Kids React to Typewriters
In the movie Kung Fu Panda, Po, a well-intentioned but bumbling dreamer, suddenly finds himself recruited into the team of heroes he adores. Through the action and the humor, he struggles to gain the team’s acceptance as well as understand his role in the broader scope of things. The movie pairs its action and humor with a familiar emotional story about an individual trying to find and establish their identity, while respecting the wishes of those they care about.
It’s Po I hear teling me with the story of Detective Jake the Panda and his “Case of the Cursed Dodo.” I can see his hands, out in front of him, palms down, fingers spread bobbing up and down like leaves on a gentle breeze as he describes how Jake and his newfound friends snuck out of a poachers’ camp. Or balled and whipping from side to side in a whirlwind of motion when Jake fights a gang of dastardly rats on top of a speeding train.
Jake G. Panda’s The Case of the Cursed Dodo (Book 1 in The Endangered Files) is a fun story that has the potential to serve as a primer on endangered animals. In a diner, Jake sees a Himalayan tahr, a Chinese alligator, and a Thompson’s gazelle. They’re some of the real world endangered species Jake points out in his story. Some of the animals are supporting characters like Daisy, “a California condor wearing a platinum blonde wig and wrapped in a feather boa” or Gloria “the Mexican grizzly working the front desk.” Others are extras like the animals in the restaurant.
Jake’s story takes place in the early 1960s (though because of its references to gumshoes and dames, I want to set the story earlier in time). Jake G. Panda is a private detective serving clients in the animal kingdom. He is a comical version of Bogart’s Sam Spade, who begins the story in search of his missing friend. He ends the story embroiled in an international mystery involving a jade Dodo bird statue. Bogart comes to mind again when Jake introduces Daisy, his ex-lover. The resolution of their relationship borrows from Bogart’s classic, Casablanca.
Jake G. makes the effort to identify their species of each of the animals he comes across but he never lingers long enough to provide the causes of their endangerment or extinction. How did they get to where they are? What brought them into Jake’s circle? A little backstory would have provided some added depth and made it more interesting to older audiences. It also would have provided a subtle lesson on the importance of conservation.
The book begins with a letter typed by Jake G himself. He says the book is actually a “long-lost movie… written in a rare film format called Endanger ‘D’ Scope.” It visually connects the inside of the book to the visual theme of its jacket; a 1950’s paperback. But while it works visually, it doesn’t add anything to the story. The book dismisses almost all of the formatting conventions associated with a traditional movie script. Shooting directions like CUT and FADE function more like adjectives describing the scene than verbs directing it. However, this is not a bad thing. If the book’s intended audience is emergent readers, a strict adherence to script conventions may frustrate them.
What may also frustrate young readers are the colloquialisms and the objects from the century where Jake’s story is set. I’m not sure younger emergent readers would know what gumshoes, Edsels, and Underwood typewriters are. A little description is needed. For example when Jake says: “Eddie, a small woolly mountain tapir in a bow tie, looks up from his Underwood typewriter.” Would a young reader — a reader who is growing up a digital native — know what an Underwood typewriter is?
A short unobtrusive but descriptive clue might help. I toyed with this in my head: “Eddie, a small woolly mountain tapir in a bow tie, looks up from his Underwood typewriter without a pause in the melody of snaps and clicks of the keys as they drummed on the typewriter’s ribbon.”
Jake G successfully drew my attention to endangered animals and the poachers and circuses that risk these animals extinction. However, he never provides enough depth to thoroughly engage me. There’s a scene in a nightclub when Jake approaches an endangered wild African dog. He is suspicious because the dog is laughing like a hyena. The dog responds, “I am who I say I am. I’m endangered. And I got the papers to prove it. See?” This is an opportunity to touch upon the differences between endangered and non-endangered species. It might have even been used to introduce social inequities that we still struggle with as a society. Jake’s world is also not completely animal. The poachers from the beginning of the book were human. However, the relationship between humans and animals is never described.
The Case of the Cursed of Dodo is fun to read and has the potential to be more fun, more engaging, and more impactful as a tool that raises awareness of conservation and the protection of endangered animals among audiences of all ages.