Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door. By Adam Rubin. Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Clarion. $16.99.
43 Old Cemetery Road, Book Three: Till Death Do Us Bark. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Harcourt. $15.99.
Mix & Match Drawing: A Step-by-Step Drawing Studio. By the Editors of Klutz. Klutz. $19.99.
Zigzag Kids No. 3: Flying Feet. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Illustrated by Alasdair Bright. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.
Pony Scouts: Back in the Saddle. By Catherine Hapka. Pictures by Anne Kennedy. Harper. $3.99.
Batman: Batman and the Toxic Terror. By Jodi Huelin. Illustrated by Steven E. Gordon. HarperFestival. $3.99.
Spider-Man: I Am Spider-Man. By Joe F. Merkel & John Sazaklis. Illustrated by Andie Tong. Colors by Jeremy Roberts. HarperFestival. $3.99.
The darn squirrels are at it again, as delightfully as in the original Those Darn Squirrels, as Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri return with Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door. This is a series with nearly infinite potential, because it has just the right elements to keep delighting young readers: a central curmudgeon who has a basically good heart (Old Man Fookwire), plenty of peculiar and oddly named birds (floogle birds, bonga birds and others), and of course those darn squirrels and the ginger-ale-and-cheese-puffs snacks that get their brains whirling. And they whirl most delightfully, they do, plotting and planning to handle whatever irritant may be nearby now that they have an uneasy truce with Old Man Fookwire himself. The irritant in the new book comes with the sweet lady who moves in next door. It’s not the lady herself – she makes delightful pies – but her cat, Muffins, who comes up with particularly clever and thoroughly rotten ways of terrorizing the birds and squirrels. But it’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of these squirrels, and Muffins gets his comeuppance in a completely appropriate (but non-harmful) way. What next for the darn squirrels? It is easy to guess that a romance between Little Old Lady Hu and Old Man Fookwire could develop, now that the two are neighbors and Muffin is no longer bullying birds and squirrels alike. Whether or not Rubin and Salmieri take this series in that direction, though, you can be sure that the darn squirrels will find a way to mess things up, then make them right – hilariously.
There’s hilarity of a different sort in the third installment of the 43 Old Cemetery Road series by the irrepressible Klise sisters. This is the sequence in which a boy whose own crooked parents are in jail has been adopted by a curmudgeonly author (yes, another central curmudgeon character!) and a ghost. Boy, man and ghost communicate via letters to each other, sometimes written on paper and sometimes on computer – the latter often being interrupted when Olive C. Spence (the ghost) decides to butt into the thoughts of Ignatius B. Grumply (the curmudgeon, in case you couldn’t tell from his name). The ever-hopeful Seymour Hope, the boy (yes, “see more hope”), not only writes but also draws; in fact, his illustrations plus Grumply’s writing make up a series of books that sustain the rather odd family. The complications in Till Death Do Us Bark revolve around a different ghost, Noah Breth (yes, “no breath” – ouch!), a recently deceased gentleman whose fortune is the subject of sniping involving his two ne’er-do-well children, Kitty and Kanine, who of course fight like cats and dogs. There’s a real dog here, too: Secret (and don’t you just know this dog will be the key to an important secret, with a name like that?). Secret was greatly loved by Noah Breth, and now Seymour, who really wants a dog, is determined to keep him – even if his adoptive parents don’t approve. The plots of the Breth inheritance and the odd family’s squabbles intertwine neatly, and the book is, like the earlier series entries, told through all sorts of communications – including the local newspaper, “The Ghastly Times.” Puns abound, silliness is supreme, and even though there is not really much of a mystery here, the eventual solution knits the various story threads together neatly and amusingly, and a good time is had by all. Including readers.
Mix & Match Drawing is not exactly part of a series – not in the same way, anyhow – except that it is the latest entry in the many-years-long series of Klutz “books-plus.” These are essentially cleverly packaged crafts projects that appear in book form, with spiral-bound instructions and all the tools needed to get a reader/craftsmaker started. The nice thing about Mix & Match Drawing is that it functions well as a basic drawing course, giving budding artists clear step-by-step instructions that show how to create characters of all kinds (astronaut, puffer fish, vampire, knight, bat and many more); objects of all types (cactus, tennis racket, volcano, flowers, speedboat, etc.); and a wide variety of backgrounds (jungle, outer space, cave, living room, and so on). The packaging here is exceptionally clever, even for Klutz: a drawing pad is attached to the spiral-bound book, and when you pull the instruction book up and out, it sits above the pad, so you can look right at the step-by-step instructions while making drawings. Very well done indeed. Also included here are a pencil with eraser, a fine-tipped drawing pen, and four colored markers (blue, green, red and yellow). The “mixing and matching” suggestions explain the book’s title: Klutz suggests a shark on the moon, a lion in the living room, a shoe-wearing octopus in outer space, and so on. And there are nontechnical explanations of, for example, size: something bigger can be closer or can simply be a funny exaggeration (a huge parrot riding on an elephant, for example). Facial expressions, shadows, turning a dinosaur into a fire-breathing dragon, eyeball positioning – Mix & Match Drawing is packed with information, hints and fun, thus putting it squarely in the ongoing Klutz series of information-hints-and-fun offerings.
Zigzag Kids is an altogether more traditional series, featuring a dozen multiracial, multinational, variously abled and disabled kids (a hearing-impaired child is introduced in the latest entry). Intended for ages 6-9, the books focus on the relationships and foibles of the characters, their teachers (such as art teacher Mrs. Farelli, an important character in Flying Feet), and their school’s principal, Zelda A. Zigzag. The books are rather on the obvious side and tend to lay the message down a bit strongly – in fact, their plots revolve around whatever message Patricia Reilly Giff wants to communicate; the messages do not emerge from what happens but are central to the events. The messages in Flying Feet are about sibling rivalry and the feeling of being second-best; the story has to do with Charlie’s determination to create an invention that will prove he is as worthy of attention as his big brother, Larry, from whom he gets sneakers to which he attaches suction cups so he (that is, Charlie) can climb walls just as Spider-Man does. Of course, things do not work quite as Charlie plans and hopes, and matters are further complicated when Charlie is assigned to be Peter Rabbit (definitely not Spider-Man) for “Come as a Character Day.” Everything eventually works out just fine as the kids all help each other in a heartwarming – if very, very obvious – display of the power of working together. Alasdair Bright’s pleasant drawings nicely complement Giff’s writing, although the kids are distinguished more by their physical features and any handicaps they may have than by strongly defined personalities. Flying Feet gets a (+++) rating – for fans of the Zigzag Kids series only.
Also receiving (+++) ratings are inexpensive softcover series entries for even younger children. Back in the Saddle, part of the Pony Scouts series, is all about Annie’s recovery from fear after she falls off while riding a gentle pony named Splash. This is a Level 2 book (“Reading with Help”) in the I Can Read! series – a simple story, simply told and simply illustrated. And speaking of illustrations, they are a big part of the attraction in superhero-themed books, such as the latest ones about Batman and the non-sneaker-equipped Spider-Man. These short books do not repay close attention to plot, of which they have very little – and what they do have is often inconsistent. Batman and the Toxic Terror features eco-terrorist Poison Ivy – who does good things the wrong way in trying to preserve green space. So Batman has to stop her and then, in his identity as multimillionaire Bruce Wayne, simply buy up the disputed property and keep it green. If only things were really so easy! And I Am Spider-Man features an all-new villain who has “the ability to change into anyone” but conveniently forgets to do so when Spidey pursues him, making his capture simple. Again, if only things were really so easy! But the point of these books is not to intrigue young readers with subtlety – the idea is to get them interested in reading by showing them favorite action heroes in simple stories that do little more than connect the events between one battle and the next. The books do not have much value in themselves, but for kids who are fans of the featured superheroes, they can be useful steps along the road toward reading works of more substance.