June 06, 2013
(+++) CHARACTER CONTINUATIONS
Alice-Miranda 3: Alice-Miranda Takes the Stage. By Jacqueline Harvey. Delacorte Press. $14.99.
Magical Mix-Ups #3: Grasshopper Magic. By Lynne Jonell. Illustrated by Brandon Dorman. Random House. $12.99.
Ballpark Mysteries 7: The San Francisco Splash. By David A. Kelly. Illustrated by Mark Meyers. Random House. $4.99.
Once authors of books for ages 6-10 hit their stride with characters and, presumably, readers, it becomes relatively simple to produce new, assembly-line stories with similar plots and similar character focus. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, because readers in this age group genuinely enjoy revisiting familiar territory and interacting again and again with characters whom they have come to know and like. In fact, the phenomenon is scarcely confined to this age range – think about the absolutely astonishing success of the Harry Potter books or the popularity of the many lengthy fantasy, romance, adventure and mystery series designed for adults. And when the characters themselves are whimsical and charming – as in the case of Jacqueline Harvey’s Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones, for instance – who can blame young readers for wanting more of them? The first Alice-Miranda book featured her introduction to Winchesterfield-Downsfordvale Academy for Proper Young Ladies and established Harvey’s fondness for long and very upper-crust names. The second was a vacation book showing Alice-Miranda in a different environment, where she was as perky and persistently upbeat as ever. The third, Alice-Miranda Takes the Stage, has her back at school and juggling a host of issues with her now-expected perpetual good humor and positive attitude. One thing going on here is the arrival of an unpleasant new girl named Sloan Sykes, whose rudeness and impatience conceal family unhappiness involving her status-seeking, pushy, dishonest mother and her blue-collar father: “Life simply wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t her mother have married someone like [movie star] Lawrence Ridley instead of her loser vacuum-cleaner salesman father? Sloane dreaded the other girls finding out about that. She’d never live it down.” So Sloane puts on airs about the people she knows and the things she knows how to do, and even though Alice-Miranda is quite well aware that Sloane is twisting the truth into unrecognizable shapes, she is too good-hearted to do anything but smooth things over. Thus, when Sloane gets angry at Alice-Miranda for not mentioning something that Alice-Miranda did in fact mention (“I’d have remembered that,” says Sloane), Alice-Miranda offers the mild response, “Well, I thought I did [mention it], but perhaps I didn’t.” Sloane lies about knowing people, upsetting Alice-Miranda’s friend Millie, and Alice-Miranda just says, “Give her a chance, Millie. …She’s just trying to fit in.” And so on. Between the Sloane issues and the machinations of Sloane’s mother, there are problems aplenty here, and they all eventually tie into the school play that gives the book its focus. The play is “Snow White,” with Alice-Miranda typecast in the title role and Sloane equally typecast as the wicked queen. To complicate matters further, Sloane’s brother attends the boys’ boarding school that is jointly involved in the play (it is called “Fayle School for Boys,” and yes, that turns out to be important); and he is cast as the prince. Everything eventually works out just fine, of course, thanks to Alice-Miranda, of course, and of course readers get treated along the way to plenty of upper-crust boarding-school elements, such as a “maths lesson” teacher named “Professor Pluss” who opens class by saying, “Greetings and salutations, lads.” Despite the boy characters, this and the other Alice-Miranda books will mostly be fun for girls who want some insight into how the wealthy and well-connected live – at least those in a fictional world.
But at least Harvey’s books have the veneer of reality about them. It is, by design, much less present in Lynne Jonell’s Magical Mix-Ups series, whose first two entries involved an enchanted hamster and a mystic lawn mower (yes, lawn mower). The third returns to the magical-living-things realm with a story in which Abner Willow needs bravery lessons from his sister Tate, so he will not be too frightened to give a speech to the entire town. The first lesson Tate comes up with is to have Abner eat a roasted grasshopper – but, see, the Willows’ house is built over a sort of magical something-or-other, which means the grasshopper has been soaking up magic for a long time before becoming food, which means that when Abner eats it, he, well, goes “sproing” a lot, and so does Tate (who has also partaken of a magical-grasshopper snack). There is nothing scary about this – the point of this series is that the kids genuinely enjoy the magic they encounter, although they do worry about adults finding out, so they keep things secret. In this case, “Abner laughed out loud as the air whistled past his ears. If he had to be a grasshopper boy, he might as well enjoy it.” Eventually the grasshopper magic, which ends up affecting other kids, too, helps Abner become a hero, but he knows that enough is enough, so “he bounced half the night, until the grasshopper magic was all used up,” and by then he realizes that making his speech (a scene that is not included in the book – or needed) will not be very terrifying after all.
Nor is there anything particularly scary in the Ballpark Mysteries series, where baseball and the individual major-league stadiums are of greater interest than protagonists Mike and Kate. In fact, the stadiums have more character than the characters, but fans of the series will at least know what to expect from the latest book, The San Francisco Splash. What happens is that a hit clears the walls of the San Francisco ballpark and the baseball lands in the water – and then a former ballplayer also ends up in the water after falling out of a boat. Rescued, he finds that his World Series ring is gone. There would seem to be little mystery about where it is – in the water – but David A. Kelly arranges things so that Ray Reynolds, the former player, becomes convinced that his old-time rival, Lenny Littleton, took the ring. Kate and Mike soon figure out how to prove that Lenny is not guilty, but then the question is what actually did happen to the ring – and the kids soon figure that out, too, and manage to recover the ring by making a well-timed trip to Alcatraz Island. Like the other Baseball Mysteries books, this one includes not only scenes from the geographic area but also information about the team and its history. The plot is mild and the mystery not really very mysterious, but it is the color of the settings that most readers of this easy-to-read series will enjoy – provided, of course, that they are enthusiastic baseball fans.