July 25, 2013


Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. By Chris Grabenstein. Random House. $16.99.

Amelia Bedelia’s First Library Card. By Herman Parish. Pictures by Lynne Avril. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Big Nate 5: Big Nate Flips Out. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $13.99.

     Library cards open doors to worlds of wonder and adventure, worlds of science and fantasy, worlds real and worlds imagined – yes, even in our current digital, video-saturated age. They also open the way to Luigi L. Lemoncello’s library, which is entered through a 20-ton bank-vault door after various portentous announcements are made, such as “books…are windows into worlds we never even dreamed possible” and “an open book is an open mind.” Mr. Lemoncello is one of those eccentric billionaires who seem to people mystery/fantasy stories like this, and if he makes you think a bit of Willy Wonka, the resemblance is purely intentional; there is even a direct reference to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Mr. Lemoncello in fact has a place both in the world of traditional books – the whole story of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, which is intended for ages 9-12, is based on the Dewey Decimal System – and in several other worlds, his products including a number of “Lemoncello games and gizmos,” not to mention Anagraham Cracker cookies. Instead of a single golden ticket, Chris Grabenstein’s book features 12 library-card-based admissions to the new facility, and of course there is a challenge to getting one of those cards so you can gain admittance – but it is nothing compared to the challenge of getting out of the place once you are inside (hence the book’s title). The dozen 12-year-olds, each of whom gets a card with the names of different famous children’s books on the back, are told that they will be playing a live 3-D version of a classic Lemoncello game called “Hurry to the Top of the Heap.” The game is complex and amusing, filled with references to books of all kinds, and the contestants – one of whom is the book’s protagonist, Kyle Keeley – soon find themselves challenged not only by Mr. Lemoncello’s planning but also by their own rivalries, jealousies and personality quirks. After some players are eliminated, the remaining ones realize that they will do better by cooperating – to at least some extent – than by working entirely on their own, so they form teams, making the events easier for readers to follow than 12 separate stories would have been. Kyle’s team is opposed by one led by the arrogant and unpleasant Charles Chiltington, just to make sure readers know which group to root for. Of course Kyle’s group eventually wins, but that is really not the point here. The point is how they win and what they win and how many book titles and book excerpts Grabenstein can toss about for readers to enjoy as the story progresses. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is so much fun that readers will be disappointed when, at the end, they have no choice but to escape and return to the humdrum everyday world.

     The world of Amelia Bedelia was never humdrum in Peggy Parish’s books, where the sweet-tempered maid was constantly taking figures of speech literally and making messes of all sorts, then winning everyone over by baking something delicious. Parish died in 1988, and her nephew, Herman Parish, started writing Amelia Bedelia books in 1995 – including ones about Amelia’s childhood, beginning in 2009. These are for ages 4-8, and the latest one, Amelia Bedelia’s First Library Card, introduces Amelia to the wonders of the library while (as in other Herman Parish books) showing her developing a mild degree of the literalism that Peggy Parish made the centerpiece of the original stories. Lynne Avril’s pleasant illustrations contribute to the atmosphere of a modestly amusing story in which Amelia inadvertently checks out a book about weather instead of the one she wanted – about cupcakes. Then she gets interested in the weather book, but then she gets distracted, and the result is that the book sits out all night in a thunderstorm and is ruined – but everyone forgives Amelia, whose mother pays to replace the book, and there is a cute-cupcake ending. The earlier part of the story, in which Amelia and her class visit the town library and learn some basics of how libraries work, is more instructive; the later part, involving the mistaken checkout and thunderstorm, is more amusing. This (+++) book will be enjoyable for young readers who know Amelia Bedelia only as a child, and for parents who may have fond memories of the adult Amelia and hope that these Herman Parish books will eventually lead to an interest in the Peggy Parish ones. That could happen – but in many ways, Peggy Parish’s world, in which Amelia is the maid for a wealthy couple, seems somewhat politically incorrect these days. And that is a shame, since the Peggy Parish books have a level of sheer delight in language and unintended consequences that the more-recent Herman Parish ones rarely possess.

     The delights of Lincoln Peirce’s (++++) Big Nate Flips Out are on an altogether different level, although here too a librarian plays an important role in the book – which is based on Peirce’s “Big Nate” comic strip and contains plenty of drawings and comic-strip sequences as well as a connecting narrative. This fifth adventure of self-important, self-unaware, sloppy, comic-strip-drawing sixth-grader Nate revolves around the yearbook, whose adviser is the school librarian, Mrs. Hickson. And Mrs. Hickson has some choice words for Nate regarding the horrendous condition in which he returns library books: Nate is a complete slob, a fact that becomes part of the plot here when he is temporarily hypnotized out of sloppiness (a recurring theme in Peirce’s strip). Mrs. Hickson arranges for there to be yearbook co-editors, a decision greatly frustrating to super-smart Gina, Nate’s nemesis, who had intended to rule the yearbook all by herself (as shown in a scene in which she selects only the candid photos in which she herself appears). Gina ends up as co-editor with Francis, Nate’s best friend, but then Nate and Francis almost come to blows when Francis agrees to get a school camera for Nate to use for yearbook photos, the camera disappears amid Nate’s generally sloppiness, and the whole thing leads to Nate revealing a secret about Francis that he had promised absolutely, positively never to tell anyone, ever. Later, Nate actually does come to blows with another student – who deserves it, but who, unlike Nate, goes unpunished. As for the library, it is one place where Nate tries to get an unflattering candid photo of Gina – unsuccessfully – and the way he eventually does get such a photo involves book learning and a trivia contest in which Nate reveals a never-to-be-told secret about himself to make up for the one he blurted out about Francis. The plot is complicated but easy to follow; the storytelling method – part graphic novel, part comic strip, part traditional book – is enjoyable; and Nate’s continuing niceness (which at one point involves the “neat Nate” returning a stack of library books that the usual sloppy Nate had misplaced somewhere in his mounds of stuff) makes up for a lot of Nate’s attention-getting and detention-getting behavior. Fans of Big Nate will definitely want to add Big Nate Flips Out to their personal library.

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