Lunch Lady: No. 1—Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute; No. 2—Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $5.99 each.
Nighttime: Too Dark to See; Too Scared to Sleep. By Todd Strasser. Little Apple/Scholastic. $4.99 each.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Jarrett J. Krosoczka would create graphic novels someday. His illustrations for the Punk Farm books, Baghead and other titles have the angularity and flow of pictures in graphic novels even though the books themselves are not in that format. Krosoczka’s offbeat sense of humor fits the graphic-novel format for preteens well, too. So it makes perfect sense that he has created a crimefighter called Lunch Lady: “Serving Justice! And Serving Lunch!” Abetted by her companion Betty, who acts as Q to Lunch Lady’s James Bond with such inventions as a Spatu-copter (a spatula that provides vertical lift) and Taco-vision Night Goggles (which work well, but everything looks taco-shaped), Lunch Lady takes on nefarious school-based villains such as a mad scientist (well, science teacher) and some librarians who take their dislike of videogame consoles to extremes. A superhero needs human assistants, of course, and Lunch Lady gets them in the form of three students named Dee, Terrence and Hector. And there needs to be a school bully (Milmoe), who is especially nasty to Hector and is always followed by a today who says, “Good one, Milmoe” after the bully says something insulting. Everything is introduced in Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, including the boiler room (located behind a moving refrigerator) where Betty invents things, and Lunch Lady’s particular brand of dialogue (“I’m on him like cheese on macaroni”). Some of Krosoczka’s ideas are funnier than others (“cannoli-oculars” are a winner), but the point of these little books is really just to let kids have a good time. At that, they succeed from start to finish.
The Nighttime series is less successful and gets a (++) rating. Each short book contains a series of unrelated, very short stories – eight in Too Dark to See, seven in Too Scared to Sleep – that offer at most a mild chill. In Too Dark to See, one involves a phantom train, another a boy getting trapped inside his handheld game player, another a “dead end” street where dead things turn up, another a family’s stay at an old motel that turns out to have burned down years ago – all standard horror scenarios. Todd Strasser does very little scene-setting and no characterization at all, simply taking these familiar ideas – likely familiar already to many potential young readers – and presenting them at face value. In Too Scared to Sleep, the stories feature a ghost giving out Halloween candy, wallpaper on which the pictured characters seem to move, a sleepover that goes badly wrong, a too-nice babysitter and more. Strasser’s stripped-down approach to tale-telling makes each of these short tales a very quick read indeed, but also means that none of them will stay with readers for very long – there aren’t many genuine chills here except for momentary ones. Still, that may be the whole point: this is, after all, a series, and kids who enjoy the quick takes and small shudders of the first two books will presumably be good candidates for future volumes.