Let's just get this 1,500 lb polar bear in the room out of the way right now: Yes. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis does join a long line of notebook-novel-knock-offs that have filled the shelves since the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney debuted in 2007. Yes: I do not really like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series for a number of reasons and am skeptical of all books that come in its wake. That said, there is one thing that I will be eternally grateful to Jeff Kinney for - making illustrations an acceptable, desirable quality in middle-grade novels - notebook style or otherwise. I am all for the merging of graphic novels and middle grade novels and there are actually a few Notebooks Novels I really love, including Amy Ignatow's Popularity Papers series and Tom Angleberger's Origami Yoda series. The existence of either of which does not seem entirely possible without the huge success of Kinney's books coming before. If nothing else, the immense popularity of the Wimpy Kid series proved to publishers and booksellers that parents are willing to let their children read "books with pictures" at a time in their academic career when it is assumed they should be beyond this type of book. More importantly, it proved that parents are willing to PURCHASE these books, often only available in the pricier hard cover format, and purchase them every year as new additions to the series are relased. And why is it that parents are willing to to this, ultimately? Because kids, especially kids who don't like to read, LOVE this kind of book!
So, why do I like Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made so much and Diary of a Wimpy Kid not so much? Both Timmy and Greg are flawed characters. As Pastis, the creator of the syndicated comic strip Pearls Before Swine, said of creating this novel, he started with the question “What makes me laugh?” He found his answer quickly. “What makes me laugh is a character with a huge blind spot,” he says. “I like characters like Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces and Ricky Gervais’s character in The Office. They think one thing about themselves, but the truth is as far from that as it can be. So I began to think about how to put that kind of character in a book for kids.”
Timmy is most definitely an unreliable narrator with a view of the world as self-centered and skewed as Greg at times. The comparisons end there, for the most part. Timmy and his life are much more like Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes fame. In fact, like Calvin, Timmy has an animal companion - Total, the 1,500 pound polar bear who came across the Failure's cat dish while wandering in search of food. However, we never see Total in stuffed-toy form as we do Hobbes, leaving the biggest question (one that comes up in almost every review) is Total real or imaginary? My eight-year-old son, who tore this book from my hands the minute he saw it, insists that Total IS real, although Timmy's mother never sees him. Timmy is a self-styled detective and "founder, president and CEO" of Failure, Inc. Timmy gets all the "failure" jokes out of the way right from the start, although there is always room for more. Timmy decides to partner with Total, who initially "displayed a fair degree of diligence and reliability." As it turned out, the "diligence and reliability were a ruse. Something polar bears do." It wasn't until after Timmy agreed to name their agency TOTAL FAILURE, INC (WE WON'T FAIL, DESPITE WHAT THE NAME SAYS.) and took out an add in the yellow pages that he discovered Total wasn't all he appeared.
Like Ricky Gervais's character in The Office, Timmy Failure's blind spot, combined with the conviction that TOTAL FAILURE, INC. is just one case away from becoming a Fortune 500 company, can be painful to watch. Pastis lightens this with humor, mostly from Total but Pastis pretty much stacks the deck in favor of the absurd. My favorite part was a visit to Molly Moskin's house and and encounter with her cat, Señor Burrito, who took every opportunity to put her paw (yes, Señor Burrito is a female) into Timmy's tea when he turned his head away. Also, Timmy's mom has a Segway that she won in a raffle. She likes to take it around the block a few times in the evening to unwind after a stressful day at work at the Stationary Store as well as the stress of single-parenting Timmy, who uses her closet as an office and teleconferences with her (at dinner) to counsel her to remove her clothes and shoes from his office. Timmy likes to use the Segway to get to cases, although this eventually results in the disappearance of the Segway and the worst thing possible - tears from his mom. Adults in the book, because they are seen from Timmy's perspective, are at best a future employee (his mom) at worst a smelly old man who leans forward like he has a sack of potatoes tied to his hear (Mr Crocus, his teacher.) The librarian, Flo, looks like he's in a motorcycle gang but reads Emily Dickinson and the yard duty lady, Dondi Sweetwater, encourages Timmy to play with the other kids instead of sitting by the fence everyday and gives him Rice Krispy Treats for his friend that she never sees. Timmy sits by the fence because Total is not allowed on campus (discrimination) and Timmy slips him the Rice Krispy Treats, which he is bonkers for. Then there is Crispin Flavius, Timmy's mom's new boyfriend who thinks it's ok to let Timmy steer his Cadillac from time to time with disastrous results. The negative depiction of the adults in Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is more along the lines of Phineas and Ferb (which can be a pretty smart, creative funny show at times, I must admit) in terms of their obtuseness and occasional inanities. Timmy never says anything outright insulting or malicious to or about the adults. He saves his snark for Rollo Tookus, his rotund, idiot best friend who wants to go to "Stanfurd"(Timmy's spelling.) Pastis makes a point to prove what an unreliable narrator Timmy is by having Timmy note (without even a sliver or irony) that Rollo has a 4.6 GPA, studies and has a tutor and is clearly an ignoramus. Timmy's nemesis, someone who remains behind an obscuring black rectangle for the first part of the book because Timmy refuses to speak of her, is Corinna Corinna (anyone know that song?) who's worst offense is that she is has a successful detective agency and solves cases quickly and with humility. When Timmy sneaks into her backpack and readers Corinna's diary, the reader learns that she lives with her Nanny and father, who seems to be away at work most of the time, although Timmy skews this information to his own perspective. Her diary also reveals the solution to a case Timmy is still trying to crack but, being Timmy he misses the information completely, instead slapping his commentary by way of sticky notes, on the pages of her diary.
Because of the age of Greg Heffy and the singular perspective of his dairy, I worry that younger readers (and everyone knows a first grader who is reading or has read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid) will take the books at face value, not realizing that Greg's way of seeing the world isn't the best way to look at life. This opinion is based on my reading of the first two books in the series - Jeff Kinney could very well could have given Greg a conscience seven books into the series. With Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made I don't worry about readers taking this unreliable narrator's words at face value. Even if kids don't pick up what Pastis is putting down (the chapter titles are great, especially Chapter 49 in which Crispin lets Timmy steer the Cadillac, "You May Find Yourself Behind the Wheel of a Large Automobile," a line from the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime") the presence of Total will inform them. Whether they think Total is real or imaginary, they know that the humor of Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is absurd and silly, not mean spirited like it can be in Kinney's books.
But, you don't have to take my word for it! Click here to Read a Sample Chapter!
Source: Review Copy