June 13, 2013
Odessa Again. By Dana Reinhardt. Illustrated by Susan Reagan. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.
Twerp. By Mark Goldblatt. Random House. $16.99.
Kevin Spencer 3: Crush. By Gary Paulsen. Yearling. $6.99.
Kevin Spencer 4: Vote. By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.
The saying is that you can’t go home again, but preteens and young teens can and do return to the past in a variety of different ways – taking readers with them – in these novels. Odessa Green-Light – yes, that is her name – really does return to the past in young-adult author Dana Reinhardt’s first book for ages 8-12. The basic plot here is identical to the basic plots of many other books for girls in this age group: Mom and Dad have split up, Odessa is unhappy about it, and she needs to adjust to her new life and cope with her annoying younger brother; but what she really wants to do is get her parents back together again. The basic story framework is so familiar that young readers might think they have read the book before, under some other title – except for the gimmick. That gimmick is time travel, of a specific and humorous sort. Odessa, brother Oliver and their mom have moved into a new house, and when Odessa gets angry and stomps on the attic floor, she falls through and lands in the same place – a day earlier. So now she has the chance to change and correct all sorts of things, big and little, hopefully culminating in the correction of the biggest thing of all: her parents’ divorce and her father’s upcoming remarriage. However, it turns out that there are restrictions on the time travel: Odessa initially goes back 24 hours, but when she reverses time again, it is for 23 hours, then 22, and so on, so she realizes she has only a limited number of chances to get done what she really wants to accomplish. Working toward that goal, she develops a GMOP (Grand Master Oliver Plan) that later changes to a GMOOP (Grand Master Oliver/Odessa Plan), eventually using her last jump back in time – a one-hour trip – to maneuver her mother into driving her and Oliver to her father’s marriage to his new girlfriend. By that time, Odessa knows just how to disrupt the ceremony and get her parents back together again; except that there is just enough reality in this frothy and unreal story so that her plans do not go as she wants them to, and everything is for the best because her magically boosted ideas go awry. Odessa Again is often silly and sometimes amusing, with all the characters exceedingly pleasant to each other (including the divorced parents), so it is more an exercise in escapism than anything else.
Twerp is a much more serious book that involves a different sort of escape, or attempted escape, and a different sort of revisiting of the past. This is a novel about bullying – an increasingly common topic for preteen and young teenage readers – and is unusual for being told from the viewpoint of the bully, not the victim. Mark Goldblatt, like Reinhardt, here offers his first book for readers in this age group; and also like Reinhardt, Goldblatt creates a novel with a familiar story arc and one specific gimmick (hers is magic; his is the bully’s point of view). Twerp is told in the first person by Julian Twerski, who has just returned to school after a week-long suspension and walks right into an English assignment of doing a report on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But his teacher, Mr. Selkirk, offers him an alternative: write about the occurrence that got him and some of his friends suspended and he can skip the Shakespeare essay. Julian promptly agrees, and starts writing about everything but the suspension-causing incident. Goldblatt’s idea here is to flesh Julian out as a character and provide insight into his personality and his motivation for doing what he did, whatever that turns out to be; but what Goldblatt actually produces is the story of a pretty ordinary sixth-grader who has done some mildly interesting things and some moderately silly ones, but who has nothing in his background or activities that would point toward the event that got him suspended – except maybe for his closeness with a specific group of friends, one of whom is more of a troublemaker than Julian himself is. So Julian writes about the love-letter incident in which he sent something on behalf of his best friend, and the whole thing backfired; and about why he and his friends call a lot where they hung out Ponzini; and about what the word “twerp,” which Julian uses to refer to himself, means. And it is only at the end of the book, finally, that Julian drags the story of the incident that led to his suspension out of himself – and a harrowing one it turns out to be, to such an extent that it is out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the book. The feel-good aftermath of the incident – or feel-reasonably-good, anyway – ends the book on a positive note, but some readers will likely consider themselves whipsawed by the very different focuses of Twerp between its opening and its conclusion.
No such issues will affect readers of Gary Paulsen’s short books about Kevin Spencer: they are always light and amusing, and come and go so quickly that it is good to have a pair of them around rather than just one. So it is fortunate that a couple of them are available right now for anyone who wants to revisit the series, or visit it for the first time: the third, Crush, originally published last year, is now available in paperback, and there is a new, fourth book as well, called Vote. The first two books – Liar, Liar and Flat Broke – are moderately enjoyable as a double dose as well. They introduce Kevin, an eighth-grader whose talent for lying lands him in hot water as his lies continue to mount. In the first book, he tries to overcome his propensity for mistruths; in the second, needing money, he again finds himself in the midst of a series of misunderstandings. Crush brings romance into Kevin’s life, in the person of Tina Zabinski, whom Kevin plans to get as his girlfriend through science – since he knows that love is based on chemistry (well, some kind of chemistry). Paulsen’s subtitle for Crush pretty well sums it up: “The Theory, Practice and Destructive Properties of Love.” And the individual chapter titles move the story along just as quickly as the narrative does: “The Scientific Mind Embraces Experimental Difficulties,” “The Scientific Mind Studies Truth vs. Theories,” “The Scientific Mind Is Sometimes Clueless,” and so on. By the end of the book, Kevin is poised to have some enjoyable time with Tina despite all his earlier missteps and despite the lurking presence of a new kid, Cash Devine, whom Kevin sees as an inevitable rival. And then comes Vote, in which smooth-talking Cash is running for class president – abetted by his female opposite number and Kevin’s sort-of-friend, Katie Knowles – and Kevin, who at the start of this book has officially become Tina’s boyfriend, decides that the only way to keep his love life intact is to run for class president himself, and defeat Cash. This isn’t terribly logical, but logic is not a strong point of the Kevin Spencer books and is not intended to be a driving force. The whole point of Paulsen’s series is to have fun with a pleasant central character who has big ideas and big thoughts and who keeps messing things up but somehow always comes out all right in the end – not an original plot design for books for this age range, but a reliable one. The books’ subtitles and chapter titles all follow the same pattern, so it is only to be expected that Vote is subtitled “The Theory, Practice, and Destructive Properties of Politics,” and contains such chapters as “The True Politician Relishes the Opportunity to Switch Things Up” and “The True Politician Studies, Evaluates and Benefits from What Others Would Consider a Setback.” By the end of Vote, Kevin realizes that he didn’t have to do all the things he thought he had to do in order to keep Tina as his girlfriend, and he is all set for his next lighthearted adventure. Or two.