February 24, 2011


Dodsworth in Rome. By Tim Egan. Houghton Mifflin. $14.99.

Poison Apple Book: Midnight Howl. By Clare Hutton. Scholastic. $5.99.

Freddy! King of Flurb. By Peter Hannan. Harper. $5.99.

     That pleasantly peripatetic pair, Dodsworth and the duck, is on the road again for the fourth adventure in Tim Egan’s gentle amusing, nicely drawn, mildly educational series. Dodsworth in Rome takes the two to misadventures in the Eternal City, after their forays in New York, Paris and London. Young readers will enjoy seeing the Coliseum and Trevi Fountain as Dodsworth drives past them on his rented scooter – but the duck does not see them, because Rome’s notorious traffic has him keeping his eyes tightly shut. He opens them to see a shop selling gelato, though, and he gets a seven-scoop cone (compared to Dodsworth’s modest three-scoop one). A highlight of their tour of Rome is Vatican City, where the duck almost repaints part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But unlike the arrangement in Egan’s earlier books, in which Dodsworth is always the straight man to the duck’s humorous misbehavior, there is a bit of a role reversal here, as the duck takes part in a pizza-throwing contest – turning out to have considerable skill with pizza dough – while Dodsworth causes consternation among the Romans as he searches for his missing suitcase. As always in Egan’s books, there turns out to have been nothing more serious here than a misunderstanding and a mixup; and all ends happily – leaving young readers no doubt wondering where Dodsworth and the duck will turn up next.

     The latest book in the Poison Apple series involves a trip, too – to Wolf Valley, Montana, where protagonist Marisol and her mom go for a visit with family friends. Those friends’ 12-year-old twins, Jack and Hailey, ought to get along just fine with Marisol, but as always in these books, something seems not quite right. Given the title Midnight Howl, young readers will quickly figure out what is a bit off – more quickly, in fact, than Marisol does. This is, of course, a maybe-there’s-a-werewolf-out-there story, with Marisol suspecting that the rather standoffish Hailey has a secret life that she is being careful not to reveal. This soon leads Marisol to a Web search for ways a person becomes, or allegedly becomes, a werewolf: “If you wanted to be a werewolf, you could drink dew from a wolf’s footprint (ew), eat a wolf’s brain (double ew!), make a magic lotion to rub on yourself (weird), or wear a special flower (lame). You could also become a werewolf by being bitten, or as the result of a family curse. The italics have it – that must be what has happened to Hailey! But in all these books, it turns out that Marisol isn’t quite correct about Hailey after all – although, also as usual, it turns out that there may just be something to the old werewolf legends after all. Midnight Howl gets a (+++) rating: it does not pretend to be more than a quick, surface-level read, and like the other Poison Apple books, it is as much about friendship as anything else, and offers no more than modest scares.

     Freddy! King of Flurb is equally one-dimensional and also gets a (+++) rating, but the one dimension here is humor, and young readers who like this sort of thing will have a lot of fun with Peter Hannan’s short book. This one involves more travel than Dodsworth’s and Marisol’s trips put together: Freddy and his entire family, captured by aliens, go to some unimaginably distant planet called, of course, Flurb. Thanks to Freddy’s Bionic Belch and “his specialty – the Squawking, Flapping, Atomic-Raspberry-Chicken Salute,” which involves making “sounds that seemed unmakeable for a human,” Freddy attracts the attention of an earthbound worm who just happens to be the king of Flurb and just happens to be looking for a successor. Wormola has to make the right choice to head off the machinations of the bad wizard, named Wizbad, who says, immediately upon meting Freddy, “GORREEX-BABBA-BABBA!” That translates as a really nasty anti-Freddy sentiment, and is backed up by “a face so mean that three aliens in the front row burst into flames. Two others melted. One wet his pants.” Anyway, Freddy soon becomes king; his mother becomes his number-one fan, making T-shirts that unfortunately are impractical on Flurb because they do not have enough armholes; his father, who thinks he should be king, is humiliated in a variety of ways, including being shrunk; and his really annoying sister, Babette, who spent her time on Earth making Freddy miserable because of her good grades and good behavior (both a strong contrast to Freddy’s), spends her time on Flurb feeling awful, licking boots, and joining in anti-Freddy plots. So a good time is had by all – principally by young readers – and this first book in a series ends with Wizbad’s latest plot foiled, Freddy happily being adored and catered to, and the promise of a sequel, Deep-Space Food Fighter. Ah, to travel so far for the purpose of accomplishing so little – but so amusingly!

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