Of all the books to hit the shelves in 2021, the Cookie Chronicles by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr were the best of the lot. This series is a stunning marriage of fun, insightful narrative with witty, engaging illustrations.
The Cookie Chronicles — Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom, Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Endless Waiting, and Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Perfection (with more to come) — follow their titular character as he tries to live his life according to the platitudes found in fortune cookies. This leads to insights and wisdom, but not before plenty of hijinks and humor.
It is easy to compare what Swanson and Behr have achieved with Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dog Man and Big Nate, but the Cookie Chronicles strike me as more potent and effective than their peers. At the heart of these books is the endlessly creative way the author and illustrator (who are married) play off one another, creating counterpoints and punchlines that could not be accomplished alone.
If you’re looking for a great new series for reluctant readers (or any kid for that matter), this is the one to try.
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Ben Yokoyama & the Cookie of Doom
Everything was different now. Suddenly a lifetime had become a single day.
— Ben Yokoyama & the Cookie of Doom
Ben Yokoyama is nine years old. While eating at a local Chinese restaurant, he receives a fortune cookie which reads: Live each day as if it were your last.
Which he takes seriously.
What if he had only a single day to live? What would he want most to do with it?
The Bucket List Premise has fueled everything from ancient philosophical tracts to Hollywood movies. Rarely has it been applied to third graders. Midway through Cookie of Doom, one wonders why not, because Ben’s bucket list — eating a whole cake, playing catch with his dad, landing the perfect tail whip — sounds about as good as any. Better than most.
Still a child, Ben doesn’t suffer from decades of being told what he should want to do if he really only had one day to live. He is wholly honest about what he wants (anyone who has spent time around third-graders understands their bracing but refreshing honesty).
Like eating an entire bag of marshmallows. It’s something he’s always wanted to do. Thirty-year-old Ben might waste time fretting over those marshmallows and whether or not they’re worthy of being on the Bucket List. Nine-year-old Ben doesn’t fret. He eats them.
And loves it.
Cookie of Doom succeeds in large part because Swanson and Behr understand this mindset. Maybe because they have four children of their own. Or maybe they’ve simply never forgotten how children think. Whatever the reason, Ben Yokoyama comes to life as the best characters in children’s literature do, veering from the hilariously ridiculous to the deadly serious all in a brief span of pages.
Just like real kids.
The particular blend of humor and seriousness is a potent one. There are many laughs in Cookie of Doom, but few of them are cheap, and Swanson and Behr utilize their humor the way ace pitchers utilize blazing fastballs. Pitchers zing you to set you up for off-speed strikeouts, and Swanson and Behr tickle your funnybone in order to slip in heady messages about the best way to live our lives, the meaning of friendship, and why we shouldn’t judge people before we get to know them.
“I think the point is that you figure out the things you really want to do and then just do them as well as you possibly can,” Ben says near the end. “So at least you know you tried.”
Maybe that sounds quaint. But it’s no less quaint (and no less true) than the conclusions of famous philosophers. Like Cicero, who said: “The life given us, by nature is short; but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal.”
I imagine Ben Yokoyama would agree. He (and you, Reader) will be remembering this well-spent day for many years to come.
Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Endless Waiting
It was even better than a baby fart.
— Ben Yokoyama & the Cookie of Endless Waiting
Another novel, another fortune. This one that golden nugget of traditional wisdom: Good things come to those who wait.
Ben’s determined to find out. As with Cookie of Doom, his literal-minded approach to the whims of fate immediately transforms his life, and readers are all the better for it.
Here’s what Ben’s hoping will come his way if he’s patient:
- A brother named Ajax
- A scooter with light-up wheels
- Eight inches of fluffy snow
- A big, bushy mustache
- The ability to fly
Not content to wait for just the items on his wish list, Ben decides he will wait for everything. He waits to choose a partner in class…and gets stuck with the kid no one ever wants to partner with. After arguing with Janet, he waits for her to apologize…making her furious in the process, as she is waiting for him to apologize first. He waits to write a limerick for a class project…and ends up with no limerick at all.
Playfully tightroping the line between patience and procrastination, Endless Waiting evolves as Ben learns when waiting is truly a virtue and when it is only a hindrance to success.
But the meat of the novel is an eloquent and touching examination of relationships: what it means to be a good friend, and how people can move into, out of, and back into your life.
Having waited to choose a partner, Ben gets stuck with Walter, the classic Kid Who Is Always Picked Last. Ben and Walter were close once, but they drifted apart years ago. Partnering with Walter reminds Ben of all the things he liked about his old friend, and all the things that made him aggravating and annoying.
Swanson and Behir truly shine when exploring character. Thanks in no small part to Behr’s wonderful illustrations, Walter is truly likeable, an endearing boy desperate to please but hopelessly clueless about how he affects others.
Ben’s admirable traits are on display, such as how he defends Walter during dodgeball and supports him in front of the whole school. But Swanson and Behr are brave enough to show us his less-than-admirable qualities too, like when he loses his cool and humiliates Walter in front of their classmates.
“As he led Walter to the door, Mr. P gave Ben a look that he would never forget. It was the look you give someone you always thought was one kind of person but then found out was something else entirely. Ben wanted to be the first kind of person.”
Many books sail into the tempestuous waters of friendship in search of answers. Few steer into the squall of elementary school relationships, and the ones that do rarely come out the other side with all their masts and rigging intact. Endless Waiting is one of the rare ones: an honest, penetrating look at how children make, break and reshape relationships.
And there are baby farts.
You can’t ask for much more than that.
Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Perfection
If we go through life without getting any bruises, we’re living pretty small, aren’t we?
— Ben Yokoyama & the Cookie of Perfection
This third installment finds Ben seeking perfection after his latest fortune declares: Practice Makes Perfect. Ben has sought perfection before (he’s been trying to play “Clair de Lune” without error for two books now), but it always seemed unattainable.
Until he meets Darby.
The shy new kid sits in the back of Mr. Piscarelli’s class and doesn’t speak until he accomplishes something never done before: he aces one of Mr. P’s math tests, even nailing the impossible problem at the end.
Ben is in awe. Darby attained perfection.
Darby is actually two people: shy, sad-sack Darby and ultra-confident, perfect Darbino! Swanson and Behr cheerfully exploit the superhero alter-ego trope, multiplying Ben’s awe as he discovers Darby’s other perfect skills (acrobatics, kickball, competitive cup stacking, improbable courage) while being enlisted to keep all of them totally secret.
Befriending Darby widens Ben’s world, leading him to compare Darby’s reality against his own. Darby’s mom, for example, makes perfect pancakes. Ben’s mom burns them to a crisp. Darby’s family drinks club soda. At Ben’s house, tap water is the menu staple. Darby’s house is cut from a model home magazine. Ben’s lawn is unmowed and the gutters on the house sag.
The real problems begin when Darby offers to teach Ben perfection, which upends Ben’s life. It’s not just his own imperfections he cares about, but those of others. If he wants to be perfect, surely everyone else must also want to be perfect (if only they knew how).
Swanson and Behr gleefully explore the dangers of chasing perfection while illuminating the ways in which shooting for the stars can be healthy and worthwhile…even if you land on the moon.
Along the way, Ben learns a thing or two about the relationship between perfection and mistakes.
Do you truly want to be more perfect? Mr. P asks Ben at one point. “Then pay attention when you make mistakes. Each one is a rung on the ladder.”
“To the most perfect version of yourself.”
Perfection and its siblings represent a sustained level of creativity and innovation rarely seen. Writers, like the baseball players Ben loves, never bat 1.00. It is common for grand slam novels to be followed up by easily-fielded bloopers to right field.
But Perfection is a mighty swing of the bat, a third consecutive shot over the outfield wall. Whether it lands Swanson and Behr on the bestseller list and brings them fame and riches and glory is beside the point. What matters is they stood at bat and swung for the fences.
Here’s hoping they step up to the plate many more times in the future.