June 07, 2012


The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel VI: The Enchantress. By Michael Scott. Delacorte Press. $18.99.

Alice-Miranda 2: Alice-Miranda on Vacation. By Jacqueline Harvey. Delacorte Press. $14.99.

Zigzag Kids No. 5: Bears Beware. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Illustrated by Alasdair Bright. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed Some Books! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

      The overdone, over-complicated and over-long saga of Nicholas Flamel – and, more importantly, of Sophie and Josh Newman, twins charged with the responsibility of saving the world or destroying it – comes to an end with The Enchantress, and even readers who may have been taken aback by the sometimes uneasy mixture of myth and magic, history and folklore from which Michael Scott built the series will be impressed with the slam-bang way he concludes it.  There are legends within legends here, the expected appearances by the evil John Dee and his cohorts, the by-now-expected ones by, among others, Joan of Arc and the gods Mars and Isis and Osiris – and a monster called the Spartoi, and Aten, Lord of Danu Talis, which both is and is not Atlantis, of which it is not quite an acronym.  Odin is here, and a sphinx, and Scathach the Shadow, and Xolotl.  Alcatraz, the island, is the place from which released monsters are heading toward San Francisco, which Sophie and Josh must defend, except that they are ending up on opposite sides of the ultimate battle, just as has been foretold in the prophecy that readers have known ever since the first book is sure to be fulfilled in the last.  There are so many characters here, so much going on, that it is easy to become lost in the excitement – of which there is plenty – and to lose sight of the fact that The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel is at its heart just another good-vs.-evil story in which modern youths become surrogates for all the readers observing the various battles unfold.  Scott does throw in some interesting twists in The Enchantress, and certainly he gives readers very little chance to catch their breath as the action moves rapidly from place to place, fight to fight, even time to time.  The book teeters always on the edge of disintegration under the weight of its own heavy character load and overly complex plotting (although, as noted, the foundation of the plot is very simple).  But Scott’s skill lies in preventing the novel, and the series, from ever quite tipping over into absurdity.  When the prophecy is, unsurprisingly, fulfilled at last, what happens makes good sense in the context of the story and brings about a conclusion that wraps things up neatly, which is all any reader of this series could want.  Scott has always thrown a bit more into The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel than was really necessary, but now that he has taken readers to the end of the six-book series, they will likely look back on it as a sequence of highly entertaining, if sometimes elephantine, proportions.

      There is nothing ponderous about small and tremendously cute Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones, fresh out of her first semester at boarding school and heading home for a short vacation that is sure to be simply oodles of fun for her and her friend, Jacinta Headlington-Bear.  Jacqueline Harvey, a boarding-school teacher, got the basic atmosphere of Alice-Miranda’s school just right in the first book of this series, Alice-Miranda at School, and she does a good job with the upper-crust everyday life of her protagonist this time as well.  The biggest issue with these books is that Alice-Miranda is really too good to be true, or even almost-true.  For instance, when Jacinta does not feel well, she “didn’t want to disappoint Alice-Miranda, but as always her little friend knew just the right thing to say.”  No one wants to disappoint Alice-Miranda, who always knows just the right thing to say – to an extent that quickly becomes cloying.  The adventures in Alice-Miranda on Vacation are mostly small ones, involving a snoopy stranger, cranky movie star and meddlesome boy; it is obvious throughout that nothing terribly serious is going to happen.  Alice-Miranda is the kind of girl who says, “‘This place needs a bit of a tidy-up’” and then “set[s] forth stacking the china plates and emptying the grungy water from the teacups” in a hidden outdoor play cubby.  And she then sweeps up the pine needles and rearranges the furniture.  Not really “for fun,” but just because that is the kind of girl she is.  When a boy refers to Jacinta as a “stuck-up spoilt rich brat,” it may seem surprising that no one says the same thing to, or about, Alice-Miranda – except that she is so nice all the time that it would never occur to anyone.  There is a bit of a to-do here involving a secret formula, some bad guys and a sort of kidnapping, but everything is handled quite nicely, thank you, and the adults do not even call the police, because, as one explains, “‘if this gets back to the palace, I’ll never enjoy another moment alone for the rest of my life.’”  Oh, it’s all very spiffy, and everything is just ducky at the end.

      Things are more down-to-earth in the Zigzag Kids stories by Patricia Reilly Giff and the There Was an Old Lady books by Lucille Colandro.  The multicultural, multi-ethnic, multiracial kids in Giff’s stories, perfectly balanced between boys and girls, explore feelings and worries of various kinds, with fear being the main topic in Bears Beware.  Different Zigzag Kids books feature different characters from the after-school Zigzag Afternoon Center, the focus here being Mitchell, who loves animals but is afraid of going on an overnight trip to the Zigzag Nature Center and sleeping in tents among all the creatures.  A bus breakdown, tent collapse and broken suitcase are among the minor crises here, the major one being Mitchell’s imagination about the bears and tarantulas that he is sure will turn up after the kids turn in for the night.  The easy-to-read book reveals that the other kids have fears and worries of their own, but everyone sticks together and everything turns out fine, with Alasdair Bright’s illustrations helping perk up Giff’s story.  Things always turn out fine for the old lady in Colandro’s books, too, and the latest one has its own version of a school tie-in.  Kids will likely figure that out pretty quickly, as the old lady with the infinitely expandable gullet swallows books, a pen, a pencil case, a ruler and other school supplies, and finally a bag to hold everything – which she then coughs up, remarkably free of spittle, as a backpack containing all the items that kids will need when the new school year begins.  The “old lady” sagas get sillier all the time, and the poetry doesn’t really scan or offer clever rhymes: “There was an old lady who swallowed a pencil case./ Without leaving a trace, she swallowed that pencil case.”  But young readers are likely to see these books only as simple, ridiculous stories, with Jared Lee’s pictures of the swallowed items (and how they relate to each other) being a big part of the fun.  The books go way beyond the old rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly, not least in their endings: the original rhyme has the old lady swallowing a horse, and “she’s dead, of course.”  But nothing like that happens to the always-happy old lady here, or is likely to happen as long as Colandro can think of more sets of related items for her to consume and then bring back up, unblemished and undigested.

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