I first became acquainted with Michael Rex’s work when I read and reviewed his clever picture book, “Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots.” I loved using that book with my students, teaching them about the difference between facts and opinions. So when I read his latest endeavor, “Your Pal Fred,” I had high expectations. This graphic novel did not disappoint, and to be honest, that surprised me. You see, many graphic novels confuse me. I get bewildered by those with many characters who all seem—at least to my senior eyes—to look somewhat alike. I did not have that problem with “Your Pal Fred” as each character is clearly and cleverly delineated. It’s very clear who each of the characters are and what they represent. The dialogue and the illustrations make this story about friendship and kindness accessible and enjoyable to read.
For many reasons, this would be a great classroom read aloud while sharing the illustrations with those listening. We see on the first page a dystopian future that looks very bleak indeed. A great place for a clever teacher to stop and teach the word “dystopian.” Bring in climate change (so long as you don’t live in Florida or select other states that practice censorship over facts that can be mentioned in schools). We see a colorful machine that two kids are escaping from. To hide, they enter a crevice where there is a large sign that says, “TOYS.” One kid says to his companion, “I wonder what that sign says.” (Great place for the teacher or parent to stop and ask what that means. Why would the kid be asking that? What does that indicate about their education – or lack thereof?)
They accidentally activate a toy from a box labeled “Your Pal Fred” which has a heart on the box lid. After much beeping, we meet the robot Fred, who tells them he wants to be their pal. They don’t understand what a pal is, so he explains. Their very first “lesson” from Fred on fairness is when they are fighting over a piece of food. Fred says they should share, but they don’t think it would be fair. He then explains how they can share and make sure they each get their fair share. It’s a great lesson for all kids.
Rex then introduces readers to the dystopian world of which Fred is now a part. Two warring armies kidnap people to fight in their ongoing war on behalf of the two war lords, Lord Bonkers and Papa Mayhem (great time to define the word “mayhem” to readers. And maybe even “bonkers”). When Fred explains his existence to one character, Wormy, he gets laughed at. Wormy’s response to his declaration that his mission is to spread kindness, friendship, and good vibes, is to ridicule the fact Fred is not made to hunt people, or stomp things, or explode things.
Fred decides that his ultimate mission is to confront Lord Bonkers and Papa Mayhem and ask them to stop fighting. We watch as Fred valiantly tries to carry out his mission, though it’s not easy. But he perseveres (great word to teach students), and the surprise ending will make everyone feel good. Kids will perhaps chuckle when Fred hands out stickers, and also as he stays upbeat and optimistic throughout, no matter what happens. If you read this to a classroom at the beginning of the year, for the rest of the year you could ask, at times, “What would Fred do now?” This fabulous treasure of a graphic novel will give all students an understanding of the power of kindness and the joy of relentless optimism.
UPDATE: I just read this with my grandson, and he loves it! In fact, he tried to bribe me so that I’d keep reading when it was time for him to go home. He read the part of the two warlords, with appropriate emotion, and is hooked on this book. Mind you, he hasn’t been interested in graphic novels yet, and he much prefers listening to books or reading chapter books with his mom. He’s reading The Endling series now and loves it. But this book? It touched him and he really enjoyed the humor, as well. The Boom Room? Hysterical! Thank you, Michel Rex, for showing this young reader the joys of printed books (because I pointed out that you can’t listen to a graphic novel).
Please note: This review is based on the final, paperback graphic novel provided by Viking, the publisher, for review purposes.