Review of Timothy and the Phubbers by Ken Kwek (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2018. Middle Grade, ages 8-12, and up)
by Christina Newhard
A booger-munching bestie, smartphone zombies, a hamster killer loose at the science fair, and a vintage-obsessed Uncle who farts at the mention of digital technology—it is the graphic details that make Ken Kwek’s middle-grade novel such a loopy pleasure to read. Timothy and the Phubbers is written for pre-teens, peppered with the gross and the plausibly ridiculous, but it is entertaining enough for adults as well. While the novel explores issues such as digital addiction, consumerism, and bullying, it does so with buoyant humor. It is never heavy-handed. Kwek's filmmaking background (this is his first novel) seems an influence on the storytelling style, with its crisp dialogue and visual sensibility. Film also creeps into the meta-story, and ultimately takes over the storytelling climax in Timothy’s—the hero's—quest not to be such a sucker.
Twelve-year-old Timothy Pong and his ramen-bowl-shaped haircut are new to Bangsvale Secondary School. To the Bangsvale bullies, he smells a lot like fresh meat. On his first day, cafeteria sociopaths Big Burt, Tsai Koh, and Darren filch a pork bun from Timothy's hands and demand five dollars as "table rental" money. Rudy Baptista—a lanky, perpetually hungry boy—squeaks at the bullies to return Timothy's pork bun. The new boys' friendship is sealed when the bullies slam their noses together and steal not just their lunches, but their wallets too.
So begins a tale of Nerds vs. Bullies. Overcoming bullies is a familiar premise in children’s literature (as in the classics Anne of Green Gables and the Harry Potter series), but the charm of Kwek's novel does not come from our heroes' expected triumph. Its charm comes from the boys' consistent failures. It is the type of subverted expectations that pulls the reader in.
For Timothy and Rudy, success is a low bar, resting just a notch above humiliation. Success means being robbed of only two chicken sandwiches by Big Burt's crew (and getting to keep two for lunch). The boys fail to get revenge. They fail to get justice. They fail to set basic boundaries, or regain their dignity. Yet, they persist.
In contrast to gloomy Timothy, Rudy is the story's optimist. Puberty will save them from the bullies ... in a year, or two. Or three. Rudy's Zen outlook gives pre-teen readers another model for how to respond to problems, although it is not any more empowering than Timothy's despair. There is truth there—many of life's problems are not things one has agency over, but so many children's stories are written to highlight a solution. I think this is what makes this book such an appealing read, especially for pre-teens. Young readers respond to honesty, especially when it comes with a side of potty humor.
This optimism from low standards also drives a running gag in the story—Rudy's snack choices. There is no moldy biscuit, caterpillar, or expired prawn cracker that Rudy will not eat to fill his neglected stomach. As Timothy realizes on their first day, when Rudy sighs, "I'm so hungry I could eat a fly" and then smacks a fly into his mouth, "his new friend was cool, but he was also disgusting."
To complicate matters, Timothy has a bigger problem than bullies—the smartphone addiction that has stolen his family. Digital devices have turned the Pongs into "Phubbers":
Phubbers are a subspecies of human beings. They can be identified by the faint, but persistent glow of LED light on their faces. Phubbers tend to communicate almost exclusively through digital machines or apps, and have difficulty making eye contact.
While Kwek never allows the story to take itself too seriously, Timothy's neglect hits a poignant note. For anyone who has been ignored by a loved one on their phone, Timothy's loneliness is so very relatable. It is hard to talk to a dad who wears an iPhone over one ear and a Samsung Galaxy over the other. Timothy's mum is as addicted to the Korean soap operas on her iPad as she is to Xanax. YouTube videos have chopped his sister's attention span into two-minute increments. Even their housekeeper is plugged into Spotify all day long, and can't hear him over her tuneless singing. As the only phoneless Pong, Timothy is cut off from the family's Whatsapp thread, where all conversation takes place. In despair, he breaks down wailing, finally getting his parents' attention—and a smartphone.
Bangsvale Secondary is preparing for two important events: a production of Romeo and Juliet, and the Triple S (Science and Social Studies) Fair. Timothy and Rudy team up with fellow nerds Gilbert and Wacky to build a pet-feeding robot for the Triple S Fair. Which brings the story to bully number four—a charming, evil manipulator named Bella. She murders one hamster, steals another, and leads the other bullies to smash the robot. She is, of course, also playing Juliet in the school play.
Because the story is so full of loopy surprises, I found myself wishing Kwek had also subverted our expectations around the gender roles of bullies. Bella is an archetype familiar to anyone who has watched the movie Mean Girls. She is pretty and charming and does not look physically capable of beating Timothy into a human chapatti. While this makes her an effective villain (an enamored Timothy lowers his guard around her), her character feels like a missed opportunity to surprise the reader. Girls are capable of throwing a punch, after all—what if she was the scariest bruiser of all? It would also have been interesting to see Big Burt's crew channel something other than just physical aggression.
In response to the bullies, Timothy and Rudy craft several revenge plots, none of which unfold as planned. The unintended outcomes of these include an accidental video upload of Timothy's underpants and Rudy's bare butt, which go viral on Instagram. Although humiliated, Rudy is comforted by the video's number of Instagram likes. Not as comforting for Timothy: the rogue Twitter account someone sets up for his underpants.
Enter Timothy's eccentric uncle, Russ Tee, who becomes the boys' role model for embracing one's inner weirdo. In his ponytail, sandals, and disdain for digital objects (he runs a vintage curio shop), he is the opposite of his Timothy's status-obsessed parents. He is the only adult who listens to the boys.
"I think the bullies are a problem, but bullies can be defeated eventually. Those horrible modern phones, though—" Uncle Russ Tee stopped mid-sentence and emitted a loud phuuuuuuut from his rear end. The boys wrinkled their noses and waved at the air around them.
"Sorry boys," said Uncle Russ Tee, "but any talk of digital technology tends to give me gas."
Uncle Russ Tee farts at any mention of iPhones, robots, or Google. The objects he loves seem nonsensical to the boys (such as the vinyl records that look like flat black Frisbees until the boys realize they play music). Uncle Russ Tee also introduces a bit of meta into the story: what he really loves about old objects is that they hold stories. It is fitting then, that Uncle Russ Tee is especially affectionate towards an object that creates stories: a Bolex Zoom Reflex 8-millimetre video camera that he cradles like a baby. The Bolex is key to the boys' final revenge schemes, as it can go places a digital camera cannot.
Timothy and the Phubbers is a prose novel, but key chunks of the story are told graphically by the book’s designers and by Lolita Chiong’s scratchy illustrations. There are parts where the typography pounds the page with the force of a schoolteacher's voice, or where a full spread is used to show the visual drama of a vase falling. There are sections narrated entirely as screenshots of a Whatsapp conversation among the Pongs.
Fittingly, the novel's climax is a film screening of the boys' documentary short (aka Revenge Plot #4) "Thief of Time." Here, the prose pauses, and illustration takes over the storytelling entirely. Or, rather, film takes over the storytelling. The pages are visually separated from the rest of the book with a gray background and film-reel borders. The reader "watches" the documentary by turning pages, watching along with the Bangsvale auditorium audience in the book how the scene of imagined triumph just read about as it was filmed actually looks on film, which changes the documentary's narrative entirely. Point of view, it turns out, is everything. It is also a moment of accidental auteurship, a lá Charlie Chaplin, as the film is silent. This is entirely due to Rudy's incompetence as a cinematographer.
Timothy's battles are, on the surface, with school bullies and smartphones. However, these are just stand-ins for people's general absurdities. Timothy is getting lessons in how to respond with something other than a face palm. Snuck into the story are lessons from Uncle Russ Tee in film-making (and how to be persistent, just like Ang Lee!) For preteens, Timothy and the Phubbers is an entertaining and big-hearted read about growing up, and the weirdos that try (but often fail) to have your back. In Kwek’s story of analog triumph, life's many ironies are a feature, not a bug.
Christina Newhard is a graphic designer, children's book author, and publisher living in New York City. Her press Sari-Sari Storybooks publishes books in the diverse languages of the Philippines. She is the author of Kalipay and the Tiniest Tiktik: a Cebuano Tale and Amina and the City of Flowers: a Chavacano Tale, and is the co-author of Melo the Umang-Boy: an Ivatan Tale.