In a world populated by animals, Ariol is just your every-day, middle school donkey. His best friend is Ramono the pig, a slightly clueless fellow who gets Ariol into some scrapes. Ariol, like most middle school guys, has a crush on the popular girl, Petula the cow. The story is told in short episodes that feature Ariol’s imagination as well as the insecurities of being in middle school.
The writing feels authentic to middle school, despite taking place in an animal world. It features some hyperbolic exaggeration, taking a page out of the Wimpy Kid playbook. There are the clueless teachers, like a gym teacher who uses the phrase “in fact” in most of his statements. There are the embarrassing moments featuring unrequited crushes and parents’ silly nicknames. The most hilarious bits, however, might sail over the heads of middle schoolers who may be embroiled in similar situations. These seem like life and death at the moment yet are good for cringe-worthy laughs in the future. However, there are serious moments, too, like when Ariol is teased and bullied at school. He wonders if there’s any truth to the phrases “dumb as a donkey” or “dumbass,” though his parents assure him there isn’t.
The art feels like a newspaper comic with longer stories. The panels feature just enough detail for the intended age group, though the animals themselves are weird looking with exaggerated features. Of course, since many of us had our ugly duckling stage during middle school, this is probably intentional. The visual cues from the panels help the story along, as you can see how self-conscious and embarrassed Ariol gets during some of his exploits.
Ariol and the gang are a fun read with good read-alike potential for someone who is waiting for the next installment of Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Patterson’s Middle School stories. While most of it could also work for younger readers, that age group would probably miss the subtler humor that enriches Ariol’s story. Even older kids might need to read some parts two or three times to truly appreciate what’s happening. As one young fan advised on the back flap of the book, “First you read it, then you get it.”