Funny Genre-Bending Fiction From the Creators of ‘Dragons Love Tacos’ and the ‘Spy School’ Series – The New York Times

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Children’s Books

Tales From the Multiverse: Volume One
By Adam Rubin
Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri, Charles Santoso, Liniers, Emily Hughes, Nicole Miles, Seaerra Miller
By Stuart Gibbs
Illustrated by Stacy Curtis
“Writing is magic.” So says Adam Rubin in the introduction of his middle grade debut, “The Ice Cream Machine.” And so it is. Yet, in this reviewer’s opinion, the magic of writing pales in comparison to the powers of the book’s subject: ice cream. Part liquid, part solid, all elixir, ice cream has the proven magical ability to make any moment better. Rubin gives this coolest of treats its due in a new story collection, Volume 1 of “Tales From the Multiverse.”
Each story in “The Ice Cream Machine” takes place in a different world from our own, although many of them bear striking similarities to the one we call home. And each is illustrated by a different artist. What unites these various dimensional planes is an ice cream machine — sometimes literal, sometimes not. Always, though, ice cream plays a pivotal role.
In “The One With the Five-Armed Robot,” illustrated by Rubin’s frequent collaborator Daniel Salmieri, the most famous boy in the world and his robot companion travel the globe to sample international takes on ice cream, only to get marooned in the jungle with a robocidal maniac and a battalion of bird-watching hot-air balloonists. Does this sound preposterous? It is, wonderfully so.
In “The One With the Ice Cream Eating Contest,” the machine in question isn’t a contraption that makes desserts but rather an ice cream eating champion so proficient in his sport he is nicknamed “The Machine.” This fable is filled with talking animals, and the champ is a foul-tempered pig named Herman. Can the human sisters Penelope and Pam unseat this porcine grump to win a year’s supply of Wally’s “famous Five-Dollar Fudgey Plops”?
A miserable sorcerer’s assistant named Martin is commanded by the king to conjure “strawberry icy cream” for the harvest festival in “The One With the Sorcerer’s Assistant.” Unfortunately, Martin the Mage is only assistant to Socor the Sorcerer, and hasn’t learned anything more magical than turning hot water into stew. With only 10 days until the festival (on King Gary’s birthday) and Socor away on business, how will Martin avert failure?
Rubin is best known for his picture books, including the much-loved “Dragons Love Tacos,” and his penchant for fun shines through in this collection. Not all the stories are pure comedy, though. In “The One With the Genius Inventor,” a farmer whose beloved wife is in a coma and their daughter, Rhonda, are struggling to keep the family dairy farm. Despite Rhonda’s amazing timesaving inventions, such as the “Octo-Chopper” and the “Synchro Milker,” there aren’t enough hands to keep the place running. Foreclosure is imminent. When Rhonda finds a long-forgotten container of her mother’s award-winning ice cream, she is inspired to create her greatest and most delicious invention yet.
“The Ice Cream Machine” concludes with “The One That Hasn’t Been Written Yet,” in which Rubin asks readers to use the book’s title as a writing prompt for tales of their own; he even includes his address so they can share their stories with him. Writing and ice cream make surprisingly magical companions.
More magic — or at least the promise of it — abounds in Stuart Gibbs’s “Once Upon a Tim,” illustrated by Stacy Curtis. Gibbs is the author of many previous works, including the Spy School and Charlie Thorne series. Fans of heraldic silliness like “The Princess Bride” and “Shrek” will delight in “Once Upon a Tim,” a charming take on the traditional knightly adventure.
Like those other tales, “Once Upon a Tim” subverts the genre’s tropes in the service of satire. Poor Tim is a peasant, just like his parents and grandparents before him. Peasantry is unpleasantry. It’s a boring life filled with chores and more chores. There isn’t much else to be in the kingdom, other than the village idiot, a currently occupied position that seems to involve putting mud in one’s pants. This is not a kingdom with a lot of upward mobility.
Tim’s fortunes change when a stinx, the “most horrible, terrible, deadly monster you can imagine,” snatches away the neighboring kingdom’s princess, Grace. (The neighboring kingdom is not, so far as we know, Monaco.) Prince Ruprecht vows to rescue the good princess and, in so doing, secure himself a beautiful and, more important, rich bride. But first he needs to gather a posse of brave knights.
This is where Tim comes in, along with his best friend, Belinda, “an iconoclast” — a word labeled an I.Q. Booster. (The book is littered with these, which is kind of distracting but did teach me the word “borborygmus”: the “weird gurgling noise your stomach makes sometimes.”) Girls aren’t allowed to be knights, so Belinda disguises herself, and Tim agrees to preserve her secret, since girl peasants have it even worse than boy peasants.
The two enlist in the service of Prince Ruprecht and his wizard, the sinister Nerlim, along with Ferkle (the village idiot, who just happened to wander over to the knight tryouts), and leave the boring comforts of home to seek out the dastardly stinx. What follows is much silliness and much doom: the Forest of Doom, the River of Doom, the Chasm of Doom and the Mountains of Doom. They must contend with man-eating butterflies, quarrelsome trolls and fed-up pack animals, not to mention Tim’s fr-dog, Rover, who used to be all dog but is now half frog, thanks to a witchy transmogrification.
They are not a promising crew, to be sure, but their amateurish princess-rescuing gives rise to merriment. The book’s fun comes from Gibbs’s deployment of deadpan humor and boisterous slapstick. Its heart lies in a clever subversion of type. Nobody is quite who we were led to believe, least of all Tim, who may have been born a peasant but has the heart of a lion. Or, maybe, a fr-dog.
When they finally reach the stinx’s stinky lair, everything they thought about the business of princess-rescuing is upended, including the notion of happily ever after. The best we can hope for is “Happy for the Time Being,” the cliffhanger with which “Once Upon a Tim” concludes.
Both of these terrific new books revel in tomfoolery, which should be enough to draw young readers in. Both also have deeper messages if one cares to find them. Writing may be magic, but so is reading. And let it be said again: So is ice cream.