The Genius Files #1: Mission Unstoppable. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $6.99.
The Genius Files #2: Never Say Genius. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $16.99.
Ice Island. By Sherry Shahan. Delacorte Press. $15.99.
May B. By Caroline Starr Rose. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.
From the lighthearted to the serious and gripping, these adventure novels for preteens take readers on journeys in both geography and time. Dan Gutman’s Genius Files series includes such threats as kidnapping, freezing and boiling alive, but it is nevertheless impossible to take seriously. The books focus on 13-year-old twins endearingly named Coke and Pepsi (Pep) McDonald, who are on a road trip with some of the most clueless parents in the history of preteen novels (and that’s really saying something). In Mission Unstoppable, initially released last year and now available in paperback, things get started eight days before the twins’ birthday, and involve mysterious notes, coded messages, being trapped in the basement of their school (which is on fire), having to jump off a cliff, and being thrown into a giant vat of Spam – among other things. Underlying the mayhem is a secret government document whose author, Dr. Herman Warsaw, has concerns that include “older generation inflexible, stagnant,” “start over – geniuses – standardized test scores – find them.” Gutman writes that after being inspired with a way to save the world, or society, or something, “Dr. Warsaw would sit down and synthesize his shorthand audio notes into a 434-page manifesto titled ‘The Only Way Out: The Simple Solution to America’s Most Pressing Problems of the 21st Century.’” Hence the twins’ perils; and no, this doesn’t make sense. What does make sense is the cleverest aspect of The Genius Files: the twins visit real-world places, and Gutman provides Google Maps information so readers can follow Coke and Pep’s adventures, seeing just where they are going and how long it takes to get there – a clever form of interactivity that uses the Internet without being entirely bound by it.
The interactivity continues in Never Say Genius, and so do the threats and challenges. Starting on the twins’ birthday, this one has Coke and Pep confront a new nemesis named Archie Clone, himself a genius and a dead ringer (so to speak) for comic-book Archie (just in case anyone thought the villains here were to be taken at “face” value...pun intended). Again, the family travels to real places (ranging from the National Mustard Museum in Wisconsin to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.), and again there are mysterious messages and/or bizarre threats (hot: suspension in French-fry cages over boiling oil; cold: being stuck in glass vats of soft-serve ice cream). Are the twins really in danger of death, or are they just being tested to see whether they are worthy of admission to a secret society of young geniuses? Who cares? Probably not readers: like the first book, the second is fast-paced, action-packed, and amusing in a silly way, but there are no characters of any substance in it (not even Coke and Pep). As for the humor, it requires a certain taste, or tastelessness: “‘I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,’ said Archie Clone. ‘Oh, wait! I almost forgot. I’m going to kill you anyway! Hahahahaha!’” In fact, this is the sort of series in which dead people un-die so Gutman can complicate things further, which he promises to do in the third book.
Also set in the real world, but a much more serious and intense book, Ice Island is another foray into Alaska by Sherry Shahan, author of Frozen Stiff and Death Mountain. A straightforward survival tale made interesting primarily by its setting on remote Santa Ysabel Island (a fictional re-creation of St. Lawrence Island), the book focuses on 13-year-old Tatum, who dreams of competing in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and has come to the island for a week of training. A freak blizzard strands her there with her new friend, Cole, who is a Siberian Yupik boy. All the usual elements of a survival-against-odds story are here. Food runs low. The temperature drops to life-threatening levels. One of the two sleds breaks. The strongest dog runs away. Do Tatum and Cole stay together? Split up? Stay where they are? Go for help? Go where, when there are no roads or houses? “Sometimes real-life adventures are more unbelievable than stories in books!” Shahan has Tatum think, complete with italics. There are occasional attempts to keep things light, as when Cole asks if Tatum knows why there are no snakes on the island and she says the mosquitoes probably ate them. But the focus here is on camaraderie and survival: “Her brain didn’t know what to do – what to think – how to process what her eyes were seeing.” There is no doubt that Tatum and Cole will endure and eventually survive, and they do; but what will attract readers here is the setting and the ways in which the protagonists – Tatum in particular – rise to the many challenges facing them. There is little character development in Ice Island, but enough adventure to attract preteens looking for a well-told survival story.
Cold and survival are issues as well in May B., a novel in verse by Caroline Starr Rose. Here the remoteness is not one of geography – the book is set in Kansas – but one of time: this is a 19th-century pioneer tale. The title character, 12-year-old Mavis (May) Betterly, is sent by her parents to help out the inexperienced Oblingers at their homestead 15 miles away, after a poor wheat crop almost ruins the Betterly family. Sending May away – supposedly only until Christmas – will bring in money from May’s labors and leave the Betterly family with “one less child to clothe” and feed. “I’m helping everyone/ except myself,” May thinks, but she does her best, coping with Mrs. Oblinger’s complaints – caused by her own loneliness – and with the endless chores. Then Mrs. Oblinger leaves, and Mr. Oblinger goes after her, and suddenly May is entirely alone, on her own, and not sure what to do. She tries to study, with little success because of her difficulty with reading and writing; she maintains the Oblingers’ house as well as she can; and she copes with constant loneliness: “When the world is black,/ I’m most alone,/ the silence thick around me.” Unable to figure out how to get home, abandoned as the year goes on and the weather gets worse, May remembers her difficulties in school and thinks often about her family life, trying to stay alive in a harsh environment: “I didn’t ask/ to read like a child,/ quit school,/ come here,/ starve.” May’s decidedly non-poetic approach to her reality stands in somewhat unsettling contrast to the free verse in which the book is written, and the “May B./maybe” pun is unnecessary. But the novel in general is well-plotted and well-paced. An early-season blizzard makes May desperate to get home, and she comes up with a plan to walk the 15 miles to the Betterly house – despite the ever-present threats of the cold, the snow and foraging wolves. Readers will expect her to be rescued, and she is, but here as in Ice Island and other survival tales, what will matter most is how the rescue happens and how May grows despite (or because of) her troubles and her months of isolation. May is the only character in the book whose personality comes through in any significant way; in fact, she is nearly the book’s sole character. Girls with an interest in the Little House books, which Rose cites as an influence, and ones who suffer from dyslexia as May does, will be especially attracted to this story of hardship and pluck in the face of adversity.