April 26, 2012


Baseball Card Adventures #10: Roberto & Me. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $5.99.

Baseball Card Adventures #11: Ted & Me. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $15.99.

Super Sluggers #3: Wing Ding. By Kevin Markey. Harper. $5.99.

Super Sluggers #4: Rainmaker. By Kevin Markey. Harper. $15.99.

Flat Stanley at Bat. By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $3.99.

How to Survive Anything! Boys Only. By Martin Oliver. Illustrated by Simon Ecob. Scholastic. $6.99.

How to Survive Anything! Girls Only. By Lottie Stride. Illustrated by Daniela Geremia. Scholastic. $6.99.

Ballpark Mysteries 4: The Astro Outlaw. By David A. Kelly.  Illustrated by Mark Meyers. Random House. $4.99.

      It may be unfashionable nowadays to create certain forms of gender-specific entertainment, but in the field of light and easy reading, plenty of authors continue to do just that.  Baseball seems to be entirely the province of boys in several series.  Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventures is a sort of Magic Tree House in the sports world.  The hero, Stosh, travels into the past, courtesy of baseball cards, to meet great players and try to prevent tragedies that involved them.  Stosh inevitably learns that you cannot change history, but he just as surely manages to do good deeds of some sort and emerge from each adventure wiser and more self-confident (until the next time, anyway).  Roberto & Me, originally published in 2010 and now available in paperback, has Stosh visiting Roberto Clemente to try to stop him from dying in a plane crash.  Stosh fails, of course, but he does manage to prevent a woman he knows in the present from having an infection so serious that she would have wound up in a wheelchair.  Then, in the newest book in the series, Ted & Me, Stosh – whose time-traveling ability has been discovered by the FBI – goes back to 1941 to meet Ted Williams and, oh yes, warn President Roosevelt about the coming attack on Pearl Harbor.  Stosh learns that Williams is sort of a jerk, at least some of the time, and that Charles Lindbergh “wasn’t the perfect hero so many people thought he was,” and that there was no way to change the history of World War II.  But, again, he profits from his trip, this time in two ways: literally, with a small bank account that has grown tremendously in the years since 1941, and figuratively, through the batting lessons he has picked up from Williams.  The Baseball Card Adventures books are all cut from the same cloth: very little unexpected happens in terms of their overall plots.  But for baseball-loving boys ages 10-14, they can be an enjoyable way to meet partly realistic, partly fictionalized versions of some of the game’s greatest players.

      Kevin Markey’s Super Sluggers series is for slightly younger readers, ages 8-12, and is written more humorously in its focus on a kids’ team called the Rambletown Rounders.  The third and fourth books both have a lot to do with weather, which distinguishes them from the first two (Slumpbuster and Wall Ball).  In No. 3, Wing Ding, originally published last year and now available in paperback, super-windy weather brings in a swarm of hungry grasshoppers, which promptly eat all the town’s grass, including the grass on the baseball field – which means the Rounders will not get to host the midseason all-star game.  The insects are also making team shortstop Stump so nervous that he is messing up his play, so the Rounders – working, of course, as a team – have to solve both the problem of Stump and the issue of the insects.  Of course they do, and of course the team with Rounders on it wins the all-star game, and of course Stump makes the deciding throw.  “Losing a game felt about as good as getting kicked in the teeth,” writes Banjo, third baseman and narrator, but what always matters here is winning at the end – and that is what happens.  On, then, to Rainmaker, where the weather issue is obvious from the title and once again comes along with a problem for a star Rounders player.  In this final book of the Super Sluggers series, the Rounders may lose their whole season because of rain so severe that it is causing flash flooding – and even if they do get to play, their star pitcher, Slingshot, seems to be all washed up (so to speak).  Somehow the team members have to pull everything together to make their final season a success – and there is an added element here, too, in the form of a rafting trip and a ghost story about the Moonlight Bandit.  Markey knits up all the issues with his usual blend of good humor and enjoyment of the names he gives the players (Ducks Bunion, Tugboat Tooley, Gasser Phipps and even Choo-Choo Choo the Steam Engine).  Young players will have vicarious fun following the Rounders’ adventures.

      Even more amusing and for even younger readers, Flat Stanley at Bat is a Level 2 book in the “I Can Read!” series – suitable for developing readers, roughly ages 5-8.  Using the character created by Jeff Brown, the simple story has Stanley trying out for baseball, making the team, and finding there are advantages to being flat: when he turns sideways at bat, the pitcher can barely see him, so he draws a walk; and when he leaps to catch a high fly ball, he floats up and grabs it.  But the crowd thinks Stanley has an unfair advantage, which makes him feel bad – so he and his brother, Arthur, make Stanley look more normal by stuffing his uniform with laundry.  And sure enough, Stanley plays well without being flat – leading some people in the crowd to object that he looks so heavily muscled that he must have an unfair advantage.  Far from being a no-win situation, this is a win-either-way one, with Stanley succeeding on bat and in the field and proving that being flat (or overstuffed) need be no disadvantage at all.  Silly and lighthearted, the book will be fun for new readers.

      There is nothing about baseball, or any other sport, in How to Survive Anything! Boys Only.  But the book is full of what are supposed to be manly threats being conquered in a manly way.  Most of the entries are quite serious – and, to be fair, the advice is good, although there is no particular reason for it to be boy-specific.  “How to Survive a Shark Attack” (stay in a group and swim quickly and smoothly to the beach); “How to Survive a Plane Crash” (listen to safety announcements, follow directions, practice bracing position, get out quickly); “How to Survive an Earthquake” (stay indoors and away from windows, go out only after tremors have stopped, stay in open spaces to avoid falling debris); plus surviving a whiteout, a crocodile attack, a lightning strike, a sinking ship and more.  There is no particular order to the entries, and there is some attempt to lighten things up by throwing in clinkers about surviving zombies, vampires and an encounter with Tyrannosaurus Rex.  The advice on tornados, avalanches, falls and bee swarms is, however, a lot more likely to be useful, and the straightforward illustrations and simple dialogue in this graphic-novel-style instructional book make it easy to follow – if scarcely pleasant reading.

      And now, how about something for girls?  How to Survive Anything! Girls Only actually has one discussion in it about sports, “How to Survive Soccer Tryouts.”  In the main, though, it too has a lot of advice – some practical, some amusing, some silly – in a series of mixed-together “survival” scenes that tumble over each other in no particular order.  Unlike the elements of the book for boys, most entries here are somewhat to highly gender-specific: “How to Survive a Fashion Disaster,” followed by “How to Teach Your Cat to Sit,” then “How to Turn a No into a Yes,” and then “Top Tips for Speechmaking.”   And even when the book seems to want to be taken seriously (“How to Survive Embarrassment” or “How to Soothe Sunburn”), up pops an item such as “Surviving a Zombie Attack” (yes, there are zombies for girls as well as for boys) or “How to Be a Mind Reader.”  There is some good, if not especially consequential, information here: have a great sleepover by picking a theme and choosing DVDs to suit whatever mood you and your guests may be in; make it through tests by allowing plenty of time to study and finding the study approach that works best for you; survive a crush by remembering that he is a person, not a god, and by not stretching the truth in an attempt to be more interesting; survive a trip to the seaside by wearing a well-fitting bathing suit and protecting skin from sun damage.  But then there are such suggestions as: if you find a ghost in your bedroom, let it chat because “it is probably just bored and lonely”; avoid sneezing if aliens land nearby, because they might hear you and take you to their planet; and, of course, run away if you spot a zombie, since they move slowly (the boys’ book offers a similar thought).  How to Survive Anything! Girls Only is a mixture of the fun and the funny, with a few elements that are serious but unlikely (“How to Handle Becoming Rich”) and a few that give useful tips, but about trivial matters (“How to Survive Truth or Dare”).  The book is less intense, overall, that the one for boys, and in fact is best if not taken too seriously…well, except when it’s being serious.

      And just to show that there are some sports books intended for both boys and girls, David A. Kelly produces the Ballpark Mysteries series, in which there are two central characters, one of each gender, and the stories give each an equal role.  The way the books do that, though, is by having the focus somewhere other than on baseball: the emphasis here is on “Mystery” more than “Ballpark.”  As in the first three books – The Fenway Foul-Up, The Pinstripe Ghost and The L.A. Dodger – Mike and Kate solve fairly straightforward mysteries that just happen to occur at, or revolve around, baseball stadiums.  Set in Houston, The Astro Outlaw combines baseball with another thing for which the city is known: the Houston Space Center.  Mike and Kate tour the center before an Astros game, then wait for an astronaut named Commander Rice to throw out the first pitch and show the crowd a moon rock.  But Rice does not show up: he has been knocked out and the moon rock has been stolen.  Who did it, and why?  That’s the mystery, which Mike and Kate solve through some straightforward observation.  More interestingly, they use an element of baseball to figure out where the missing moon rock must be hidden – after the thief turns out not to have it when caught.  This is a “Stepping Stone” book for ages 6-9, written simply and illustrated straightforwardly; it is a good book for young sports fans who are not too fanatical about baseball itself but have an interest in some of the details of how the game is played.  And it really is a sports-oriented book that both boys and girls in the target age range can enjoy.

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