September 28, 2006


Ghosthunters, No. 1: Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost!  No.2: Ghosthunters and the Gruesome Invincible Lightning Ghost! By Cornelia Funke. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99 each.

The Black Belt Club: No. 1, Seven Wheels of Power; No. 2, Night on the Mountain of Fear. By Dawn Barnes. Illustrated by Bernard Chang. Scholastic. $4.99 each.

     Kids fight evil!  Kids prove themselves as good as adults!  Kids win with their learned skills and their inborn talents!  Not even super-powerful bad guys can stand against kids!

     There, in a nutshell, you have the plots of all four of these books.  The fun is in the way the authors work through circumstances that are, when you come right down to it, nothing special in fantasy works.

     Cornelia Funke, top-notch author that she is, does seem to be creating something a cut above the usual in her Ghosthunters series.  In the first book, we meet Tom, who is soon to become a ghosthunter; his big sister, Lola, who does not believe in ghosts – but will by the end of the book; Hetty Hyssop, who not only believes in ghosts but also knows many ways of getting rid of them; and Hugo, who is a ghost.  But it’s okay – he’s merely an ASG (Averagely Spooky Ghost), and he even agrees to help the ghosthunters get rid of an IRG (Incredibly Revolting Ghost).  Much of the fun here comes from Funke’s inclusion of informational material, such as a side-by-side list of “characteristics of ASGs and IRGs.”  This explains, for example, that an ASG “makes goosebump-inducing noises,” while an IRG “makes teeth-shattering, heartbeat-stopping noises.”  The scenes with the IRG are not quite perfectly balanced between scariness and hilarity, but the post-story “Precautionary Measures against Ghosts in General,” “Indispensable Alphabetical Appendix of Assorted Ghosts,” and other end-of-book items are highly amusing (“COHAG: COmpletely HArmless Ghost”; “TIBIG: TIny BIting Ghost”; “GES: Ghostly Energy Sensor”; and so on).

     The second book in Funke’s series finds Tom, Hetty and Hugo set up as a ghosthunting agency, and able to handle any challenge they face – until they encounter a Gruesomely Invincible Lightning Ghost that is turning the guests at a beachfront hotel into ghosts themselves.  Fighting this ghost starts with requiring that all electrical sockets on the hotel’s ground floor be plugged with icing, continues with the use of champagne as a weapon, and eventually turns into a silly-not-chilling ghost-vs.-ghost showdown.  Next up in the series will be a “Totally Moldy Baroness” – it should slime its way toward your funnybone.

     The Black Belt Club series is not played for laughs at all – which is too bad.  This part-story, part-graphic-novel presentation is determined to take itself seriously, but the plots are so absurd and the four club members so unidimensional, politically correct and undistinguished that the tales simply beg for a touch of humor.  Seven Wheels of Power starts the series as Max Greene finds himself unexpectedly invited to join the Black Belt Club, whose purpose he does not understand, even though he doesn’t think he is especially good at karate.  Max lives with his uncle, who doesn’t much care for karate, because Max’s father is working in China; that’s it for the family stuff.  Other than Max, who is white, the Club members are Antonio, who is black and whose moves “are as graceful as a dance”; Maia, who is Oriental and “really smart”; and Jamie, part Navajo and part Hopi, who “talks like a sensei sometimes.”  The Club must help the Sage, “one of the protectors of the Tree of Life.”  The bad guy, when we meet him, talks like this: “Let me formally introduce myself.  I am Master Mundi, which means ‘Master of the World,’ of course. …Just because you like the Day and I like the Night, it doesn’t mean we can’t be friends, does it?”  But of course it means exactly that, and the Black Belt Club members must get in touch with their inner animal spirits – Max’s is a bear – to defeat Master Mundi.  Dawn Barnes, a third-degree black belt who has taught martial arts to kids for almost 20 years, knows her karate and shows how some moves work at the end of the book.  And Bernard Chang, an experienced comic-book artist, draws in fine comic-book style.  But the whole book is more than a little silly.

     So is Night on the Mountain of Fear, second book in the series.  This time the Black Belt Club needs magical pouches to give them an extra defense against the spirit world: “Your pouch is your personal totem of protection.”  Here the Club encounters Heyoka, the Hate Master (aptly described as “drool face”), and needs to think happy thoughts (no kidding) in order to conquer him.  So Club members think of basketball, skateboards, dogs, parrots, roller coasters, roasting marshmallows, and friendship, and thus are able to beat the Hate Master by bringing light where there is darkness.  This would be laughable if Barnes and Chang treated it humorously, but their persistent attempts to be serious make the story just plain ridiculous.  The members of the Black Belt Club are ages 9-11, so that is presumably the target age range for these books, but plenty of preteens will be far too sophisticated to accept this nonsense at face value.  Still, kids ages 7-8 may enjoy the fast pace and comic-book-like pictures.

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