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HomeEducation & JobsThe Problem With Parents

The Problem With Parents

Children’s books have long featured pint-size heroes overcoming fierce antagonists: ogres, witches and big bad wolves. So it comes as no surprise that a similar drama occurs in these three stories. Only here, children are up against something far more complex: their parents.

These moms and pops — by turns cruel, overprotective, distracted or obtuse — are less than ideal role models. But children (we expect) will prevail. And parents (we hope) will grow up.

In the opening scene of the cartoonist Gary Clement’s K IS IN TROUBLE (Little, Brown Ink, 224 pp., $13.99, ages 8 to 12), young K, feeling “particularly unwell,” asks his mother if he might stay home from school. Her response — a full-frame, all-caps “NO” — is a blunt foreshadowing of events. Nothing in these pages will come easily for poor K.

After a grim breakfast, K is out the door, walking through a wintry turn-of-the-century city filled with unsmiling grown-ups.

Finally, we see K’s school: a castle-like structure atop a mountain. Since K is late, he is sent to a vast, windowless room, where he awaits some imminent judgment. Much time passes. K even forgets why he’s there. One thing, though, is clear: He’s at the center of a lively graphic novel, inspired by Franz Kafka.

K’s troubles unfold in five chapters. In one, he is harassed by a flock of crows. In another, he is tormented by pompous bureaucrats. And in an especially thrilling scene, he is chased through the streets of the city by an angry mob. You can’t help pulling for K, even if his misfortune is hugely entertaining.

Clement’s artwork — pen and ink, with gouache — treats this nightmarish tale with lightness and wit. In one frame, K is seen as a tiny figure in the center of a vortex of pen lines. In others, he’s the target of pointing fingers or dwarfed by enormous file cabinets.

There is much to admire, from the restrained, sneaky-funny prose, to the shifts between narration and dialogue, to the playful use of lettering in the talk balloons. The result is visual storytelling at the highest level.

There is satire here, and in one section — when K befriends a talking beetle — there are moments of tenderness. Which is why, in the wake of K’s final appeal to his coldhearted father, I half-expected there would be a sign of hope. There wasn’t. After all, that would hardly be Kafkaesque!

For a story that features parents who genuinely care, there is Ziggy Hanaor’s THE EGG INCIDENT (Cicada, 72 pp., $19.99, ages 8 to 12). The fact is, this mom-and-pop duo cares too much. But then, you would too if your child were a large, fragile egg, about to step out for his first solo stroll in the busy city. Much caution is advised. Most important, Humphrey is forbidden from sitting on walls. There was, after all, the infamous incident with his uncle, Humpty.

So, dutiful son heeds risk-averse parents. He makes his way, baby step by baby step, across a busy intersection, into an idyllic park. Here he meets a spunky young princess, PJ, who tries, and fails, to get him to loosen up.

When the park closes, however, and the front gate is locked, the only way out is — uh-huh! — over a tall brick wall. Humphrey has no choice, and with a boost from PJ he reaches the summit.

Of course, what goes up must come plummeting down.

Don’t fret! No eggs are broken in this book. In fact, Humphrey’s near-splat experience fills him with such zest that even his shellshocked parents can’t resist joining in the fun.

This short graphic novel is a fast-paced read, thanks in large part to Daisy Wynter’s dynamic illustrations. Motion lines, hand-lettered sounds and dramatic page turns are used to great effect. And kids will get a kick out of Humphrey’s expressive reaction shots.

The story comes with a surprising epilogue. If you’ve ever wondered what really happened to Humpty, well, it’ll crack you up.

When children act out, parents have the unenviable task of setting them straight. What parent hasn’t told a fidgety child to “stop squirming!”? Or a howling child to “keep your voice down!”? But what if the squirmer is a worm, and the howler is a wolf?

In YOU BROKE IT! (Rise x Penguin Workshop, 48 pp., $18.99, ages 3 to 5), Liana Finck takes a slew of familiar parent–child encounters and cleverly places them in a new context.

When a pig berates its muddy piglet for getting dirty, and a tornado scolds its raging progeny for “making a mess,” the joke is squarely on mom and dad.

Finck’s pen-and-ink drawings, like her deftly minimalist New Yorker cartoons, extract unexpected humor from just the right number of lines.

The litany of parental exclamations comes to a sudden end when a defiant young octopus explains to its parent exactly why it can’t keep its hands — or, tentacles — to itself.

This serves as the book’s punchline, one that human children will understand all too well.

What follows is a warm 16-tentacled embrace, which gives this high-concept spoof a heart.

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