Review of the Day: Chunky by Yehudi Mercado
“So what do you remember about the plot of Chunky?” I asked my seven-year-old. We’d read the book together at bedtime a couple months ago. I always like to pair novels with comics (we’re doing Charlotte’s Web and Manu right now) and Chunky had proven to be an ideal bedtime GN. My son considered the question then said readily, “The part where he cuts off part of his finger.” I blinked. I had completely forgotten that part. “Uh.. what else?” I prompted. He then provided me with the following handy list:
• When he didn’t fit into his baseball uniform
• All the sports he had to take
• The bully
• When he didn’t want to tell his friends that his family calls him “Little Dummy”
That’s the thing about kids. What sticks in their brains isn’t necessarily what sticks in yours. And yet, I think that if you read a lot of books to your kids and they can still remember one of them several months later, there’s something good going on in its pages. A gift to those already a fan of Mercado’s books, this fictionalized memoir recounts the author/illustrator’s trials and tribulations, trying to live up to his parents’ expectations. And as children’s book issues go, that’s one of the few that shall always be evergreen.
Hudi’s a funny kid. Literally funny. His sense of humor is key since he only has one lung, people think his weight is a problem, and his parents have just started bugging him about joining some kind of sport. Fortunately, Hudi has a special little someone on his side at all times. He’s less an imaginary friend and more an imaginary mascot and his name is Chunky. With Chunky cheering him on, Hudi’s ready to face down baseball, swimming, soccer, and even football. But what happens when you alienate your imaginary mascot and then, worst of all, actually live up to your parents’ expectations? Hudi’s about to find out.
Sometimes people ask me to name gaps in the field of children’s books. “What isn’t being published right now that should be?” This question always wipes my brain clean when I hear it. Aside from asking for more nonfiction titles on Mexican wrestlers for the U.S. market (seriously, I’ve been asking for this for 15 years and have yet to see a single book on the topic come out) nothing else ever occurs to me. You know what I should say, though? Graphic novel memoirs starring something other than white girls. Seriously! Can you name me a single solitary one starring a Black guy? And no, Jerry Craft’s books are marvelous but they’re not memoirs. Not in the same sense as Smile or Best Friends or El Deafo. Boys in general are hard to come by (occasionally you get a white guy like The Dumbest Idea Ever) and don’t even get me started on BIPOC representation! That’s why a book like Chunky is such a rare gem. Sure, the whole “memoir” bit tips over into a little fabrication with the presence of the titular mascot himself, but for the most part Mercado is drawing on his own life experiences. And let me tell you, if you think we have a whole slew of Mexican-Jewish comic memoirs set in Texas out there, you’ve got another thing coming.
2021 has been a relatively body positive year in children’s literature, all things being equal. On the picture book side we have books like Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder. On the middle grade chapter side there’s Starfish by Lisa Fipps. Chunky certainly telegraphs that it’ll be a similar story of bullies and bodies, but then it tries something different. You see the funny thing about Chunky is that when we start off, Hudi’s not in that bad a place. His parents do bug him about his weight, but the very creation of his own imaginary mascot indicates that he has an amazing sense of self-worth right from the get go. This leads to the inevitable question of where a book can go when the hero already has mad coping skills. Enter that old children’s book standby: latent parental approval. The outside forces that conspire to pull Chunky and Hudi apart are myriad. There’s the fact that his dad loses his job. He finds a newfound acceptance with a group of boys that love them some toy guns. And then, in a pivotal low point, Hudi becomes exactly what his father has always wanted: A soulless athlete. Of course his path there comes at the hands of a coach that offers him the first praise he’s received in a sport ever. It’s this kind of complexity that sets old Chunky apart from other similar books. Can someone be nice to you and use that gratitude you feel as a kind of debt? It’s worth askiing.
Mercado’s art has always been fun to watch, but Chunky has a polished quality that’s new to me. Unlike Sci-Fu and Fun Fun Fun World, this book is set squarely in a world of reality. As such, those moments when Yehudi deviates from the norm really stick out. Kids will point out right away the fact that each of Hudi’s coaches sport the same manly, squared off chin. But there are other choices in this book that are worth examining. You could note the subtle difference in clarity when you get caught up into one of Hudi’s daydreams. Look at how the artist changes the p.o.v. and angles of various shots. And don’t even get me started on my favorite sequence, the faux movie posters, one after another after another. Between that and the Postgame Wrap-Ups that punctuate the book, it’s impossible to get bored while reading this.
Chunky doesn’t really look or act like any of the other comics out there today. It’s good-natured, peppy, dealing with some serious issues but with a light hand. Even when things go south for our hero, the book is never a downer. What’s more, the true happiness Hudi is able to find at the end comes not from doing what his parents want but from denying them entirely. Likewise, Chunky”isn’t afraid to be different. A rousing, strangely inspiring story of managing to make everyone laugh and how that can be your true superpower. For the kids that need it, Chunky is going to give them exactly what they need.
On shelves now.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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