True (…sort of). By Katherine Hannigan. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Pretty Little Liars 8: Wanted. By Sara Shepard. HarperTeen. $8.99.
Alice-Miranda at School. By Jacqueline Harvey. Delacorte Press. $14.99.
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. By Jeanne Birdsall. Knopf. $16.99.
Here are a couple of books where truthfulness takes center stage…and a couple of others where the stage itself – that is, the location – is a big part of the story. Katherine Hannigan’s True (…sort of), for ages 8-12, is another of those amusing and heartwarming but serious-at-the-core books about a plucky middle-schooler and her unlikely friendship with a classmate. Delly (short for Delaware), a fifth-grader who loves “surpresents” (surprise presents), is sure she is getting one when the Boyd family moves to town – and although this eventually turns out to be true, it doesn’t seem so when Delly initially meets quiet, secretive Ferris Boyd, who has a strong attachment to animals and a personality that is the opposite of Delly’s in almost every way. Ferris proves to be a “mysturiosity” (mystery + curiosity), but her oddities turn out to be complementary to Delly’s own. “Delly was drowning in the dullness,” writes Hannigan at one point. “She stopped feeling sunshine.” But dullness disappears with Ferris around, always accompanied by wild animals that are attracted to her. This is good both for Delly and for Ferris: “For a half hour Ferris Boyd wasn’t the head-down-hunched-over kid she was everywhere else.” The portmanteau words and odd expressions here (“bawlgrammit” and even “bawldoublegrammit”) are fun, and the writing is breezy and easy to follow. The characters are attractive, too, although the plot is nothing special. Still, this is a pleasant book about some nice young people learning what friendship is – and what truth is, too.
Truths are more complex and darker in the Pretty Little Liars series – no surprise in books intended for ages 14 and up. In Wanted, the eighth of these novels, Sara Shepard picks things up three years after Alison’s disappearance – an event still puzzling and troubling to her friends, Hanna, Spencer, Aria and Emily. The lies are like a miasma in these girls’ lives, and when a chapter is called “The Secrets Now Buried,” it is clear that whatever secrets there may be won’t stay buried for long. Complicating matters here is the appearance of Alison’s twin, Courtney, who looks so much like Ali that the friends are nonplussed. Who is Courtney really? The answer, which isn’t much of a surprise, appears midway through the book, and produces entirely clichéd dialogue: “‘I was awful to you. But I’ve changed. I want us to be friends again, just like we used to be when we first got together in sixth grade. Remember how awesome it was?’” This is a book in which the chapter titles alone pretty much sum up everything that happens, as in the sequence “Missing Persons,” “True Colors Shining Through,” “A Reinvention of the Past,” “Best Friends Forever” and “What Dreams May Come” (although the Hamlet reference in that last one may escape the intended readers). There is nothing at all believable in Wanted, but believability is not its point – the novel is a tie-in to a TV series, after all, and can scarcely be expected to be more profound, or truer to life, than the series itself.
Not that there is anything especially true to life about Alice-Miranda at School, either. But this book for girls ages 7-10 – the first entry in a new series – is as much about the places where adventures happen as it is about the people having those adventures. Alice-Miranda is another of those typical spunky-and-charming middle-schoolers, but the setting in which she is schooled is unusual for books of this type: Jacqueline Harvey sets the novel at the Winchesterfield-Downsfordvale Academy for Proper Young Ladies. And Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones (to give the heroine her full name) is enthusiastic about the boarding school and cannot wait to start there. But things quickly go from sweet to sour as Alice-Miranda picks up an enemy, mean and spoiled Head Girl Alethea Goldsworthy, and learns that she must get through three difficult tests – defeating Alethea in the process – in order to stay at the school. Does she really want to stay there, though? Things are not as they should be, Alice-Miranda notices: there is a mysterious stranger lurking about (mysterious strangers always “lurk”), and the school’s headmistress is conspicuous by her absence, and even the grounds are not as they should be at a proper boarding school (Harvey should know: she is a boarding-school teacher). Readers will have to enjoy a particular sort of dialogue to have fun with this book: “‘My mineral water from Switzerland is delicious. But it’s not very good at all for washing hair. When I went with Mummy and Daddy to visit their old friend the baron last year, Mummy commented how simply splendid it would be to have water as beautiful as this to wash her hair in The baroness did not agree. Apparently she had tried it and found that the water was far too hard. Her hair lost all its shine for a month. It was terribly dull and flat.’” The juxtaposition of this sort of dialogue with inventions such as complete and elegant freeze-dried meals is part of the fun here, while the conventional underlying plot of nice new girl vs. spoiled-rotten Head Girl provides the framework within which the fun can take place. Eventually, not at all surprisingly, everything works out well for Alice-Miranda, and even the awful headmistress recognizes her as a “surprising child,” which should be enough to propel Alice-Miranda into the next adventure in this series.
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette is Jeanne Birdsall’s third book about this warm and quirky family. Like The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, the book is intended for ages 8-12; and like the earlier books (and presumably two more still to come in this planned five-book series), it will appeal mainly to preteen girls. These are summer stories about a well-meaning and mildly offbeat family – a straightforward plot and characterization if there ever was one – and at this point, the differences among the family members are well established. In The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, Rosalind heads for the beach, while Aunt Claire takes the other Penderwick girls to Maine, along with their friend, Jeffrey. Here as for Alice-Miranda, the setting is a big part of the story: the Maine town turns out to have rocky shores, cozy homes, charming neighbors and a lovely corner store. The great accomplishments here involve producing “a real pancake” (albeit an unevenly browned one), singing songs from The Sound of Music, roasting marshmallows, sighting seals, and so on. That is to say that there is nothing highly dramatic here. “What could happen to Jane in a half hour? Other than losing her mind and giving herself a haircut worthy of a two-year-old?” This is the level of worry and trouble here; that is, there is not much of either. But it does not matter: fans of the Penderwicks will revel in a non-complicated, non-intense adventure with a distinctly old-fashioned flavor. Birdsall keeps the problems resolutely solvable, the characters resolutely pleasant, and the overall effect of the book resolutely nice – which will not be to all readers’ taste, but will surely please those who already enjoy summers with the Penderwicks, wherever the novels may take place.