February 15, 2007


17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore. By Jenny Offill. Pictures by Nancy Carpenter. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Babymouse: Heartbreaker. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.99.

      It’s okay to be bad – as long as you’re only mildly bad, in an endearing way, in a book. Real-world kids should not try any of the things that the narrator of 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore tries, on pain of…well, on pain of not being able to do stuff anymore. The narrator of this book is charmingly mischievous, full of ideas that just happen to be very bad concepts for other people (stapling her little brother’s hair to his pillow, gluing his bunny slippers to the floor) and for herself (walking backwards all the way to school, doing a report on beavers instead of the assigned one on George Washington). The point of this book is that adults just don’t get it – the narrator is clever, with an offbeat approach to life, one of those souls said to march to the beat of a different drum. She just tends to overdo things a bit: after the beaver report, she tells the class that she personally owns a hundred beavers; after trying to walk backwards to school, she decides to try to walk backwards from school as well. The reactions of those around her – her mom, the crossing guard, her brother, even the dog (in whose bowl she washes her hands) – are funny, if predictable. But this little girl isn’t predictable, and that’s what makes Jenny Offill’s story – and the perfectly appropriate illustrations by Nancy Carpenter – so much fun. But it’s not for parents of kids who are a bit too much like the book’s heroine, or for kids more likely to emulate the girl’s antics than to find them funny. After all, no one (except the star of this book) really wants to freeze a fly in an ice cube. Right?

      Babymouse, the amusing creation of the brother-and-sister team of Matthew Holm and Jennifer L. Holm, doesn’t really want to be bad, either. She just has a tendency to daydream, which means she often misses the school bells, which means her teachers end up asking, “You’re saying a frog tricked you into kissing him and he turned into a snake and then a snail and then a spider who was a spider-prince, and that’s why you’re late for class?” Babymouse: Heartbreaker is the fifth book in this series, and the best so far. Yes, there are the usual daydreams – Valentine’s Day is approaching, so Babymouse has all sorts of pseudo-romantic, fairy-tale-like dreams – but this time, the “reality” story is as interesting as what happens in Babymouse’s mind. She tries to negotiate the all-too-real world of a dance that she wants to attend but to which she hasn’t been asked, and she learns that she can do the asking – or even go on her own. Furthermore, Babymouse here develops a genuinely snippy relationship with the book’s unseen narrator, who is something of a character himself (or herself). During one daydream, the narrator asks, “Wait a minute. Didn’t we have a Babymouserella fantasy in the first book?” And Babymouse replies, “Yeah, well, I never even made it to the dance last time!” (That’s true.) Later, Babymouse criticizes the narrator for not understanding why everyone in another daydream is asleep under a curse, and the narrator says, “Sorry. I thought this was ‘Snow White’ by mistake.” When Babymouse practices not calling her non-boyfriend, the narrator asks, “How’s that working for you?” and Babymouse says, “You know, maybe you should practice not calling me, smarty-pants!” The result of all this back-and-forth is a silly story that works its way unexpectedly to a happy ending and a final dig at the narrator: “You know, you really need to get a hobby.” Babymouse can be just as peevish as she wishes if she has further adventures as good as this one.

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