As third grader Thaddeus knows all too well, babies screw up everything. He was content to be the only child and enjoy being the sole beneficiary of attention in his family, but along came an “unexpected blessing” in the form of his baby sister Maddie. To make matters worse, the only thing Maddie ever says is “ga,” which leads Thaddeus to come to the conclusion that she is “dumb in the head.” Hardly what one would call a typical eight-year-old, Thaddeus’s his high level of intelligence causes him to become quickly annoyed with everyone around him, especially since they only seem like obstacles in is path to becoming President of the Earth, and Maddie is the biggest roadblock of the bunch.
However, things suddenly get interesting for Thaddeus once he discovers that Maddie only says “ga” in the frequency of prime numbers. Obviously, this means she’s an alien. Unfortunately, nobody else seems to accept his theory, which becomes all the more troubling once strange little creatures emerge from Maddie’s mouth and begin spreading their message of smiles and happy feelings. Hmmm, perhaps these bizarre missionaries are just the ticket Thaddeus needs to become planetary ruler.
Prime Baby is a short work and can be read quickly in one sitting, but its brevity is to its advantage and keeps the simple but unusual story from becoming more convoluted than it needs to be. Gene Luen Yang stays concentrated and direct in both his storytelling and artwork, both of which manage to be dense with detail without becoming too heavy. The result is a stripped-down yet still surprisingly meaty offering that accomplishes what it sets out to do, namely tell an odd tale of sibling rivalry that keeps readers on their toes by adding humorous, unexpected elements to the last page. The book’s physical layout, which makes abundant use of white space above and below the multi-panel strips on each page, keeps readers’ attention focused and flowing, adding just as much to the experience as the plot, dialogue, and illustrations do.
The takeaway moral from Prime Baby is sweet and touching, though not unexpected, with Thaddeus learning that having a baby sister isn’t quite as bad as he initially thought it was. However, what separates Prime Baby from books with similar themes is the unexpected path Yang has readers travel along on the way to the end message. The world of Thaddeus and Maddie becomes rather weird, and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop so that everything would return to normal, but that never quite happened. Prime Baby sticks to its unconventional guns the entire time, and when I reached the final page I was completely surprised—and delighted—that everything wrapped up the way it did.
Though Prime Baby’s main character may only be eight, he speaks in a voice that is far beyond his years and the book presents ideas that are more complicated that what is found in the usual fare for elementary school-age readers. Therefore, the surreal nature of the work and its hefty vocabulary will probably prove too difficult for readers until they’re in upper elementary school or middle school. Also, Prime Baby is not the best starting point for anyone new to Yang, as it doesn’t have the same mainstream appeal of his other works like American Born Chinese or Level Up. However, it’s a captivating book all the same, and it is an outstanding demonstration of one of the most promising graphic novelists on the scene today proving he is far more than a one-trick pony when it comes to subject matter and his approach to the medium.
by Gene Luen Yang
First Second, 2010
Publisher Age Rating: 12+