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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Life of Zarf: The Trouble with Weasels by Rob Harrell

My older brother called me "Barbie" until I barfed up Welch grape soda in the car on a road trip from Minnesota to Texas one summer (no air-conditioning... not a pretty picture... not a pretty smell... and a permanent gross purple stain on my pillow). Even though I was five, those are the childhood fiascoes that lead to family nicknames such as "Barfie." We had a Buick station wagon with two rows of seats and a third row that flipped up facing each other. Being fourth out of five kids I got shoved to where the trunk should be like a "flumpfruit". When I puked orange soda I made it to the front. I remember snuggling with mom liking my move up the ranks to the front seat. Needless to say I love the troll-boy Zarf. His name rhymes with barf too. Except his nickname is "Stink Dragon." The illustration of Zarf reminds me of my 1977 faddish troll doll with electrified-looking pink hair I had as a kid - they were called, Dam trolls, after the Danish guy who created them, Thomas Dam. No kidding. (Mom wouldn't let me call mine that.) Zarf is picked on at school and mistreated by the Cotswain's community. He too, is at the bottom of the social hierarchy like me in my family. People don't like trolls. They are unpredictable and hot-tempered, going berserk at times. Add in features such as size-22 hairy feet and a liking for poo-poo berry fritters and fish and ye have a silly olde story. The nonstop slapstick, play on words, and poking fun at fairy tale conventions, (and schools, and popular movies, and music, and technology... you get the idea), reminded me of "The Heroes Guide to Saving the Kingdom" or the movie, "Shrek." Adult and kid humor makes this a zinger.

When Zarf loses his temper while at middle school, he beats up the king's son for cheating in a joust. Not only does Zarf angrily lose control, but his vision turns red and his arm becomes a fist-pumping piston. (That might be a slight exaggeration, but I liked the word combo. A more accurate description is a fist-slapping-punching combination.) When he regains his sanity he is ashamed of his actions and runs home feeling like "frog goop." Yes, the king's son is a bully, but Zarf can't go flailing away at every twit he meets. His grandpa, who is the famed troll that got duped by the "three billy goats gruff", explains that Zarf comes from a long line of infamous Belfords known for their frenzy in battles, but that he needs to learn to use his anger "ta help others." When the king is kidnapped by the evil Snuffweasels, his son takes over the kingdom and immediately imprisons Zarf for beating him up. Zarf decides to rescue the king who has been kind and tolerant of trolls changing laws for their benefit. A wild adventure ensues with honey bogs, Snuffweasels, and dragons.

Zarf's best friends are Chester Flintwater, Jester-in-training that can't make a joke, and Kevin Littlepig, one of the three little pigs that makes the cowardly lion look brave. The three misfits learn about friendship and are willing to risk their lives for each other. Even Kevin overcomes his fear to save Zarf. Goldie, the lunch lady, is a spoof on Goldilocks. She's ladling soup and joking with Zarf that it is "just right." The other kids are afraid of her with her skull cap and fierce ways. Rumor has it she's a witch or serious bear hunter. The ogres seem like stereotyped henchmen, but this author reminds me of when I thought I was getting a mint, strawberry ice cream cone in Taiwan and ended up with a red bean, green tea flavored cone. He constantly surprises the reader!

The gags are delivered using illustrations and prose, each one playing off the other adding to the humor. When they go into the dark forest a sign reads, "Ye Olde Snarly Tangle Enter at Ye Own Risk" with Chester looking on saying, "Daaang!" in a speech bubble. When Chester slices off the dragon's toe the prose has the dragon grabbing his toe and screaming "My PINKIEEEE!" while the illustration shows Chester holding a sword saying, "And this little Piggie got none." Or when Zarf is so scared he says it was making his "teeth shimmy" and the picture next to it is a crazy-eyed human heart doing a cannonball.

The setting is rooted in kingdom and fairy tale lore. "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," "Hansel and Gretel," and "King Arthur" as a comic book hero are just a few of the many hilarious references to classics. The anachronistic use of a cell phone and references to pop culture from music such as "Eye of the Tiger", "Red Bull" drink, to word-plays such as the movie, "Dead Man Walking," for "Dead Troll Walking" make for funny running gags. My favorite line captures a mix of the two when the ogre is asked who his phone provider is when he can't get reception at the honey bog. "'Grimm unfortunately.' Kevin threw his hands up in disgust. 'SEE? Grimm is the worst! I told you guys.'"

The story is not all gags. Themes are layered in laughter. Zarf learns how words can hurt and heal, but that he has to not lose his temper. He is continually bullied and hurt throughout the story, but when he finally shows at the end that it doesn't get to him and he walks out of the room, he has become mature about his temper. Although I do think the king was out of character. Or perhaps the author really wanted to cement the community's intolerance for trolls as unchangeable.

The intolerance of the community is tempered by a few characters that genuinely like Zarf such as the Knoble Knight and Goldie. Again, the ending didn't quite work for me because I thought the Knoble Knight would stand up for Zarf. While I understand the attempt to show Zarf maturing, the about-face actions of the King and other adults didn't make sense. Perhaps a bit more of an explanation could have shown their motivation or lack of it in the final scene. Or perhaps the author is making a mockery out of aristocracy and adults. I just had a "Huh?" moment at the end. You'll have to decide for yourself. The theme of controlling your anger and not fitting in at school can be explored as well. There is plenty to talk about. Just plan on snort-laughing through discussions.

Rob Harrell's graphic novel, "Monster on the Hill," pokes fun of fantasy conventions while this one does at fairy tales. It too, has an odd quirky wit similar to his graphic novel. Both are funnier than heck. Rob Harrell writes syndicated comic strips and is a talented artist. I'm glad he's entered the foray of children's books. If you have a kid or students that won't set down their graphic novels to try prose, then I highly recommend this book. Actually, I would recommend it to everyone. Even my brother that still calls me "Barfie" once in a while. "Ladies and Germs," this is one "Daaang" funny book.  Don't miss it.

4 Smileys

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