August 08, 2013
(++++) SKEWED SCHOOLS
The School for Good and Evil. By Soman Chainani. Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. Harper. $16.99.
Scary School 3: The Northern Frights. By “Derek the Ghost” (Derek Taylor Kent). Illustrated by Scott M. Fischer. Harper. $16.99.
My Weirder School #8: Dr. Nicholas Is Ridiculous! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $3.99.
If there seems to be something just a trifle odd about the schools in all these books, that is purely intentional: all of them take the notion of everyday rote learning and turn it inside-out, upside-down and generally into a delightfully unrecognizable variation of itself. This is a fairly straightforward thing to do in creating school-related books for preteens, but when it is done particularly well – as first-time novelist Soman Chainani does it in The School for Good and Evil – the result is very educational indeed, provided that “educational” is rather broadly defined. One reason this book works so well is that Chainani is a novice novelist but scarcely a tyro in producing stories, creating characters and developing intricate plots: he is an award-winning screenwriter. There is in fact something cinematic about this novel for preteens, not in the typical smash-bang-action approach of far too many modern movies but in terms of clearly and simply delineated characters, an easy-to-follow good-and-evil plot, and enough twists to keep everything interesting. In fact, the underlying premise is downright intriguing for anyone who enjoys fairy tales: there are two side-by-side schools, separated by a bridge and a waterway (called “moat” on one side and “lake” on the other), devoted to training the good and evil characters of fairy tales. As wonderfully pictured right at the start by Iacopo Bruno, the schools look suitably dark and light, with the School for Evil devoted to “mischief, malice, vice” and the School for Good focused on “purity, honor, charity, valor” (four attributes to the other school’s three, but who’s counting?). The symbol of the School for Good is a white swan with half a shield; that of the School for Evil is a black swan with the other half of the same shield – whose design makes the two halves mirror images. Into these schools come two friends: Sophie, who is all pink dresses and glass slippers, and Agatha, with a prickly personality and wicked pet cat. It is obvious what will happen – which is why Chainani quickly tosses out the first of many twists by having Sophie assigned to the School for Evil and Agatha to the School for Good. Obviously a terrible mistake has been made – although careful readers will find hints of the girls’ real personalities from the book’s start. In any case, the two girls are sure that there has been a major error and that they need to set things right and get placed where they belong. But wait: there is another twist in the form of the Storian – not “historian,” writing about the past, but Storian, writing tales as they are being lived. Once he (actually it – a clever touch) begins chronicling the girls’ adventures, Sophie and Agatha must live them through to whatever end there may be, and of course the Storian has started doing so. The chance that the girls’ fairy tale will end well for both of them is small, and gets smaller every time either girl tries to break out of the lifestyle into which she has been channeled. And gradually, but with a firm authorial hand, Chainani has readers start thinking more and more that perhaps, despite surface appearances, Sophie and Agatha were placed in the correct schools after all. The whole question of what is on the surface vs. what is in one’s heart – a standard element of fairy tales – is important here, and gives the book more depth than it would have as a straightforward adventure story with a touch of magic thrown in. There are certainly derivative elements in The School for Good and Evil (note that the title says “school,” not “schools,” which should already tell readers something). For example, Mr. Deauville’s Storybook Shop would fit quite naturally into Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter universe, and Bruno’s drawing makes the resemblance even clearer. But all tales of young people and magic share certain elements, and the echoes of other stories are not intrusive here. The School for Good and Evil has enough thoughtfulness piled atop enough adventurousness to prove equally attractive to fairy-tale readers who root for the good guys and those who root (usually in vain) for the baddies.
Preteens looking for something simpler and funnier will enjoy the third book in the Scary School series, The Northern Frights. The protagonist here is once again Charles Nukid, who is less of a new kid by this time and ends up being nicknamed “noodle-neck” twice, for two separate and equally good reasons. And the narrator is again Derek the Ghost, victim at age 11 of a school science experiment gone wrong. But the focus is not solely or even primarily on Scary School in this installment: Scream Academy is where the action is, after a number of Scary School students go there in a transfer program. This gives Derek Taylor Kent the opportunity to introduce a whole group of new characters, ranging from Scream Academy’s principal (an abominable snowman named Meltington) to the genuinely interesting polter-bears (part poltergeist, part polar bear). There are the usual hijinks (lojinks?) here, such as hall monitor Ms. Hydra almost devouring the class, which she is allowed to do if they are late because “rules are rules.” There are the puns (one student is named Steven Kingsley), the familiar characters (Jason, with “ever-present hockey mask and lumberjack outfit” and, of course, a chainsaw), and the obvious notions (Ramon the Zombie’s idea to counter an acid-rain storm is to “eat the storm’s braaaains”). Then there is the scene in which a troll, killed in a classroom by a falling icicle, is turned into a troll-snowman by the yeti professor and emerges as a snow monster who comments, “I don’t feel nearly as dead as before.” There is also a prophecy (this is scarcely a surprise), and when Charles learns in class about the Elder Dragons that are now all dead, it is pretty obvious where the prophecy and the book are going, which is where they go. Of course, fighting an Ice Dragon requires a Sword of Fire, so of course there is one, and of course Charles finds and wields it – and eventually the threat to both Scream Academy and Scary School is neutralized, and a good time is had by almost all (all the good guys, anyway). The (+++) Scary School series continues to try a little too hard to be amusing, magical and amusingly magical, but fans of the first two books will enjoy the third helping of the characters and storytelling in The Northern Frights.
The eighth helping in the My Weirder School series is a continuation of a continuation, since this whole (+++) series follows from My Weird School Daze, which consisted of a dozen books. These short paperbacks are formulaic by intention, even to the point of titles that invariably end with exclamation points – hence Dr. Nicholas Is Ridiculous! The teacher of the title is a college professor brought in to teach the kids history after they do really badly on a test. And she is old enough to be a part of history herself: A.J., the narrator, says, “I’ve seen glaciers move faster than Dr. Nicholas,” who has white hair and uses a cane – and turns out to be really good at jumping rope. She also has an offbeat approach to history, preferring to discuss the development of toilet bowls rather than more traditional material. The history of Barbie dolls, the history of Hot Wheels cars, a voyage in a “Time Boat,” and the kids are ready to tackle the history test again – and lo and behold, the oddball historical questions on it reflect exactly what they have been taught by Dr. Nicholas. So all ends well, as usual, in a predictable way, as usual, and Dan Gutman and Jim Paillot can chalk up another modest success in their easy-to-read, moderately interesting and only slightly weird second series of educational amusements.