August 22, 2013


How to Catch a Bogle. By Catherine Jinks. Illustrated by Sarah Watts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

Plants vs. Zombies: Official Guide to Protecting Your Brain. By Simon Swatman. Illustrated by Adam Howling. HarperFestival. $7.99.

Plants vs. Zombies: Brains and the Beanstalk. By Annie Auerbach and PopCap Games. Illustrated by Charles Grosvenor and Jeremy Roberts. HarperFestival. $4.99.

Plants vs. Zombies: The Three Little Pigs Fight Back. By Annie Auerbach and PopCap Games. Illustrated by Charles Grosvenor and Jeremy Roberts. HarperFestival. $4.99.

Batman: Battle in Metropolis. By John Sazaklis. Illustrated by Andy Smith. Colors by Brad Vancata. HarperFestival. $3.99.

     Victorian England remains a particularly fertile field for the growing of monstrous creatures, and the first book of a planned Catherine Jinks trilogy rings some familiar atmospheric bells in its approach to the subject. How to Catch a Bogle is the story of 10-year-old Bridie McAdam, whose first name has been changed to Birdie by “Alfred the Bogler,” to whom she is apprenticed – because she will not be a bride for a very long time, if ever, and she has a lovely voice (“a voice like honey”) with which she sings like a bird. That is part of her charm, and also part of the charm with which she attracts the fearsome bogles, evil and frightening creatures regarded by Alfred as mere nuisances even though readers will quickly become curious to know more about them: Alfred “had no real, abiding interest in bogles, even though they were his livelihood. To him they were just vermin, plain and simple. He didn’t worry about the whys and the wherefores.” But Jinks’ book, illustrated somewhat too simplistically by Sarah Watts, is all about the “whys and wherefores.” The two words actually mean the same thing, but the phrase is a common Victorian one and is among the many ways in which Jinks creates the period setting for this fantasy. Bits of Cockney slang, words such as “cadger” and “topher,” talk of laudanum, hawkers’ calls of “ol’ cloes,” matter-of-fact references to such bits of Victoriana as the fact that chimney sweeps would sometimes get stuck in a flue and die there – these are among Jinks’ methods of weaving a tale for preteens of a time and place that often feel grittily realistic even though the book’s central premise is far from reality. The story is a bit creaky, following just the type of plot outline to be expected in tales of this type, from a dramatic opening showing what Birdie does and what she is up against when acting as bogle bait, to the eventual appearance of a genuinely evil nemesis to whom Alfred says, “you’re the devil,” which brings the reply, “I am merely a man who wants to harness His infernal powers.” Birdie, the central character, is illiterate and ill-spoken, and not above calling a bad guy a “bloody bastard,” but she is a sympathetic and attractive character for all that – more fully formed than anyone else in the book – and likely to be strong enough to carry the weight of the whole series on her young back.

     What is being carried in the Plants vs. Zombies books is a little harder to pin down. Bogles are genuinely frightening in Jinks’ novel, but there is no intention of making these zombies really scary. They come from a PopCap game, and they look rather video-game-ish both in Official Guide to Protecting Your Brain (for ages 6-10) and in two short fairy-tale rewrites (for ages 4-8). The problem is that while they are not particularly scary, they are not really a lot of fun, either – although presumably they are enjoyable in game form, and these books are most likely to appeal to kids who already like the deliberately silly game premise. As Official Guide to Protecting Your Brains explains, “In order for you to defeat a zombie, you must first understand a zombie. This does not mean being friends with a zombie. …When zombies first appeared, our scientists tried this approach and we never saw any of them ever again.” So this book about “apocalyptic gardening needs” sets out to explain the difference among, say, the conehead zombie, pole-vaulting zombie and backup dancer zombie, not to mention the dolphin rider zombie, bungee zombie and catapult zombie. There is even Gargantuar, “all zombie muscles and stamping. You’d think he’d rather be at the gym lifting weights than standing outside your house trying to eat your brains, but clearly zombies are a dedicated bunch.” This book introduces the apparent head (so to speak) of all zombies, Dr. Zomboss, explains “crucial differences” between the dead and undead, explains that saucepans are good both for cooking dinner and for wearing to protect your brains, and discusses “plants and their uses” during the zombie apocalypse. The plants include cherry bombs that blow zombies up, peashooters that grow quickly and shoot peas at the undead, snow peas that freeze zombies, and so forth. When not presenting zombies and/or plants, the book offers “Crazy Dave’s Time Machine,” zombie TV shows, a package of “Shufflers Brain & Vinegar Potato Crisps,” “What to Do if You’re at Home When the Zombies Come,” and so on. Fans of the Plants vs. Zombies game – and, even more, those fanatical enough to love Plants vs. Zombies 2 – will probably enjoy the Official Guide to Protecting Your Brain even though it doesn’t, like, actually move or anything.

     The two fairy-tale redos, each of which comes with more than 30 stickers, are a little more offbeat, featuring zombified versions of Jack and the Beanstalk and The Three Little Pigs. The stories are not as amusing as the writers seem to think they are, but the concepts are fun in their own way – especially that of Brains and the Beanstalk, since, after all, a beanstalk is a huge plant and the overall concept here is that of Plants vs. Zombies. The idea of both books is to take familiar elements of old stories, add zombies, mix well, and see what happens. What happens in Brains and the Beanstalk is that Jack trades a lawn mower, not a cow, for beans that turn out to be magic and that produce a huge beanstalk that fights zombies and features a silver-and-gold-coin-producing flower at the top – along with a Gargantuar with a tiny Imp Zombie on its back. In The Three Little Pigs Fight Back, there are the expected three different houses, but the attack of the wolf is shortened when zombies show up and scare him away – leading to adventures in the three houses’ gardens and to the pigs’ exclaiming fearfully about zombies that “want to eat our brainy-brain-brains!” Some heavy-duty vegetables and a few bad puns later, the zombies are all defeated and the pigs are relaxing in “a big mud bath,” and fans of Plants vs. Zombies are presumably back to playing the game itself – or have moved on to the next big (or at least weird) thing.

     By comparison with Plants vs. Zombies, the adventures of old-time heroes such as Batman and Superman – and their monstrous or not-so-monstrous old-time nemeses, such as the Joker and Lex Luthor – are comparatively tame. One way to jazz things up, then, is to combine characters, upping the ante for modern young readers who want a lot more smash-bang video-game-like activity than the comics offered when some of their most famous characters were created in the 1930s. So the short and simplistic Battle in Metropolis is designed to combine super-villains and superheroes and throw them at each other to dramatic effect: “Together, the world’s finest heroes are ready for action!” There is the usual dialogue, as when the Joker spots Superman and says, “Everywhere I go there’s a big blockhead in long pajamas” – a statement rendered funnier by the fact that current drawings of Superman and the other DC Comics characters do render them in a very blocky style. Luthor, double-crossed by the Joker, laments that “we were supposed to take over the world together,” while the incessantly unfunny dialogue gives the Joker the best line of the book as he is led off to jail: “Take us away! …I can’t stand any more of these corny jokes!” For kids who do not know just how corny the jokes are, or who know and don’t care, and for anyone looking for not-terribly-monstrous bad guys to be defeated in 24 pages of action-packed, brightly colored art, Battle in Metropolis will be punchier, if scarcely brainier, than Plants vs. Zombies.

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