October 25, 2012

(+++) SEMI-SCARES


Always October. By Bruce Coville. Harper. $16.99.

Scary School 2: Monsters on the March. By “Derek the Ghost” (Derek Taylor Kent). Illustrated by Scott M. Fischer. Harper. $15.99.

Invisible Inkling: Dangerous Pumpkins. By Emily Jenkins. Illustrations by Harry Bliss. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $14.99.

     Expanded from his short story, “My Little Brother Is a Monster,” Bruce Coville’s Always October is a little thinner in plot than his best books but still contains plenty of fun and humor in the combination that his fans have come to know and enjoy. This is Coville’s 100th book, and he is nothing if not consistent (as well as, obviously, prolific). The story involves a baby left on the doorstep for Jake Doolittle and his mother to find; his mother’s decision to keep the child, identified by a note as Little Dumpling and thereafter called LD by her and Jake; and a discovery that would be unsettling in a book by anyone other than Coville: “In the crib where LD should have been, wearing the same yellow duckie pajamas he had gone to sleep in, lay a creature with bright green fur, the beginnings of a snout, and enormous pointed ears that curved over his head.” LD, it seems, is an LM…little monster. But never mind – he is still Jake’s brother, after all (in Coville, this sort of thing makes sense). Well, enter some other elements, notably including Jake’s friend, “Weird Lily” Carker, who hangs out with Jake in the local cemetery and won’t tell anyone about LD because she has a secret of her own, which involves the fact that she is living with her grandfather instead of in the foster home where she is supposed to be. And then there is Always October, which is not only the title of the book but also the name of a fantasy land created by Jake’s grandfather in a series of stories that are “weird and scary” and that Jake and Lily find they must enter to help protect LD and maybe, oh, save the world.  The whole plot is bizarre and outlandish enough to pull young readers in and keep them intrigued, and the alternating narrations by Jake and Lily do a good job of providing somewhat different perspectives on events.  The actual writing is the same throughout, though: the two protagonists are not particularly well differentiated.  The monsters in the land of Always October, however, are differentiated, with some good and some bad and some just ridiculous.  The book eventually turns on a Jewish concept called tikkun olam, which Jake points out means “repairing the world” and which his mother tries to live by “even though we’re Methodist, not Jewish.”  By the time Coville gets to the epilogues – yes, there are two – all sorts of mysteries and transformations have occurred and everything has been put together neatly, as Coville usually does, including the fates of Keegel Farzym, Sploot Fah and various other oddly or aptly named characters.

      There are characters galore in Scary School 2: Monsters on the March, which is also a combination of the slightly weird and scary with the amusing – and, also like Coville’s book, is for ages 8-12. The school is one where the teachers have a bad habit of eating the students and the students are mostly ghosts, ghouls or goblins anyway, so it doesn’t much matter.  The storyteller is 11-year-old Derek the Ghost – or, well, 11-years-old-when-he-died-in-a-science-experiment-gone-wrong Derek the Ghost.  In this second book in the series, the students of Scary School are about to collect their reward for winning the Ghoul Games: a trip to Monster Forest to meet the Monster King, King Zog. The Monster Forest is, well, a forest full of monsters: bearodactyls, fearsome pirates, a toad-faced princess, that sort of thing. The problem is that Princess Zogette falls for Charles Nukid and follows him back to Scary School, leading King Zog and Captain Pigbeard (Zogette's fiancĂ©) to declare war on the school. In addition to Charles (the new kid at the school; hence his name), some characters from the first book who return are Penny the Possum, Principal Headcrusher, and Frank whose name is pronounced "Rachel.”  And there are such new characters as Mr. Grump, the elephant-man teacher; Ms. Hydra, the seven-headed hall monitor; and Tanya Tarantula, a new student who is, yes, a giant spider. As in the first book, Scott M. Fischer’s art contributes a great deal to the amusement: his drawings of the characters make them funny, strange and just a little bit scary, which is also a pretty good description of the narrative.

      One more light-and-slightly-scary book, for slightly younger readers (ages 7-10): Emily Jenkins’ Invisible Inkling: Dangerous Pumpkins. This one is set at Halloween, which fourth-grader Hank Wolowitz dreads because his big sister, Nadia, always manages to scare him. But maybe not this year, thanks to the invisible bandapat (that would be Invisible Inkling) living in Hank’s laundry basket. Now, it happens that Inkling loves pumpkins – not to look at but to eat – so he just adores Halloween. This is a problem for Hank, who really does not want Inkling eating all the pumpkins in Brooklyn. Hank also has to come up with a good costume and maybe get revenge on Nadia. As for Inkling: “Sometimes, it doesn’t matter that I can speak Yiddish and Mandarin – or that I’ve traveled the globe,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter that you humans have art projects and clean apartments. Sometimes, everything else in the world disappears but me and a pumpkin.”  That clears it all up, right?  Anyway, eventually there is a climactic scene in an elevator, with Inkling playing the part of a ghost and Hank figuring out a way to get Inkling more pumpkins while also learning that Nadia really cares about him…but at the same time getting revenge on her for all the scares of previous years. And so everybody learns something about family and pumpkins and even about ice cream, thanks to a Halloween-themed flavor called “loose tooth.”  The book, a sequel to Invisible Inkling, does not make a whole lot of sense, but Jenkins tells the story with relish (well, not relish…ice cream…but you get the idea); and Harry Bliss provides illustrations that capture the characters’ personalities (including Inkling’s) quite nicely. Much sillier than it is frightening, Invisible Inkling: Dangerous Pumpkins will be more fun for readers of the first book than for ones who have not met Hank and Inkling before, although there is enough amusement here to please even people meeting this duo for the first time.

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