March 01, 2012


The Star Shard. By Frederic S. Durbin. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

Muncle Trogg. By Janet Foxley. Illustrated by O’Kif. Chicken House/Scholastic. $14.99.

The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini. By Peter Johnson. Harper. $15.99.

Emily the Strange No. 4: Piece of Mind. By Rob Reger and Jessica Gruner. Illustrated by Rob Reger and Buzz Parker. Harper. $17.99.

     Whatever sort of unusual destination preteen readers may have in mind, there is a book out there to take them to it. Serious fantasy: The Star Shard. Amusing fantasy: Muncle Trogg. Mostly realistic novel in which writing by the central character plays a big part: The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini. Dark but amusing novel in which writing is also key: Emily the Strange: Piece of Mind.

     Frederic S. Durbin’s book uses commonplace themes of slavery and freedom in some unusual ways: the protagonist, 12-year-old Cymbril, is forced to make music. She is a slave aboard a traveling market called the Thunder Rake – but she soon finds out, as so often happens in fantasy novels, that she is more important than she has ever known, thanks in part to keepsakes that are all she has from her long-gone parents. Cymbril learns more of herself through a piece of a star – the shard of the book’s title – and through her friendship with a kidnapped boy of the Fey race. She and the boy, Loric, must deal with enchantments, strange creatures, and elements of myth and fairy tale as they plot their escape from Thunder Rake. There is an understated romantic element involving Cymbril and Loric, and there are revelations that Cymbril is not the only character who is more than she first appears to be: her cat, Miwa, for example, has unplumbed powers as well. The pacing of the story is leisurely – the book does not become really involving until around the halfway point – and the tale has some concepts that are harder to accept than are elements in other fantasies: for instance, how exactly can the six-story-high Thunder Rake, with wheels seven times larger than a man, manage to move through woods and swamps and other barriers as it goes from town to town? (Durbin says it is pulled along by claw-like structures powered by a team of Urrmsch, which doesn’t explain anything.) Still, the villains here, ranging from three witches to Thunder Rake’s master, Rombol, are effectively portrayed; and Durbin does a good job of pulling together the threads of many different stories that he tells, at times apparently at random, as the book builds toward a climax. Unfortunately, he leaves some questions unanswered, including ones involving Cymbril’s parents and the mysterious woman who brings Loric to Thunder Rake. The book is pleasant rather than compelling reading, but preteens who enjoy fantasy will find enough unusual elements in it to keep them interested.

     Janet Foxley’s Muncle Trogg is more unusual and much more amusing. In this novel, giants live at the top of a volcano called Mount Grumble, where they are hidden from humans – whose killing sticks they fear. But one giant is not gigantic at all: Muncle Trogg is so small that he is laughed at and physically tormented by the “normal,” huge giants. After a time, he decides to go see what the so-called "smallings" are all about, since everyone says he looks like them. Turns out he doesn’t look much like a person at all, even though “he had beautiful skin – gray and dotted with hairy warts – Pa’s bushy eyebrows and fleshy nose, and Ma’s bulging eyes and wonky yellow teeth.” He is, however, the size of a human, and soon finds himself in the midst of a very big adventure indeed. There are the usual elements of fantasy here – dark forests, dragons, trap doors – but there are also some enjoyable plays on words (the giants’ ruler is King Thortless) and occasional forays into the real-world issue of bullying (Muncle is repeatedly held upside-down by his “normal-sized” brother, Gritt). The plot involves Muncle’s meeting with the smalling Emily, who is later captured and given as a gift to Princess Puglug. Foxley goes out of her way to come up with some gross elements, including the “Burps ‘n’ Farts Competition” and foods such as fungus porridge and cobweb candyfloss. And illustrator O’Kif adds to the atmosphere with some suitably grotesque renderings of the giants and their world. Eventually Muncle comes up with such a good idea that the Wise Man, Biblos, resigns and turns the position over to the small giant – a great honor that does not, however, impress Gritt, who continues to hold Muncle upside-down whenever possible. Biblos’ reasoning is not surprising in a fairy-tale context, and it is really the heart of the book. He tells the king, “‘He may have a small body, sire, but he has big ideas and great courage.’” This is scarcely an original message, but it certainly bears repeating.

     The name Biblos refers to books, but there is not much book learning in Foxley’s novel. However, a book lies at the heart of Johnson’s awkwardly titled The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. AKA Houdini. Bullying is an issue here, too, but this book has a real-world setting, complete with 13-year-old John “Houdini” Smith’s older brother, Franklin, serving in Iraq, being reported missing in action, and then coming home, only to be missing in a different way where the family is concerned. It is a book that sets up this whole story, as an author comes to Houdini’s school, leading the protagonist to decide to write a book himself, surfing the Web to find out the top 10 rules for writing a novel for kids. Houdini then pulls the novel together by combining his and his friends’ experiences getting even with the neighborhood bully, Angel; raking lawns to make money; and dealing with family issues. Everything in Houdini’s rundown neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, is grist for the mill of the book project, which ties together such unrelated matters as Houdini’s dad losing his job and Houdini’s development of an unlikely friendship with a Vietnam War veteran called Old Man Jackson – who keeps a very intimidating dog named Da Nang. Typical lines here: “In my neighborhood, you can’t make it past first grade without someone trying to beat up on you, and there are always gangsta wannabes starting trouble.” “I worked hard on my book, hoping I’d forget how lonely I was.” “‘People need dead heroes to take their minds off their stupid lives,’ my father said.” So: a gritty book, with chapter titles such as “A Whole New Enemy” and “Ten Things You Can Do to Calm Down Your Father When He Loses It, with Thanks to the Thesaurus” – all 10 being variations on “nothing.” There are moments of humor in the book, but this is by and large a dark story, with upbeat elements at the end tending to ring false: “Being a writer made me look closely at people, maybe even care more about them,” declares Houdini, but preteen boys – this book’s target audience – are likely to conclude that looking more closely at the people here only shows their problems and turmoil more clearly.

     Emily the Strange has problems of her own, and turmoil, too, but the unusually written and unusually illustrated novels featuring this character are disconnected enough from the real world to offer readers a bit of respite from everyday life. There is lots of writing here – Piece of Mind, like other books in this series, is in the form of journal entries – and there are plenty of lists, too, since Emily enjoys making them. There are “Things to Do in Seasidetown” (13 of them), additional items needed for experiments in a lab (13 of those, too), and “top thoughts right now” after “recuperating from the drama of the past hour” (guess how many). Piece of Mind also features dialogue written on pages that appear to be scraps of perforated paper stapled into the book (this is also typical of these novels); and there are all sorts of illustrations scattered around the pages, always in black and/or red. The meandering plot, which isn’t the primary point of the book or of others featuring 13-year-old Emily, starts as she finishes her school year after home-schooling herself, continues when she gets a letter saying she can get the mystical and powerful Black Rock that she uses for just about everything, and continues with the trip to Seasidetown with Emily’s four cats (Mystery, Nee-chee, Miles and Sabbath) and her golem, Raven. Of course, Emily’s arch-enemy, Attikol, turns out to be in town, too, and things get predictably unpredictable in terms of complications, plots and counterplots. Eventually, this being the end of a four-book sequence (although not necessarily the end of Emily’s adventures), Attikol gets his due, at least for the time being, and Raven gets her freedom for a very understandable if distinctly odd reason. In fact, everything about Emily the Strange is distinctly odd, which is the source of her charm. At one point, she writes that “most of the time, the simplest explanation is the true one,” but “simplest” in the context of these books is often the equivalent of “strangest.” Young readers looking for something distinctly offbeat will enjoy Piece of Mind, although the book is certainly not for everyone – nor is it intended to be.

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