh, it’s for kids, they don’t examine things too closely, it’ll work. But kids do examine things, which is why they’re kids, and they examine them very closely indeed. They know when they’re being sold a bill of goods, which is why half the things meant for kids fall flat, while the things that resonate—Harry Potter is a good example—defy expectations and succeed spectacularly.
Just because a book is meant for kids doesn’t mean it has to be aimed at kids, and I’m happy to report that there’s a great “kid’s book” out there that anyone, from your eight-year-old nephew to your eighty-year-old great aunt can enjoy: Flap Doodel and the Incredible Kibbll Caper, by D.K. Wolfe.
It reminds me in great measure of a book I loved as a kid, and still re-read from time to time: The Runaway Robot, by Lester del Rey (I’ve heard second-hand that Mr. Del Rey didn’t actually write it, but that’s irrelevant here). Like Runaway, Flap Doodel is also more in the science fiction camp than Harry Potter, which I like just fine—while the science isn’t hard by any means, it’s kept within a fairly plausible framework, and it means no one’s going to use the “wave magic gems and everything is all right again” spell to Deus-Ex-Machina the heroes out of whatever mess they’ve gotten themselves into.
And while Flap Doodel does have a couple of messages it wants to convey, mostly about tolerance and open-mindedness, it doesn’t hammer away at them; they’re there to be taken in, but only as seasoning, not the main course. The main course is imagination, and fun.
Imagination is a pretty rare quality found in present-day entertainment; most folks are content to rearrange a handful of standard tropes over and over again and charge us money for the privilege of seeing how well they’ve absorbed trends in modern culture and shoveled them back at us. (Cough. Pardon my cynicism.) True invention is hard to find.
I pride myself on having a pretty-well developed imagination, but mine tends toward the dark side—“Wouldn’t it be horrible if…” How nice, then, to find in D.K. Wolfe’s work the contrasting, “Wouldn’t it be fun if…” Imagination and fun, what more could one ask? Well, how about humor, well-drawn characters, and an intricately developed universe?
The story concerns our hero, Flap Doodel (“Flappy” for most of the book). He’s a young hybrid creature, born of two races—a rather leonine race of powerful predators (Looprevians), and a more humanoid race of kindly thinkers (Junans). He looks pretty much like a regular young boy, except his ears are wing-shaped. His heritage gives him abnormal strength from the one race (though he’s not superstrong by any means), and a certain native genius for “figuring things out” from the other race.
Flappy has lived his entire life on a rather isolated farm planet, so when he wins a scholarship to the Spacexchange school, we get some exposition chapters, allowing us to learn about this universe at the same time that Flappy does.
This is always the best form of exposition—we see everything as the character sees it, rather than get flung some handfuls of “Isn’t it great how, in the future we’re living in, we get to fly spaceships!” that always sound so forced and artificial. The character-finds-out method gives us the same viewpoint Flappy has, so when he’s surprised at something, so are we. It also humanizes him, so instead of seeing him as an exotic alien, we can identify with him and see ourselves in the choices he makes, based on what he learns (since we learned it at the same time).
Anyway, once at school, Flappy gradually goes from being an awkward outsider to making some friends (literally, in one case) and trying to fit in on his new world.
Then, Flin shows up, and the plot begins in earnest. She’s a member of a third race, a rather war-like, nasty bunch of folks called Antags, though she’s very different from their norm. Still, mistrust is high and it’s only Flappy who takes an honest interest in her. It’s at this point though—and especially when Flin is apparently kidnapped—the story goes into high gear and doesn’t let up.
I read the entire book in a few hours, and after Flin’s kidnapping, I literally could not put the book down. The events come fast and furious, though the story is well-rounded with some very nice humor, some realistic set-backs, and some additional detailing of Flappy’s world. For example, there’s yet another intelligent race to contend with…
While Flappy is the character who drives the plot, author Wolfe doesn’t make this into a one-man show. There are a number of supporting characters, on both the good and evil sides, who contribute major arcs to the plot. And Flappy is not above making mistakes; while they discourage him, he simply looks for another answer. And there’s a smart-alec robot. Now, now, before you groan, “Not a smart-alec robot!” Stufzinger is actually hugely entertaining. (Don’t tell him I said that.) One member of the bad guy’s team also seemed headed for a change-of-heart, and while that didn’t happen, who knows what future books will bring? (There is another book in the series currently being prepared.)
The only quibbles I have are minor. Early on, we’re given a list of every store in a shopping center, and while it does give a nice view of what the Junans consider important, I’m not sure we needed to know all of them. There’s a similar bit later in the book when we stop at a bakery, and I was thinking, “Guys? Um, shouldn’t we be worried about the enemy troops?” Finally, a long-standing dispute between two tribes is resolved so quickly I had to slam on the brakes and re-read to be sure I hadn’t missed something. But like I said, and as you can see—these are very, very minor and in no way interfere with the entertainment on hand.
Of which there is a lot. If I were to try to recall a book that gripped me as tightly as this one did, the only title that pops up is…The Runaway Robot. As previously mentioned, that book has stayed with me for decades. Well, here’s to a long life, then, so I’ll enjoy Flap Doodel and the Incredible Kibbll Caper again and again for an equal span.
Incidentally, author Wolfe does double duty as illustrator Wolfe, and the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter are charming without being overly sweet. If I were to voice a complaint about the illustrations, it would be this: there aren’t enough of them. Still, I’d rather have the grand adventure than pictures of folks I can picture clearly in my head, but I don’t think you can have too much of a good thing in this instance…
I highly recommend this book. Give it a go, and remember what a sense of wonder is like.
Incidentally, the book has managed to spark my own creativity a bit. For the first time in umm a rather long time, I’m writing a story that has nothing to do with NaNo and isn’t an assignment. Of course, given my nature, mine is something of the “Wouldn’t it be horrible if…” though slightly tempered this time around. You couldn’t have been expecting anything else, yes?