I’ve become a big fan of Stephen McCranie’s Mal and Chad series of books ever since he skyped into my classroom and taught my students about drawing and storytelling. So, I am biased with this review. But even if I had not had the pleasure of Stephen’s company, I would be a fan of Mal and Chad. The books (three, so far, I believe) center on a boy, Mal, and his dog, Chad, through adventures and misadventures as Mal uses his technology skills and navigates the awkward stages of friendship with a girl, Megan.
There’s plenty of humor built into the stories — visual and textual — and the books are accessible and relate-able to elementary and middle school kids (and I suspect a few high school students wouldn’t mind picking it up). The artwork has a Manga-feel to it and McCranie conveys a lot through the expressions of his characters. Some of the “silent” panels pack the most powerful emotional punches, particularly as Mal gets shunned by other kids in his school. That’s a credit to McCranie’s art skills and understanding of graphic stories.
What sets Mal and Chad apart, though, is its heart.
The center of all the stories — including this one, Belly Flop — is Mal’s desire for good friendship and his willingness to do what it takes to become a true friend. His intentions are always right on, even if the results almost always end up in slapstick comedy. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and we the readers are right there with him. I’m always amused when Chad, the dog, kicks in with some dialogue, particularly when he is puffing up Mal with positive comments. Chad is Mal’s one-dog cheering section, and yet, it never falls into the cloyingly annoying phase, as it could. It’s genuine (well, as genuine as it gets with a talking dog.)
Belly Flop centers on a few storylines that come together, as Mal invents a Weather Cube that goes awry. Meanwhile, he gets invited to Megan’s birthday party, where some powerful glue on a gift undoes all of Mal’s ideas for impressing Megan and he ends up belly-flopping into a stream (thus, the nickname kids give Mal and the name of the book). So, he tries out for the Talent Show, only to have the audition fall apart when the Weather Cube goes crazy and unleashes a powerful storm. Mal races out to find Chad, to make sure his dog is safe, and finds himself in danger. Only Megan can save Mal … and she does.
See? Heart. That’s what storytelling is all about, and Mal and Chad is full of heart.
Peace (in the tale),
PS — the trailer