I'm a huge fan of Jarrett J. Krosoczka's Lunch Lady series of graphic novels for early middle grade readers. So I was interested to see what he would do with a middle grade novel. The Frog Who Croaked is the first book in the new Platypus Police Squad series. As I expected from Krosoczka, it is quite entertaining.
The Frog Who Croaked is a noir-ish detective story, liberally illustrated by the author, and aimed at readers 8 and up. As you might gather from the title, the primary protagonist, Rick Zengo, is a platypus. Even more unusual in middle grade protagonists, Zengo is an adult, albeit one who still lives at home with his parents and sometimes acts like a 10 year old.
As The Frog Who Croaked begins, Zengo is about to head off for his first day of work as a detective with the Platypus Police Squad. He is partnered with a gruff veteran detective named Corey O'Malley. The two experience friction, due to their vastly different approaches to crime-solving. But, as they investigate the case of a missing frog (a respected teacher who may have been involved with the illegal fish market), they come to value on another's strengths.
Krosoczka's writing style is a kid-friendly version of hardboiled detective fiction. The violence and cynicism are toned down to be kid-appropriate, and there isn't any profanity. Humorous substitutions occur throughout the book, like characters drinking root-beer floats instead of beer. But in tone, The Frog Who Croaked feels like noir fiction. Like this:
"This is the city. Kalamazoo City.Population: 75,000. By day, it's a bright, vibrant metropolis, the kind of city where dreams come true... But it is a different city once the sun goes down. The criminal element, asleep by day, haunts certain dark corners at night. Especially the run down old docks on the south side of town, perhaps the darkest corner of all." (Page 1)
The illustrations weren't final in the version of the book that I read, so I'll just say that the frequent black and white illustrations help make The Frog Who Croaked accessible to younger readers. They also fill in certain details that are not always directly spelled out in the text (as one might expect from someone with a graphic novel background).
For example, Krosoczka often neglects to spell out exactly what animal each character is (there's a wide range, not just platypuses). He implies it through descriptive text sometimes (like a boy who "scuttles" away), but often leaves the reader to determine this via the pictures. I wonder if this technique is a subtle lesson in taking diversity as it comes. We don't always need to spell out characters' "ethnicity". Either way, I like it
I also like that while there are human aspects to the characters' behavior (it would be hard to write the book otherwise), Krosoczka also includes animal-specific details. Like this:
"Zengo brushed his mouth plates, polished his bill, and then opened the vanity mirror, selecting one of the neatly placed bottles of fur product. He squeezed a dab out onto his webbed flipper and with a quick flip of the tufts of his coiffure, he was ready for his day." (Chapter 1)
There's a funny moment in which one of the Zengo laments working "at a snail's pace", and gets a disgusted look from a passing family of snails.
Zengo himself is a well-developed character, enthusiastic about his job, struggling to feel independent while still living at home, and just beginning to be aware of the advantages that his well-off upbringing has conveyed. He talks when he shouldn't, and makes mistakes that a more politically seasoned detective would be able to avoid. And he is deeply suspicious of the city's magnanimous benefactor, Frank Pandini, Jr. Zengo's relationship with his partner evolves plausibly, and not too quickly.
The Platypus Police Squad: The Frog Who Croaked is a great introduction to the detective novel genre for middle grade readers (or book-resistant middle schoolers). It has enough pictures to lend plenty of scaffolding for younger readers, but also doesn't shrink from using relatively advanced vocabulary words ("facade", "animosity"). It has distinctive characters and settings, and a nice mix of deadpan humor and ridiculous details (like the cops using boomerangs instead of guns). In short, The Frog Who Croaked is a lot of fun. Recommended for readers 8 and up.
Publisher: Walden Pond Press (@WaldenPondPress)
Publication Date: May 7, 2013
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
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