July 19, 2007


Dear Dumb Diary #6: The Problem with Here Is That It’s Where I’m From. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $4.99.

Princess Power #5: The Stubbornly Secretive Servant. By Suzanne Williams. Illustrated by Chuck Gonzales. HarperCollins. $4.99.

      There’s some sort of cuteness-to-funniness ratio out there in books for preteens. Get the ratio right and you have a series that works, book after book. Get it wrong and you have a dud. One of these series has a closer-to-ideal ratio than the other, but both have their appealing moments.

      Jim Benton’s “Tales of Mackerel Middle School” tend to start on the funny side of things, stay funny pretty much throughout, then pull into Cuteville near the end. Benton is really good at this formula, of which The Problem with Here Is That It’s Where I’m From is the sixth example. The characters are familiar to readers by now: Jamie Kelly, who confides her innermost thoughts, wishes and schemes to her diary and draws hilarious pictures in it (Benton’s art is often even better than his prose); Isabella, Jamie’s best friend, as clever and devious as they come; and Angeline, Jamie’s nemesis, who is incredibly pretty and gets loads of attention and is just nerve-wrackingly sweet. As this book starts, Jamie confides, “I’m trying to grow an accent,” because she wants to be from anywhere except where she’s from. Soon, she meets a “foreigner,” who is actually just a super-pretty girl from another school, temporarily taking classes at Mackerel. This girl, Colette, may be a challenge to Angeline in the “prettiest” category in an upcoming school election. The election includes such categories as “funniest,” “most artistic” and “best friends,” and the way these categories eventually get sorted out at the end is Benton’s punchline. But there are plenty of lesser punches along the way, mostly in the form of captions for drawings: “Overly dainty feet must be tattooed to look hairy,” for example. Or side-by-side pictures: “Crazy killer clown hiding under your bed” and, just to the right, the same picture “with parsley sprig.” Benton’s plotting and counterplotting is as clever as ever, marred only by the sameness of the gibes and the absolute knowledge that everything will be just fine at the end: Angeline will turn out not to be so bad after all, and good will triumph and evil be punished and all like that there. Okay, this is a predictable series, but it still rates high on both the fun and cuteness scales.

      Princess Power, although it is also for preteens, seems to be for younger ones. It’s the story of four princesses – Lysandra, Fatima, Elena and Tansy – who are best friends and have a series of magic-laced adventures. They met in The Perfectly Proper Prince, came to the rescue of one of Fatima’s relatives in The Charmingly Clever Cousin, helped Tansy deal with The Awfully Angry Ogre, solved the mystery of a comb that Elena found in The Mysterious, Mournful Maiden, and in the latest book are visiting Lysandra’s sister and brother-in-law while awaiting the arrival of a handsome prince. The prince doesn’t show up, but his servant does – and is quite close-mouthed about what has happened. So the princesses torture him until…no, this isn’t that kind of book at all. They do lock up the servant, Thomas, but not very unpleasantly, and they then do their own search for the missing prince, who turns out to have been changed into…but that would be telling. This is not much of a mystery and really not much of a story, but it’s mildly amusing – made more so by illustrations that definitely lean toward the cute side of the scale. Younger preteens, especially ones who still dream of old-fashioned castles, crowns, elegant dresses and simple-to-do magic, will have a good time with this easy-to-read series that is more cute than funny.

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