February 11, 2010


Dear Dumb Diary #9: That’s What Friends Aren’t For. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

Hamstermagic. By Holly Webb. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Jim Benton’s continuing diary entries of Jamie Kelly, erstwhile Mackerel Middle School student and self-appointed chronicler of her life and the lives of those around her, are reliably funny and filled with often-hilarious illustrations. With the ninth entry in the Dear Dumb Diary series, the books are something more: a little bit thoughtful. That’s nothing for fans to be afraid of – That’s What Friends Aren’t For has plenty of the trademark Benton/Kelly silliness, miscommunication and bright writing. But as the title indicates, it also has an underlying serious (all right, semi-serious) theme, as Jamie tries to figure out who her friends really are and what it means to be a friend in the first place. Jamie is pretty slow on the uptake about this whole friendship thing. Before she can get to it, she has to think through other parts of life, in her usual way: “Tuesdays are how I imagine being an adult will feel every day. Except when I get to be as old as my parents. Then I think it will always feel like Monday morning. In February. And it’s raining polar bears. And they have rabies.” The friendship thing comes up because Jamie’s Aunt Carol has married the uncle of Angeline, Jamie’s WEF (that would be “worst enemy forever,” the opposite of BFF). This makes Angeline an “automatic friend” to Jamie, and Jamie doesn’t like that a bit. What she does like is her friendship with Isabella, her BFF; but Isabella seems way too accepting of the idea that Angeline is now part of the whole friendship thing as well. And in fact, Isabella and Angeline are getting a little too close for (Jamie’s) comfort. The whole thing makes no sense to Jamie, who is the only one who really understands Isabella: “A rattlesnake won’t sit on you and let just a little drool dribble out of its mouth and then suck it back up at the last moment. It’s weird to think that my BFF has done things to me that are beneath a rattlesnake.” It’s also weird to think about “T.U.K.W.N.I.F. (That Ugly Kid Whose Name I Forget),” a boy who ends up in an art assignment with Jamie – each has to draw the other’s face – but whose work leaves something to be desired, even when revised: “Don’t get me wrong, he still can’t draw, but at least the [somewhat improved] portrait looked a lot less like a chimpanzee and a clown had a baby and then tied a mop to its head and used it to clean out a stable.” The art matters because there’s supposed to be an art contest at school – and there is also a talent show – and Jamie has plans for both of them – and the whole friendship thing gets tangled in both – and besides, Jamie continues to have to deal with her own inner oddities: “Dreaming is just like watching TV, but you can’t change the channel, and the shows often feature an insane clown that’s trying to kill you. Or maybe that’s just me.” Everything does work out just fine in the end, and Angeline has a lot to do with it, and that drives Jamie a little bit crazy (or crazier) as she tries to figure out what friendship really is, and the result is one of Benton’s best Dear Dumb Diary books to date.

     Holly Webb is developing a series of sorts, too, although it doesn’t come with numbers. Webb writes stories about Grace’s Pet Shop – first Catmagic, then Dogmagic and now Hamstermagic. This pet shop is, of course, not an ordinary place: it’s magic, as the books’ titles make clear. The animals in the shop, owned by narrator Lottie’s uncle, have special abilities. For instance, there is “Henrietta the homing mouse,” who “was a lone operator. Uncle Jack sold her to people he thought didn’t deserve pets, and then a few days later she would come back, having thoroughly turned her new owners off pet ownership.” The hamster in the title of Webb’s new book, whose name is Giles, gets to the pet shop by mistake, but turns out to fit right in, complete with his upper-crust way of speaking (oh yes, the animals speak) and his concern for Lottie, who has managed to offend an enchantress through no fault of her own (“It all happened before you were born, or even thought of,” says Uncle Jack reassuringly, which of course does not reassure Lottie at all – and shouldn’t). This is part of the plot, which also includes Lottie’s friend, Ruby, who is acting odd for reasons that Lottie is determined to find out. And there is a matter of a unicorn, and dragons – or would-be dragons, such as the lizards Sam and Joe, whose “one aim was to breathe fire, and they were convinced they would do it someday.” For his part, Giles is a hoot, as when he peremptorily tells the mice who are helping him help Lottie, “This is a covert mission that must be undertaken with the most extreme discretion!” Giles proves invaluable in this adventure, which climaxes with Lottie confronting Pandora, the enchantress whose evil doings lie behind Lottie’s problems and Uncle Jack’s – and explain Ruby’s mysterious behavior, too – and do indeed predate Lottie’s birth. Webb constructs the finale cleverly enough so that it makes a satisfying ending while also opening the way to the next book in the series, which will be called Rabbitmagic.

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