Elbow Grease by John Cena

cover image

Ill. by Howard McWilliam. Penguin Random House, 2018. ISBN 9781524773502
(Age: 4-8) Themes: Monster trucks. Persistence. Determination. Wrestler and actor John Cena wants this new book series to inspire children to persevere and believe in themselves. The series features five monster truck brothers, with this first book focussing on Elbow Grease, the littlest of the pack. We are introduced to the five monster trucks on the opening pages and their appearance and dialogue help to define their unique characteristics. It is nice to see their mechanic is a young woman, a welcome departure from the usual image of car sports being a male-only zone. Flash is all about speed, Pinball is intelligent and strategic, Tank is big and tough and Crash is courageous. Elbow Grease doesn't have any of these obvious characteristics but he remains optimistic and cheery because he has gumption and never, ever gives up. What also makes him different from his brothers is that he is an electric, rather than a petrol truck. When Elbow Grease shares his dream, of one day being a monster truck star his brothers laugh and jeer: 'You're too slow'; 'You're too small'; 'Your technique and experience are insufficient ...' Determined to prove them wrong Elbow Grease zooms off to the Grand Prix by himself. He is 'bashed and smashed and even caught on fire a little bit, but still - HE KEPT ON GOING!' He doesn't come in first place but he does finish and all his brothers are there to see him cross the finish line. The other trucks then realise that they can only learn new skills if they stick at it; 'a little Elbow Grease goes a long way!'
There are many speech bubbles showing the dialogue of the trucks, which help children to understand their individual personalities, but these are sometimes disjointed from the main text and make the pages very busy. In addition, some people may be uncomfortable with how Elbow Grease calls the other trucks 'jalopies', a word which many children may be unfamiliar with, but is clearly meant as an insult. There is a nice message here, albeit much too overt, and young kids who like monster trucks will love the illustrations. However, it is hard to preach not to stereotype and to broaden your skills when you have stereotyped your characters by name and given them a fairly one=dimensional existence. The story and the production lack a little finesse.
Nicole Nelson