Those librarians who are, ahem, seasoned, may remember a charming two-color volume called Upside Down about a cute little vampire from publisher Top Shelf. It’s been ten years, during which the creator has mostly concentrated on other projects, from picture books to comic instruction, but he’s back with a new, unique series that I think will be a hit with middle grade readers.
The story opens with Megan Hathaway, middle schooler, talent show host, and our heroine, being attacked by seagulls. We quickly realize it’s a dream, but are immediately faced with a choice: run away from the seagulls or hide? That’s right, it’s a choose-your-own-ending story based around the middle school talent show! But this talent show is like none you’ve seen before, with a Captain Underpants-style assistant principal, gulls bent on destruction, and a best friend who is so sick… she’s turned into a zombie! Choose Megan’s next steps as she wakes up late, loses her notebook with all the instructions, laments her lack of a cell phone, and deals with her dad’s sno-cone truck and see if you can get her successfully through the drama of a middle school talent show without getting detention, pecked to death by seagulls, or trapped in the school air ducts!
Although I question Megan’s bun-hairstyle, the goofy art is a good fit for this silly story. All the characters have the same black dot eyes, but Smiley is able to convey a surprising amount of information with them, from the descent into zombiehood of Olivia, Megan’s best friend, to Megan’s own desperation and panic behind her giant glasses. The characters are all variations of stick figures, with round or oblong faces, and I was tickled to see that there’s more variation in body-type in these cartoon characters than in more “realistic” illustrations. Olivia, when she’s not being sick or turning into a zombie, is a sweet, smart friend, drawn with a round head, chunky body, and bunches of brown curls. Mr. Fisher, the mostly villainous assistant principal, is a circle for a head and a bigger circle for the body, with arms and legs sticking out. He’s mostly portrayed as petty and panicked, radiating drops of sweat. Megan’s brother, Jerome, is a lean stick figure who’s not at all sympathetic to his sister, but definitely cares about his goth cowgirl crush. The frenetic pace of the story is shown in the characters bobbing about the stage, behind the scenes at the school, and around the grounds. Cartoon seagulls and other animals swoop in and out, and there’s a whole side story with Megan’s pet hedgehog Vincent, a scribble of brown, adventuring through the house on his own.
This goofy adventure will scooped up by fans of Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries. Even the endings where Megan dies are treated humorously, with dramatic x-ed out eyes as she succumbs to flocks of seagulls. Jerome’s make-out session with his girlfriend is portrayed as grossing out Megan almost as much as her best friend puking on stage, and even middle schoolers will see this as an exaggerated and humorous take on the kind of day when everything goes wrong. Additional adventures are planned and readers are sure to be waiting for the next wild adventure Megan gets caught up in.
What Happens Next? vol 1: Talent Show Troubles
By Jess Smart Smiley
Macmillan First Second, 2023
Publisher Age Rating: 7-10 years
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)