Naughtiness is the lifeblood of the comic middle-grade novel, but it presents the writer with a problem in this age of didacticism: how can a kid get into energetic and imaginative trouble when adults are always around guiding, chiding, and being wise? Author Anna Humphrey traverses this minefield nimbly, letting her nine-year-old heroine Clara get into plenty of scrapes while keeping the lessons to a minimum and the adults on the sidelines. Clara is determined to be a superhero and convinces herself – and the reader – that she has telekinetic powers, with a specialty in overturning containers of liquid. Over the course of the pleasantly daffy novel, she uses her powers in the pursuit of two goals: to prevent her beloved grandmother, Momo, from moving away to a seniors’ residence, and to harass the mean kids from a neighbouring school.
Humphrey employs a full palette of middle-grade tropes here, each with a delightfully original twist. The escaped rodent is a pet chinchilla; the bad hair episode involves the school principal and her secret punk identity; and the nerdy loyal sidekick is obsessed with archeology. There’s the requisite genial cynicism about adults (such as the description of the healthy eating school assembly during which “overly happy adults wearing matching T-shirts sang us songs about green vegetables”). There’s spot-on comic set up and payoff. We know we’re in good hands during an early scene that involves a hot dog contained in a Pepto-Bismol bottle doubling as a makeshift Thermos. Will there be an accident? Of course there will. Will “hot dog water” be a thing throughout the story? Of course it will.
Like many fictional fourth-graders, Clara cracks wise, but we’re given another perspective on her character through a parallel narrative focused on the comic book she is creating. Every couple of pages we are treated to an episode of @Cat, about a caped hero whose adventures tip us the wink about Clara’s emotional temperature, and whose nemesis, Poodle Noodle, stands in for all that is wrong in Clara’s world. These comic strips and a variety of hand-drawn lists, lettering, graphs, and doodles keep the page design lively.
Underneath all this energetic noise, Humphrey presents an original take on the subject of anger – in this way, Clara Humble is quietly subversive. As she tries to understand and harness her superpower, Clara notices that only when she is genuinely angry can she influence the physical world in supernatural ways. In any child’s life there is plenty to be angry about – lack of power, condescension, hypocrisy. Humphrey has a light touch with all this, but also allows Clara to express the gist of the issue: “We were kids – which meant we just had to deal with whatever the adults decided to do, even though it was totally unfair.”
By using anger as the fuel for Clara’s power, Humphrey subtly affirms the legitimacy of childhood emotion. Clara grows up over the course of her adventures but nowhere is it suggested that should include tamping down her indignation at the injustices and inanity of the adult world. Even better, we gradually realize that being angry and even sulky are states Clara sometimes shares with her grandmother. Momo is playful and benevolent but that’s not her whole story. Again, no embedded narrator suggests their emotions are inappropriate. The general feel of Clara Humble may be typical middle-grade mayhem, but with this subtly thought-provoking story, Humphrey – and Clara – have staked out their own unique comic territory.