July 22, 2010


Love and Pollywogs from Camp Calamity. By Mary Hershey. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

The Dancing Pancake. By Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. Knopf. $12.99.

Seaglass Summer. By Anjali Banerjee. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

     Summertime adventures for preteens – the kind in books, not the kind in the real world – tend to be filled with friendship, self-discovery, and maybe a few tears here and there to show that not everything about summer is warmth and relaxation. Take, for example, Love and Pollywogs from Camp Calamity, Mary Hershey’s third book about 10-year-old Effie Maloney. Hershey likes lengthy and distinctive titles – the first two books were called My Big Sister Is So Bossy She Says You Can’t Read This Book and 10 Lucky Things That Have Happened to Me Since I Nearly Got Hit by Lightning. Her protagonist, though, is more of a plucky and amusing fourth-grade type than a highly individualized character. It’s not that Hershey doesn’t want her to be special; it’s just that Effie is special in ways that many other heroines of books for this age group are special (“you are an outstanding friend,” she is told). And even though the specifics of Effie’s camp adventures are unique to this book, they are the same kinds of adventures found in many similar books. Effie is the only camper who can’t swim. She has been looking forward to going to this camp for years – but this is her first time away from home, and she gets homesick; and her big sister, Maxey, is working at the camp, which only makes things worse. Effie has to stand up to someone, and she makes a new and very good friend, and she desperately wants to be named Outstanding Camper of the Week but learns at the end that that’s not what really matters. There is really nothing wrong with this book, with Effie or with the story, and the very familiarity of protagonist and plot elements may even make Love and Pollywogs from Camp Calamity more fun for many preteen readers. But there remains an aura of been-there-done-that about the whole novel.

     Bindi, the protagonist of The Dancing Pancake, is a year older than Effie, but being 11 doesn’t mean life is any easier. In fact, it seems harder – or at least more real-worldish – than Effie’s. Eileen Spinelli’s story includes parents who have separated and a mom and aunt who are trying to make a go of a diner (whose name is the book’s title) while living with Bindi above it. This makes for some expected remarks about being flipped around like a pancake, but much of the book is unexpected in presentation if not in plot: it is told in free verse rather than straight narrative, and is amply illustrated with charming black-and-white drawings by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. The plot is essentially about all the things with which Bindi tries to cope (including a crush on a cute boy), and about her summer of successes and failures. At a low point, Bindi rhythmically muses, “I hoped for my dad to come back./ Nope!/ I hoped for Noah Adams to like me./ Nope!/ …Anne of Green Gables said it best:/ ‘My Life is a perfect graveyard/ of buried hopes.’/ Anne of Green Gables,/ meet/ Bindi of The Dancing Pancake,/ a hoping dope.” Titles of individual poetic snippets can be quite amusing: “Will Work for Castle Money,” “Weevil-wich,” “More on the Jingle Lady.” And there is an upbeat, if not exactly happily-ever-after, ending. “‘Funny, isn’t it, how things/ have just figured themselves out?’” (Which turns out to be not quite the case.) The Dancing Pancake is frothy fun that tries hard to be more meaningful than it is – and its unusual presentation makes it something of a work of form over substance. But it is quick, easy and pleasant to read, and many preteens will enjoy it.

     In Seaglass Summer, whose protagonist is also 11, there is also some humor, but this is a more serious book with more of a coming-of-age tone to it. Anjali Banerjee’s heroine, Poppy Bhatta, has a set goal in life: to become a veterinarian. But she has never had a pet (this setup does strain credulity, but readers need to accept it for the book to work at all). Poppy gets a chance to see what a veterinarian really does by spending a summer month at the veterinary clinic run by her uncle. It is easy to see where this experience will go long before it does in fact go there. Poppy will learn of the pain and suffering of ill, injured or neglected animals; of the emotional distress of caring owners; of the importance of staying calm, cool and collected even when animals and/or owners are tremendously upset; and of the difficulty of being a real veterinarian rather than just pretending to be one. These are exactly the experiences that Poppy has. She is initially na├»ve in the extreme: “I feel woozy even thinking about blood.” But she learns about blood and many other things – including about people who “mistake this beach for a garbage dump.” It is on the garbage-strewn beach (which Poppy helps clean up) that she finds the seaglass of the title, which she has been told to use “to search for my inner self.” In fact, the entire book is about that search, as Poppy learns about healing, life (there is a birthing-puppies scene) and death, about good people and bad, and about the reality of existence, as explained by Uncle Sanjay: “‘We can’t prevent every bad thing from happening in the world.’” By the end, Poppy still wants to be a vet – an expected outcome – but now truly understands what the professions is all about, and what its difficulties and rewards can be. That too is an expected outcome, but animal-loving preteens will enjoy experiencing Poppy’s ups and downs along with her.

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