April 26, 2012
Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $26.99.
Could it be that Christopher Moore is, you know, maturing? That the creator of a San Francisco vampire trilogy, of Island of the Sequined Love Nun, of a book in which Death is an adorable little girl, of “The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal,” of the world’s funniest sex scene including a prehistoric monster and an oil tanker, is becoming a careful stylist, a master of building events slowly, of revealing deep secrets only a bit at a time, of exchanging slapstick for a sense of the sinister, some genuine eeriness, and maybe even a little profundity?
But Sacré Bleu nevertheless shows a very different side of Moore from the one that has been on exhibit ever since his first novel, Practical Demonkeeping, came out 20 years ago. In fact, the new book bears comparison with Practical Demonkeeping, for in some ways it deals with the same issue: supernatural evil in the everyday world, how to manage it (if it is in fact manageable) and how to survive it (if it is in fact survivable). But where Practical Demonkeeping was lewd, rude and crude (and hilarious), Sacré Bleu is – and please, Moore fans, do not regard this as a turnoff – subtle. After the story ends, Moore imagines readers telling him, “Well, thanks loads, Chris, now you’ve ruined art for everyone.” (He adds, “You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.”) But Moore has ruined exactly nothing, any more than he ruined Shakespeare with the delightfully raunchy Fool, which shows zero understanding of King Lear and is a far better book for its utter irreverence toward one of the masterpieces of Western literature.
In the same way, Sacré Bleu shows little comprehension of art – although a considerable amount of understanding of artists – and as a result is a wonderful interweaving of the true, the almost-true, the ought-to-be-true, and the cannot-possibly-be-true-unless-it-is. The book is filled with art – literally: it includes reproductions of quite a few great paintings, mostly from the 19th century, their titles given accurately but their captions being drawn from dialogue in the book. For instance, Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (“Luncheon on the Grass”), the famous 1863 painting of a nude woman in the foreground and a woman bathing in a stream in the background, while two fully clothed men talk and gesture amid scattered food items, gets the caption, “Looks to me like she’s deciding which of these two she’s going to bonk in the bushes.” That is pure Moore.
Or impure Moore, which is pretty much the same thing. For as accurate as his portrayals of the various artists are – and they are accurate; Moore has done his research – Moore’s skewed sensibilities are everywhere in this story of the color blue (a specific color blue), its meaning through art history, the various ways it has been created for artists’ pigments, and the supernatural means through which the color and the muse of artists who use it have passed through the ages. Oh…and why Vincent Van Gogh, who everyone knows committed suicide, was actually murdered.
Moore mixes up reality and near-reality so deftly and often so seamlessly (as when he displaces certain real-world events to have them coincide with other real-world events that in fact took place at different times) that he pulls readers of Sacré Bleu into a whole series of impossibilities long before they have realized that such things simply couldn’t be. Unless they are. How, after all, can anyone really believe in a learned professor trying to reproduce the chariot races in Ben-Hur by using rats and mice as horses and charioteers, respectively? But…uhh…that part happens to be true. Well, how can anyone believe that a baker once raffled off a painting by Camille Pissarro and that the girl who won it asked for a sticky bun instead? Well....uhh…that really happened, too. So what in this wildly inventive book didn’t happen? That is for readers to discover as they meander through its pages, likely wondering for the first 100 or so what the heck is going on, then gradually figuring out that there is something sinister, even frightening, but very enticing happening; and then slowly, slowly learning just what that something is. Sacré Bleu is a journey of discovery for many of its characters (who include most of the famous painters of mid-to-late-19th-century France), and also for readers – and therein lies its subtlety, which Moore possesses here to a greater degree than in any of his other books. This is a book about art and artists – and artists’ muses. It is also a book about men and women, about love and lust (and where they intersect), and about everyday life and the artistic life (and where they intersect). The subtlety here extends even to details of the writing – a first in Moore’s books. For example, when a woman describes a man with a curious phrase that proclaims him “my only and my ever,” this is a small clue to what is going on, or will be going on, or did go on; Moore brings the phrase back later, in fact, to tickle readers’ minds into realizing that something distinctly unusual is happening here. And something distinctly unusual is happening: Moore, an excellent writer, is becoming a better one. Like everything by Moore, Sacré Bleu is funny and sexy (sometimes simultaneously); but unlike most of his books, it is also thought-provoking and wry. As impossible as its central premise certainly is (well, maybe is), Sacré Bleu raises just enough questions so that readers will be left, at the end, thinking as well as chuckling. Sacré Bleu – c'est merveilleux !
Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. By Blaine Harden. Viking. $26.95.
Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever. By Tim Wendel. Da Capo. $25.
Some stories are almost too painful to tell, which is one reason it is important to tell them. Blaine Harden, whose credits include PBS’ Frontline, The Economist and The Washington Post, tells one of them in Escape from Camp 14, the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk. Shin was born in 1982 in one of the camps whose existence North Korea refuses to acknowledge: vast political prison camps where families are confined for crimes, real or imagined, against the state, and where children are born, raised and die. North Korea is a “basket case state,” Harden writes, but that has scarcely kept it from sealing its borders, developing nuclear weapons and threatening its neighbor to the south – and the peace of the world. These are large issues, though. Harden refers to them often, but it is the smaller story of Shin’s life and escape that he tells with chilling detail. Indeed, pretty much all the details of life in Camp 14 are chilling. At age 16, after graduating from secondary school, Shin is deemed an adult and ready to be assigned to his lifetime occupation. It will probably be in the coal mines, where 60% of his class will go and “where accidental death from cave-ins, explosions, and gas poisonings was common.” But no: in a rare instance of good fortune, Shin is assigned instead to “the ranch,” which is good because “nowhere else in Camp 14 was there so much food to steal.” Even before getting this assignment, Shin was luckier than some: one of the armed camp guards who served as teachers beat a six-year-old to death with a chalkboard pointer. Shin’s mother and brother planned to escape from Camp 14; they were caught, his brother shot and his mother hanged. Then Shin, age 13 at the time, was held and tortured for seven months as guards sought more information on the planned escape. How did he survive? “A perverse benefit of birth in the camp was a complete absence of expectations,” writes Harden. That is certainly believable, but a few things that he writes are harder to accept. For example, during his torture and interrogation by guards with whom he has collaborated and in a system where he knows he must respond when asked questions by those in authority, Shin is on the verge of death before he reveals that it was he himself who had told the night guard about the family’s escape plans – he had been raised as an informer – and that a classmate could confirm the story. It is clear why Shin would betray his family, but not why he would allow himself to be tortured to the verge of death (including being roasted over a tub of burning charcoal and developing pus-filled, deeply infected blisters all over his back) before saying words that would exonerate him. Harden discusses the geopolitical realities of North Korea in the context of the horrors of Shin’s life, pointing out, for example, the contrast between the statements of proud independence of the late “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and the reality of a country that “even in the best of years…cannot feed itself.” A few of Harden’s remarks fall victim to the pace of book production compared with that of world events, such as his discussion of North Korea’s plans for world power by 2012 – plans that have obviously not come to fruition. By and large, though, Harden stays focused on Shin as both a microcosm and a symbol of North Korea, contrasting the world that Shin discovered after successfully running away with the one he had known from birth: “His context had been twenty-three years in an open-air cage run by men who hanged his mother, shot his brother, crippled his father, murdered pregnant women, beat children to death, taught him to betray his family, and tortured him over a fire.” This is a tale of terror escaped, and of terror remaining for the populace not only of Camp 14 but also of all of North Korea. It is the story of how one person got out – not without adjustment difficulties, some of them serious – but how many more, nearly all the rest, cannot. It is a very difficult and unpleasant book to read, and the optimism at its conclusion is understandably muted. There is uplift here, but even more, there is a sense that the existence of these horrors is almost beyond understanding – and the reader’s utter inability to do anything about them makes the book extremely depressing despite its attempt at a positive conclusion.
Harden’s straightforward narrative in Escape from Camp 14 makes the story harrowing enough. Tim Wendel tries to do something more complicated in Summer of ’68, but with considerably less success. Primarily a baseball writer, Wendel wants in this book to draw parallels between changes in the game and the dislocations in American society in the same year, 1968. Nothing the United States endured in that turbulent year comes close to what Shin went through – and others still go through – in North Korea, but the fact that the events happened close to home and will still be remembered by at least some readers (or their families) lends Summer of ’68 an immediacy that Escape from Camp 14 lacks. However, Wendel’s book simply tries too hard to make professional baseball – a big-money sport whose outcomes are entirely irrelevant to the lives of most people, no matter how fanatical they may be as fans – the linchpin of a story about violence and dislocation throughout American society. It doesn’t work, largely because readers will quickly notice Wendel giving short shrift to sociopolitical matters in his haste to get into details of baseball games and players. For example, he tries talking about Martin Luther King Jr. as a man who “certainly understood the power of sports” and “was a supporter of boxer Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali.” But he seems much more interested in detailing how, after King was assassinated, “the 76ers continued their newfound [basketball] dominance, winning a league-best sixty-two games and finishing eight games ahead of Boston in the Eastern Division.” He writes of the aftermath of the Detroit riots, but sees things through the lens of the fans of baseball’s Tigers: “With the victory, [Denny] McLain became the first American League pitcher to win twenty-six games since Bob Feller and Hal Newhouser in 1946.” Wendel’s comfort zone is baseball, not societal upheaval. Fans of the game will enjoy the detailed reporting that Wendel brings to the season: “With Detroit holding an early 2-0 lead, the Tigers’ Dick McAuliffe drew a walk off Washburn to open the top of the third. Stanley followed with a single and Kaline brought McAuliffe around with another single. That marked a disappointing end to Washburn’s day as he was replaced by Larry Jaster. The left-hander had posted a 9-13 record in 1968, with a respectable 3.51 ERA.” But those same fans will find this at best a (+++) book because of the digressions – they do seem like digressions – into events unrelated to baseball. Potential readers who are not baseball fans will learn nothing about American history in 1968 that has not been told often, and more effectively, elsewhere, and will give the book no rating at all. It is really not for them; indeed, it is a little bit difficult to decide just what the target audience for Summer of ’68 really is.
The Sixty-Eight Rooms #2: Stealing Magic—A Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventure. By Marianne Malone. Illustrations by Greg Call. Random House. $16.99.
Oddfellow’s Orphanage. By Emily Winfield Martin. Random House. $16.99.
Magical Mix-Ups #2: Lawn Mower Magic. By Lynne Jonell. Illustrated by Brandon Dorman. Random House. $12.99.
Magic Tree House #47: Abe Lincoln at Last! By Mary Pope Osborne. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $12.99.
Magic Tree House Fact Tracker: Abraham Lincoln. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $5.99.
Magic is a reliable plot driver in books for preteens, and even for younger readers. It gets used differently by different authors, though. Marianne Malone’s first book, The Sixty-Eight Rooms, used it within a real-world setting: the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. The rooms were designed by Mrs. James Ward Thorne and furnished partly with miniatures she bought and partly with furniture created by craftsmen in the 1930s and 1940s. The rooms are a popular exhibit at the museum – but they contain no human figures, since Mrs. Thorne felt that dolls would not look as realistic as the rooms’ miniature furnishings, which reflect a wide variety of styles, tastes and eras. Of course, the setting alone is not enough to sustain a book for ages 8-12, so Malone invented two sixth-graders named Ruthie and Jack, who saw the rooms on a school field trip – and discovered a key that let them shrink to hamster size so they could explore the rooms and learn their secrets. Stealing Magic offers more of the same: someone is stealing objects from the rooms, so Ruthie and Jack have to shrink again and try to find the thief. They must use the magic to journey in time as well as to change their size: they visit Paris in 1937 and Charleston, South Carolina, before the Civil War, in their quest for answers to the thievery. Malone adds a sense of urgency to the story by having the magical key that shrinks and transports Ruthie and Jack be one of the items stolen. But readers will know throughout the book that everything will turn out just fine in the end. The plot here is more complex than in the previous book, there are more characters to follow, and the attention paid to the rooms themselves is somewhat less – which is a bit of a shame, since that makes Stealing Magic a more-ordinary preteen adventure. Still, there is enough excitement here, and enough back-and-forth in time and space, to keep things interesting – and open the door (or, as the case may be, the box; the reference will be clear to readers) to yet another adventure for Ruthie and Jack.
There can be plenty of books set at Oddfellow’s Orphanage as well if the first one catches on with readers. This is the debut novel by Emily Winfield Martin, who is an Etsy artist – Etsy being a marketplace for handmade and vintage goods. The most interesting thing about this book is the art: the characters look like samplers. They are supposed to be highly unusual: for example, one girl has tattoos all over (benign-looking ones), and one boy has an onion for a head. The orphanage residents are under the benevolent charge of Headmaster Oddfellow Bluebeard, “a distant relation of the more famous Bluebeard [who] is as gentle and kind as the other Bluebeard was cruel.” The orphanage is filled with magical things, which readers learn about through the eyes of newly arrived resident Delia. There are a child-sized hedgehog, a family of dancing bears, and children who are introduced with illustrations and brief background stories: “One winter evening, Oddfellow Bluebeard heard a tiny knock at the door. Upon opening it, he found a girl with jet-black hair who was scarcely bigger than a small fire hydrant. She was shivering and clutching a birdcage that held three finches. The tiny girl [was] called Ava…” The appeal of this book is a little difficult to pin down. There are no real threats or adventures here – the intention is simply to interest young readers through a proliferation of charming illustrations and equally charming descriptions of such unusual classes as Fairy Tale Studies and Cryptozoology. Delia does not speak – she communicates by writing and with gestures – and this helps provide the framework through which Martin can explain the orphanage’s procedures in detail. For example, classes are cancelled when Haircut Day is scheduled, and Delia shows other girls how she wants her hair cut by pointing to the length of her braids. The book is filled with warmth and friendship, but they seem rather thickly and inelegantly applied, and the whole thing has a manufactured feeling about it, as if it is designed to tug the heartstrings in a variety of specific ways. Children charmed by the illustrations are the ones most likely to be equally pleased by the rather thin story.
The magic is not in kids but in an object in Lawn Mower Magic, Lynne Jonell’s second story of the Willow family and the rogue (but never dangerous) magic in the Willow kids’ lives. Like the first book, Hamster Magic, this one has a story that is straightforward, but with a magical twist: the Willows’ lawn mower stops working, so the family will have to use its savings for a new one – instead of letting Derek borrow the money to buy a train ticket to visit his old-neighborhood friend, Ben. Then Derek and his siblings find an old, rusty push mower in the shed, and the mower has been soaking up magic for years, so Derek can use it to earn money for the visit he wants to make. Problem solved? Of course not – the problems are just beginning, because the mower is really hungry for grass after all those years of neglect, and Derek will need all the help he can get from Abner, Tate and Celia to keep it under control. “‘It wants to mow,’ [Derek] said happily. ‘It wants all the grass it can cut.’” Well, yes – in fact, Mowey wants to mow so intensely that it runs away from (and with) the kids. But as soon as they are no longer trying to stop it, Mowey quiets down and contentedly clips the grass. For a while. But then there are more worries and misunderstandings until, at last, Mowey is stopped, Derek gets the ticket money, the Willow parents never find out about the magic mower, and all ends happily – a silly story, an easy read and a satisfyingly predictable conclusion.
Magic moves predictably in the long-running Magic Tree House series as well, with #47 in the sequence containing the usual silly premise (Jack and Annie are searching for a feather to help save Merlin’s baby penguin) and the usual tidbits of history (the state of the nation at Abe Lincoln’s assumption of the presidency in 1861). The book this time puts the tree house on the White House grounds, has Jack and Annie encounter the Lincoln children, then has them go back further in time to meet a boy called Sam who says he can arrange for them to meet Lincoln (who was too busy in 1861 to see them). Jack and Annie do the usual chores of the time in which they find themselves, learn the usual lessons about how people used to live, and eventually do have their meeting with Lincoln after all – and get what they need for Merlin. Abe Lincoln at Last! proceeds just as unsurprisingly as other entries in the Magic Tree House series, but of course that is a big part of the book’s attraction: parents will know just what to expect, and so will young readers already familiar with these books. Mary Pope Osborne makes one common mistake here by writing that Lincoln “outlawed slavery” – that is not what the Emancipation Proclamation did; slavery was not abolished until ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865, after Lincoln’s death. But she gets the basic facts right, and expands them, as usual, with the “Fact Checker” (in a series formerly called “Research Guides”) that she coauthors with her sister, Natalie Pope Bryce. This is where families interested in additional information on Lincoln and his time will learn about “blab schools” (where students said their lessons out loud), the deadly disease called “milk sickness” (caused when cows eat a plant called white snakeroot), and the patent that Lincoln received for an invention that would make boats lighter when they got stuck (Lincoln is the only U.S. president who ever received a patent). This “Fact Tracker” is essentially a brief biography of Lincoln, dovetailing from time to time with Abe Lincoln at Last! It will give readers who enjoy the fictional adventure a solid introduction to the facts behind the story, and perhaps encourage them to read more about Lincoln, the times in which he lived, and the Civil War – even though real history has little enough of magic in it.
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.