September 07, 2006


Girl, Going on 17: Pants on Fire. By Sue Limb. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

Eager’s Nephew. By Helen Fox. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.95.

Books of Ember III: The Prophet of Yonwood. By Jeanne DuPrau. Random House. $15.95.

     When you have a good idea, or even a fairly good one, it is tempting to milk it for all it is worth.  Hollywood filmmakers are the modern grandmasters of this game, but they certainly did not originate it: think, for example, of Charles Dickens’ chapter-by-chapter spinning out of his stories to ever-greater lengths, and then his re-creation in future books (also spun out chapter-by-chapter) of parallel tales.  Or think of Shakespeare, who followed Henry the Sixth, Part I with a second part and then a third.

     No matter who started the sequel (or multiple-works-on-the-same-topic) concept, it is certainly an important part of writing today.  Generally, followup books are not quite as good as an author’s first – for the obvious reason that they lack the piquancy of an original and the attendant charm of discovering characters and settings for the first time.  Still, readers who finish a book and want to know what happened next, or even what happened before the story started, will generally enjoy follow-ups that stay true to the tone and characterizations of the originals.

     So Jess Jordan fans will welcome Girl, Going on 17: Pants on Fire, the third year-by-year tale of Jess’s slow march toward adulthood and constant need to cope with school, relationships and a broken family.  This is familiar territory in books for ages 10 and up, but Sue Limb’s works stand out for a certain freshness of style and unusual scene-setting.  This one has some typical teenage problems, including a nasty new English teacher and a major rift between Jess and her boyfriend, Fred.  But it also has some neat touches, such as chapter titles cast as thoroughly modern commandments: “Bite Not Thy Nails; Neither Grow Long Ones Like Talons,” and “Whoso Walketh Uprightly Shall Be Saved, but Couch Potatoes Shall Be Cast into the Burning Fiery Furnace (And Emerge as Oven Chips).”  And Limb is as good at amusing and unexpected plot twists as ever – for instance, when a distraught Jess rushes home to Granny for the “fuss and attention” she so desperately needs, she finds in Granny’s house a Japanese gentleman who speaks no English.

     The humor is even more pronounced in Eager’s Nephew, which Helen Fox calls a “companion” to her previous book, Eager.  Eager was, and his nephew is, a robot with the ability to think for itself (himself?) and feel emotion.  These robots look a bit like thinned-out and stretched Michelin tire men.  And in Eager’s Nephew, for ages 8-12, they are illegal: scientists may build no more of them.  This book takes place 20 years after the original, with Eager having spent most of that time in hiding.  Now he revisits the Bell family – and his nephew, Jonquil, tags along without Eager’s knowledge.  Jonquil has never seen humans before, so there is a Candide-like element to this story – in addition to some moderately serious questions about extraterrestrials, the nature of intelligence, and other science-fictional concerns.

     The Prophet of Yonwood is SF, too, but this is an entirely serious book – a prequel to The City of Ember, which was the first book in a series whose second book was The People of Sparks.  Now Jeanne DuPrau takes readers back to a time before the worldwide disaster that resulted in the world of Ember in the first place.  Fans of the series know what will happen, but DuPrau here answers the question of how it happened – something the characters in the other books understood barely, if at all.  Yonwood is a town in North Carolina to which 11-year-old Nickie goes to live – in a mansion that her family has just inherited.  Yonwood seems like a safe place in a world going increasingly mad, but of course Nickie learns that no place is really safe when society spins out of control.  Yet she also learns to find hope and comfort even in a time of the most serious troubles – the same message taught in the first two Ember books, and as good a reason as any to read a new one along the same lines.

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