Monday, July 9, 2018

Scholastic: Aron Nels Steinke's Mr. Wolf's Class

Aron Nels Steinke's major-publisher debut, Mr. Wolf's Class, is a pitch-perfect account of an ordinary classroom on the first day of school. It's the culmination of his career arc as a cartoonist and an expansion on his minicomics of the same name. Those comics were told entirely from his point of view as an actual teacher in a fourth grade class, but the bulk of the humor came from the things that the students said and did. Steinke is a keen observer, and when that gaze is turned on others instead of himself (as in his obsessive autobio comics), the result is a raw, hilarious and accurate account of what children are really like. In particular, Steinke captures the sense of controlled chaos in a classroom, with a teacher having to negotiate the personal narratives seventeen kids.

Steinke makes a number of smart storytelling decisions. He starts the book with a silent series of panels as Mr. Wolf fixes up his classroom. It establishes him as an important character, but then Steinke gives us one panel each on every student in his classroom going to bed the night before the first day of school in a 2 x 4 grid. That quickly established that every character is important, but the last panel introducing the kids spanning across the bottom third of the page introduces Margot. It's a clever device that hints to the reader that Margot will be a very important character. Indeed she is, as it's her first day of school in a new city. It's also Mr. Wolf's first day as a teacher at this school. Steinke gives the reader a couple of different routes into the story, as these characters serve as reader surrogates in a sense. We see the school through their eyes as being unfamiliar with a new routine, but we also get to see through the eyes of other students as well.

Steinke employs an anthropomorphic rendering of his characters, which is quite effective. First of all, it establishes a base cuteness level slightly removed from reality, which heightens what is after all a mundane setting. Second, it helps with the problem of keeping track of two dozen characters. Making each one a different animal makes it easier to remember who's who. Even with that aid, it's easy to forget the names of characters. Steinke is aware of that and incorporates it into the story, as Mr. Wolf forgets the names of some of his new students. There are some nice storytelling symmetries, as the story begins and ends with Margot and her first day, and also features Sampson with an unpleasant bus ride at the beginning of the story and a pleasant one with Margot at the very end.

Steinke weaves in a number of little stories and plots that follow each of the kids in the class. There's the prickly Aziza, sleepy Penny, cartoonist Oscar, brainy Stewart, etc. There's friendship, there's conflict, there's hurt feelings and even a missing student, as Penny takes a nap in a cardboard box. There are references to farts. Throughout the book, Steinke pokes fun at Mr. Wolf, who pats himself on the back a lot for doing a good job until Penny disappears. He also has to deal with rats in the classroom, a fellow teacher stealing his stapler and conflicts in his class.

The overall message is that adults are just as confused and clueless sometimes as kids, and they need help like anyone else. Steinke has crafted a book that will resonate with kids as feeling real but is also entertaining. It poignantly captures the way kids make friends with each other as well as the ways in which they hurt each other, even if it's inadvertent. Everything about this book is understated despite the clear amount of work Steinke put into creating a smooth structure for his story. By going after the small details instead of trying to push big events on the reader, Steinke has created a series that accurately, sweetly and amusingly chronicles the ups and downs of being a child at school.

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