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'Stick Dog' and other hybrid books

by KAREN MacPHERSON Scripps Howard News Service on July 28, 2013 2:30 AM

Picture books, filled with colorful illustrations, are the first books we share with children. Yet, once kids learn to read by themselves, we seem to think it’s time to take away those pictures, which are seen as unnecessary and frivolous.

Kids, however, aren’t so persuaded by this idea, as demonstrated by the massive recent success of such “hybrid” chapter-book series as “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Dork Diaries.”

These books are called “hybrid” because they are a mix of words and illustrations. It turns out that kids really love the way illustrations can extend the humor and add pizzazz to novels (and in the relatively new genre of illustration-filled nonfiction books). After all, kids’ first reading experience is learning to “read” the illustrations in picture books, an important skill in our increasingly visual world.

Hybrid books actually have been published for several decades and have consistently been popular with young readers. Among these early hybrid series are: “The Magic School Bus,” written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen and first published in 1985; the “Amelia” books, written and illustrated by Marissa Moss and first published in 1995; and “Captain Underpants,” written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey and first published in 1997.

But hybrid books were basically niche literature until 2007. That’s when Amulet Books published “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” the first in the series of hybrid books about a hapless middle-schooler named Greg Hefley. Written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney, the series now comprises seven books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide and inspired several movies.

Young readers are eagerly awaiting the eighth book in the series, which will be released by Amulet Books on Nov. 5.

The success of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books has led to the designation of the hybrid book as a new genre of children’s fiction. It also has sparked the publication of numerous other hybrid series, including “Dork Diaries,” “Big Nate,” “Ellie McDoodle,” “Origami Yoda” and “Just Grace.”

Here’s a look at some of the newest hybrid books for young readers:

• The young narrator of “Stick Dog” (HarperCollins, $12.99, ages 8-12) opens the book with a few stipulations for the reader. First, the narrator notes: “I admit to you that I can’t draw so well. And you promise that you won’t hassle me about it.”

Also, “... this Stick Dog story (with the bad pictures that my art teacher doesn’t like) will also be told in a way that I like (but my English teacher doesn’t).”

Readers who agree to those points will then be treated to a laugh-out-loud novel in which the main character — a stick-figure dog — works with his four dog friends to develop a plan to steal some freshly grilled hamburgers from a family of humans.

It may not sound like much of a story premise, but author/illustrator Tom Watson knows how to draw out the humor and the sheer silliness of the tale to make kids laugh and keep turning the pages.

It’s especially fun to watch how Stick Dog, the group’s ringleader, has to be smart enough to transform his friends’ foibles into strengths if they are ever to succeed at their goal of getting the hamburgers.

In fact, the real genius of this book is how Watson uses his canine characters as stand-ins for kids, who may not be trying to figure out ways to steal hamburgers, but who do need to learn how to navigate their way through sometimes-tricky friendships.

The art is just hilarious, with Watson doing a marvelous job of conveying both humor and emotion through stick figures. Don’t be surprised if your young reader decides to try creating some stick-figure art after reading this book, as Watson makes it look like just plain fun.

• Since the publication of the first “Dork Diaries” book in 2009, the series has become a big hit among girls who can readily identify with the ups and downs in the life of 14-year-old Nikki Maxwell.

In her sixth and latest adventure, “Tales from a Not-So-Happy Heartbreaker” (Aladdin, $13.99, ages 8-12), Nikki finds herself on yet another emotional roller coaster, wondering whether she will go to the big dance with her crush, or whether her nemesis MacKenzie will snag him.

As always, author/illustrator Rachel Renee Russell tells her story through Nikki’s diary entries, which are peppered with lots of “OMG”s, smiley faces, words written in all capital letters, and lots of exclamation marks. The energetic line drawings add to the drama and the entertainment for young readers.

The “Dork Diaries” is a family affair, with Russell crediting both of her daughters, Nikki and Erin, with helping with the story and the art.

• Wiley and his Grampa encounter barbecue-eating zombies, a monster-truck-driving vampire and a legendary sea monster in “The Monster Book of Creature Features” (Little Brown, $10.99, ages 8-12).

With all these monsters to battle, it seems like Wiley and Grampa are goners more than once. Fortunately, Gramma, with her no-nonsense manner and beehive hairdo that houses an “anger meter,” can always be counted on to give them a hand and make sure things don’t get too serious for Wiley and Grampa.

Author/illustrator Kirk Scroggs offers kids a wacky, action-packed book that will be a particular hit with those who like their horror laced with huge dollops of humor.

• In her 10th adventure, the third-grader nicknamed Just Grace finds herself breaking a “pinkie-swear” promise to best friend Mimi and then scrambles to try to set things right again.

In “Just Grace and the Trouble with Cupcakes” (Houghton Mifflin, $15.99, ages 7-10), author/illustrator Charise Mericle Harper again humorously explores the sometimes-challenging terrain of elementary-school friendships.

Fans of the previous “Just Grace” books will relish this new volume, while those who haven’t yet met this thoughtful character have a treat in store.

• Fans of the “Zits” comic strip featuring a teenage boy named Jeremy and his long-suffering parents will delight in “Chillax” (HarperCollins, $9.99, ages 12 up). In this book, “Zits” creators Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman present a long-form look at Jeremy’s life, as he experiences his first rock concert and also helps a friend deal with his mother’s life-threatening cancer.

As they do in their comic strip, Scott and Borgman use the form of the novel to deftly underline the humor and drama inherent in the everyday life of a teenager.


Karen MacPherson, the children’s/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at

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