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The trouble began with Cat in the Hat rave gear. Oh sure, there have been Where the Wild Things Are rumpuses ever since the ’60s, but those were isolated incidents. Now, there’s a real push to market children’s books to an 18-to-25 demographic trying to prolong its fading youth. After all, Urban Outfitters doesn’t sell The Catcher in the Rye, but it does stock Everybody Poops. Babe, based on Dick King-Smith’s novel, was a surprise hit with adults; a film version of Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji is in the works. And Penguin USA is running prime-time TV commercials for The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, the 1993 collection of fractured fairy tales by Jon Scieszka and illustrator Lane Smith.
With “stinky cheese” in the title, the book couldn’t go wrong—particularly not with an age group disillusioned with Ren and Stimpy and desperate to be grossed out. Scieszka and Lane’s latest collaboration, Math Curse, lacks its successor’s disgust appeal. It does, however, play on grade-school nostalgia. It’s not only for kids learning multiplication, but for post-grads grappling with the 1040-EZ.
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“You know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem,” a teacher tells the young heroine of this hyperfrantic picture book. The banal statement torments the girl, who subsequently “starts having problems” of both the mathematic and obsessive sort. “There are 24 kids in my class,” she gaspingly observes. “…We sit in 4 rows with 6 desks in each row. What if Mrs. Fibonacci rearranges the desks to make 6 rows? 8 rows? 3 rows? 2 rows?” Later, she has fraction trouble with pizza slices, logic trouble with less-than and greater-than symbols, until she is a “raving math lunatic.”
Commercial illustrator Smith is presently the art director for Tim Burton’s adaptation of James and the Giant Peach. Here, coincidentally or not, he creates a distinctly Burtonesque main character. The waiflike narrator dresses alternately in a black-and-white-checkerboard dress or black-and-red-striped shirt; her unkempt mop of hair, wide round eyes, and tiny chin look straight out of The Nightmare Before Christmas or Beetlejuice. Two of her math fantasies take Burton’s favorite shape, the downward spiral. But Smith’s work isn’t as delicate or sinister as Burton’s or, for that matter, Edward Gorey’s. His pebbly-textured paintings incorporate elements of collage: A dollar bill, coins, and a calendar echo the mathconcept. The book’s geometric design complements the art, too. Diagonal lines sometimes chop the square pages into isosceles triangles, and though the font sizes change, the typed text always follows straight paths.
Scieszka is to be commended for trying to introduce an educational component. Mrs. Fibonacci is named after a medieval mathematician; a landscape of dots and lines is referred to as “a connect-the-ancient-Mayan-numerals picture”; and a puzzle known as Fermat’s Theorem is scrawled in chalky white on a slate-gray spread. These asides generally go over the reader’s head—unless of course Mom, Dad, or some calculus-whiz baby sitter shares the joke. Fortunately, the story’s extra-caffeinated pace holds the interest of what it calls its recommended audience of “ages 6 and 99.” Scieszka and Lane wouldn’t want to lose readers to the televised version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.