March 20, 2008


Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls #1: Moving Day. By Meg Cabot. Scholastic. $15.99.

Dear Dumb Diary #7: Never Underestimate Your Dumbness. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $4.99.

      Unwilling to be typecast as author of The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot has come up with an entirely new series about a young girl who learns that she can cope with adversity, and who turns out to be more than she thought she would ever be – and if that sounds like the same plot, it is important to note that Allie Finkle never gets to wear a crown. Actually, Allie, who is nine years old, has a pretty typical modern suburban life, with intolerable parents, bratty brothers and pretty pink wall-to-wall carpeting in her house. But then her parents announce that the family is moving half an hour away, and Allie’s entire world collapses. Hence the Moving Day portion of the title of the first book in the Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls series. The rules (which serve as chapter titles) are the most amusing part of the book, whose plot otherwise tends to be trite (new school, missing old friends, no new friends, new neighborhood, adjustments to new house, etc.). Sample rules include “Don’t Stick a Spatula Down Your Best Friend’s Throat,” “Don’t Put Your Cat in a Suitcase,” “First Impressions Are Very Important,” and “When You Finally Figure Out What the Right Thing to Do Is, You Have to Do It, Even if You Don’t Want To.” It should be clear from these rules pretty much how the plot progresses, although Cabot certainly manages to mine plenty of humor from fairly ho-hum circumstances. Oh – and the book has a great cover, which unfolds and then unfolds again and eventually becomes a wall poster that displays some of Allie’s rules, provides places for kids to write their own rules and paste photos of their friends, and summarizes and promotes the book as well. If you could judge a book by its cover, you would judge this one to be more offbeat and creatively plotted than it actually is.

      The Dear Dumb Diary series is more offbeat and creative in its illustrations – which Jim Benton continues to handle hilariously – than in its writing, which tends to follow the familiar pattern of “mess up, fix up, make up.” The pictures in these “Tales of Mackerel Middle School” really are the thing. In the seventh book of the series, Never Underestimate Your Dumbness, diarist Jamie Kelly gets into a tizzy over “glitter on dog turds” (caused when her pet, Stinker, eats glitter and, Jamie fears, creates “sparkly Stinker doodies”); frets about her best friend Isabella’s habit of naming her (Jamie’s) pimples; and explores the relationship between her Aunt Carol and Uncle Assistant Principal Devon, which involves “that sort of angry-whispery-private-talking that is a signal to others to drop everything and listen more closely.” The writing really is enjoyable, but the pictures are even better: Jamie buried in old toys, imagining herself as “Faultgirl, Saving the Day Through Carelessness,” chiseling “I Hate You Pimple” out of stone, imagining rats reading her diary and using her hairbrush, and creating a Divorce Ceremony (“at the end of the ceremony, instead of kissing, they bite each other’s faces”). Jamie isn’t dumb, although she does some dumb things – but she does them with so much enthusiasm, and describes them so entertainingly, that she’s always fun to have around.

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