Cartoonist Derek grapples with a perplexing association between disability and bullying in this stand-alone sequel to My Life as a Book (2010) and My Life as a Stuntboy (2011).
Derek has two best friends at school and two beloved critters at home, including Frank, a capuchin monkey who’s practicing family life before training as a service animal. Frank’s the model for Derek’s comic, Super Frank. Drawing’s a fun challenge; reading’s a difficult chore, though the stick-figure cartoons with which Derek illustrates his vocabulary words enliven the margins. Each playful sketch portrays a word from the adjacent paragraph but in an amusingly different context—“ingenious” shows up as a cupcake machine. Derek’s life takes a turn for the worse when transfer-student Umberto targets him. Umberto steals Derek’s cartoon ideas and makes him a “verbal punching bag.” The bullying arc is fairly standard, but the bully isn’t, at least physically: Umberto uses a wheelchair. On one hand, Tashjian creates a real anti-stereotype in this speedy wheeling boy who could (and would) easily crush Derek with a lacrosse stick if teachers weren’t around. However, after the boys bond, Derek’s funny narrative voice (“Frank’s fur is now covered in a helmet of peanut butter”) indulges in a few adult-sounding, rose-colored disability clichés, saying that Umberto possesses “honesty and grace” and “inspires me.”
This entertaining read leaves some provoking questions unanswered—usefully. (Fiction. 9-12)