December 20, 2012
Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two, #2: The Super-Nice Are Super-Annoying. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.
Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two, #3: Nobody’s Perfect. I’m as Close as It Gets. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.
Dr. Frankenstein’s Daughters. By Suzanne Weyn. Scholastic. $17.99.
The epistolary novel is just about dead – it never even existed for many of today’s readers – because who writes letters anymore? It must come as a shock to modern young readers to pick up a classic such as Dracula or Frankenstein and discover that it is in some odd form in which people seem to send things to each other in long word sequences. But the diary novel, in which characters write to themselves and readers sort of eavesdrop on characters’ thoughts, is alive and well, and Jim Benton has elevated it (if that’s the right expression) to a uniquely enjoyable level in his Dear Dumb Diary series – the story of Jamie Kelly’s life at and around Mackerel Middle School. Jamie’s second year at the school is well under way in The Super-Nice Are Super-Annoying and Nobody’s Perfect. I’m as Close as It Gets. And Jamie is as smart-mouthed and emotionally unaware and utterly amusing as ever – and “her” illustrations continue to pre-empt the words time and time again. Take the one in The Super-Nice Are Super-Annoying in which she tries to come up with “attractive individuals [who] are bald,” and ends up drawing pictures of Homer Simpson (portrayed with the other Simpsons), Lord Voldemort (shown with some of his followers), and “my big toe.” Or the one showing cafeteria monitor Miss Bruntford shaped exactly like a five-pound bag of flour. Now, this is not to say that the book’s words are shy, retiring or unamusing. For example, when Jamie’s best frenemy, Isabella, “asked me to do something with her hair,” Jamie worries that this may be a trap: “You do something to her hair, and then she offers to do something to yours, and what she does begins with spray paint and ends with the emergency room.” On top of all these amusements, there is a plot of sorts – never the strong point of these books, and in many ways not the point at all. This time it has to do with the many uses or abuses of niceness, and how even Isabella (who is the ultimate anti-nice) can use it if she wants to.
Turning to the third book in Year Two, it is hard not to laugh out loud at a picture of huge-eyed Jamie (think traditional Disney-style eyes, expanded) with hands clasped prayerfully and displaying “the NOD of Innocence, the EYES of Virtue, the TINY MOUTH of the Righteous, and the CLASPED HANDS of the Blameless.” This is after an incident involving a tennis ball and a substitute teacher’s rear end – an incident in which, surprisingly, Jamie was actually not guilty. The main focus of this one of Jamie’s adventures is extracurricular activities – and Jamie’s determination to prove she is not “the dumb one” in her group. To demonstrate this, she intends, for example, to stand in “science pose” (another delightful drawing) and “look carefully at the [museum] exhibits and remain mostly awake for most of the field trip.” She tries something athletic, too – soccer, which she decides not to pursue after “a very, very long and exhausting two full minutes of play” during which she resembles “an orangutan hungrily chasing a melon while trying to free up a wedgie.” Jamie mentions this in connection with one of her ongoing rants about too-sweet, too-nice, too-beautiful Angeline, whose future lies – Jamie is sure of this – in a job such as that of “Miss Weatherlady,” who is a big success even if some of her forecasts mistakenly call for comets, bananas and ghosts. The book is all over the place, as usual, and that is because Jamie is all over the place, as usual, and the result is a romp whose direction keeps changing but remains always amusing, as usual. Benton has this series down pat, even (or maybe especially) when he has Jamie throw in something entirely irrelevant to everything that is going on, such as her asking a teacher “if she thought that wild dogs would have bailed on evolution if they had known they were going to end up as French Poodles” (with, again, a picture-perfect picture). Eventually Jamie and Isabella sign up for eight extracurricular clubs, form one of their own as well, and get pulled into the office to explain – and everything works out just fine, thanks largely to Angeline; and if that seems to make no sense and have nothing to do with what has been going on, well, that’s just the way Benton has Jamie pull the whole story together and tell her diary all about it. Hilariously.
But back to some of those classic epistolary novels. Dr. Frankenstein’s Daughters is, of course, based loosely (very loosely) on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous 1818 tale of human overreaching and the danger of trying to go where only God can go – to the creation of life. And it is told, in a modern-day update of the style of the original book, in diary form – two-diary form, actually. The premise of this (+++) book is a very straightforward one for modern preteen and young teenage readers: there are two sisters with opposite sets of attitudes and opposite goals, and the way they interact and get into conflict with each other is the basis of the plot. In this case, Giselle and Ingrid are Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s twin daughters, and therefore jointly inherit his castle in the Orkney Islands. Giselle is the worldly and flighty one, determined to make an impression on “society” and hold lots of sparkling parties (“our introduction to high society and the exciting world of the most fashionable and interesting friends”). Ingrid is the studious, serious and intense one, fascinated by and attracted to her father’s experiments. Suzanne Weyn makes some rather clumsy attempts to set the story in the 19th century, as when Giselle writes, “What could he have been thinking by pressing himself on me like that? Did he believe that once he had robbed my virtue I would have no recourse but to marry him?” These modern-language attempts to establish an earlier date for the story (which takes place mostly in 1815) are often silly – the phrase was “robbed me of my virtue,” for example – but they are scarcely the point of the book. Unfortunately, the novel is full of outright anachronisms, such as the use of “hysteria” in its modern, post-Freudian sense rather than in the way the word was used in Mary Shelley’s time, when it was thought to relate to a “wandering uterus.” The story follows the sisters’ different but interconnected lives, with increasingly suspicious activities leading the reader to wonder just what is wrong in the Orkneys and whether Dr. Frankenstein’s monstrous creation has anything to do with what is happening, in different ways, to the two young women. Little references to the original Frankenstein pop up here and there: “A body may be assembled as easily as it is disassembled. But what is the animating force?” But the book is not really about Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments or about the effects of his work on the next generation – it is at bottom a tale of two very different sisters affected very differently by a series of traumatic events in their shared past. As such, it is not particularly innovative, and the eventual twist in its resolution is not really a big surprise. But it has moments of considerable interest in the differing personalities of its two protagonists, and young readers who do know Frankenstein may find it a reasonably attractive sidelight on the original novel, albeit a rather thin followup.