Knights of the Kitchen Table

Author Jon Scieszka and illustrator Lane Smith are the new boys on the block in the previously sedate neighborhood of children’s books. Slick and smart, they entertain contemporary kids with the latest in stylish spoofery. Already they’ve zoomed to best-seller status (1989’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs) by tucking their tongues firmly into their cheeks as they serve up witty new versions of old fairy tales. Now the dynamic duo has turned to adventure stories, all-boy and all-shtick.

No pun intended, but surely it’s only a matter of time until Scieszka and Smith’s snappy little tales about the ”Time Warp Trio” become a Hollywood phenomenon: The Excellent Adventures of Joe, Fred, and Sam. Brief, funny, pared-down kiddie novels, each barely more than 50 pages long, they seem ready-made for the screen.

In the first book of the series, Knights of the Kitchen Table, we’re introduced to Joe and his two pals. Joe’s uncle, a magician, has given him a magical book for his birthday. Presto! Before you can say ”Joe the Magnificent,” the three preteens are whisked back in time to King Arthur’s day. Instantly, a knight in black armor charges at them with his lance. Which is how, explains Joe, ”three regular guys happened to find themselves facing death by shish-kebab.”

The boys use their homegrown ingenuity to get out of trouble but have to hang around the ignorant, smelly, dangerous past, teaching stableboys to play baseball and outsmarting loathsome giants until Merlin helps them escape back into Mom’s 20th-century kitchen.

The Time Warpers’ second adventure, The Not-So-Jolly-Roger, pits the intrepid threesome against the pirate Blackbeard. Just like Arthur’s knights, Blackbeard seems mired in simpleminded bewilderment at the sophistication of the three 1990s American boys: It’s the past depicted as a period of unhip dumbness.

Both books, in fact, have lots of fastpaced laughs and action. But all the comedy is based on one thin joke: the awkward clash of different eras. (”If you could take us to the nearest phone,” Joe asks the Black Knight.) These books are all wisecracking irony instead of the soulstretching journey into strangeness that we expect from time-travel fantasies.

Scieszka’s three heroes are stock characters. Joe is your average guy. Fred is a mindless sports nut. Sam is smart, wears glasses, reads books. The only two female characters are equally sketchy. Joe’s mom appears as a nagging scold and Queen Guenevere (Knights of the Kitchen Table) show up but once, and apparently only to look beautiful.

Lane Smith’s black-and-white drawings are appropriately cartoonish, with none of the shrewdly observant detail of the 3 Little Pigs.

These staccato, affably smart-aleck stories are sure to have popular appeal. Maybe it was asking too much to expect a little imaginative resonance — especially for a generation of readers whose memory goes back only as far as the last commercial. B

Knights of the Kitchen Table
  • Book