February 20, 2014
(+++) SERIOUS MATTERS TAKEN LIGHTLY
Magic Tree House #51: High Time for Heroes. By Mary Pope Osborne. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $12.99.
Magic Tree House Fact Tracker (#28): Heroes for All Times. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Bryce. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $5.99.
Peter Panda Melts Down! By Artie Bennett. Illustrations by John Nez. Blue Apple. $16.99.
77 Things You Absolutely Have to Do Before You Finish College. By Halley Bondy. Zest Books. $14.99.
The underlying material may be serious, but many authors have a way of leavening it for young readers and parents by structuring their books both to be easy to read and to provide some excitement along with the instruction. Mary Pope Osborne has been doing this for more than 20 years – since 1992, when Jack and Annie first discovered the tree house that has taken them to so many places and on so many adventures. The Magic Tree House books have long since become formulaic, but they are still enjoyable as easy-to-read chapter books with enough historical facts underlying their fairy-tale premise to give them some educational as well as entertainment value. And since the accompanying “Fact Tracker” books started in 2000 (originally bearing the more-academic title of “Research Guides”), the factual basis of the long-running series has become easier to trace and expand. High Time for Heroes and Heroes for All Times follow the well-established pattern. In the fictional book, Jack and Annie – on yet another mission for the magician Merlin – visit Egypt in the 1800s in search of Florence Nightingale. They find, to their surprise but likely not to that of readers, that the famous nurse is unhappy and needs the children’s help to find herself and move toward the greatness for which she is destined (thanks for which are due in part to a baby baboon). The “Fact Tracker” provides additional information on Florence Nightingale, plus brief biographical material on Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and explorer/conservationist John Muir – a typical multi-ethnic, multicultural “something for everyone to admire” list of heroes old and new. Sal Murdocca’s illustrations, which are as much fixtures of the U.S. versions of these books as are the texts, appear in both the fictional book and the factual one, connecting the two and pulling interested young readers into the adventures and their background. There is nothing profound in the Magic Tree House books and nothing revelatory in their factual companions, but they are fast-paced and easy to get through, and may spur at least some young readers to get more-detailed information elsewhere.
One thing that is decidedly not easy to get through – for parents or young children – is a temper tantrum, and tantrums are what Artie Bennett’s Peter Panda Melts Down! is all about. Endearingly drawn by John Nez, Peter goes into meltdown mode again and again and again throughout the day: when he drops a toy, does not get the chocolate bar he craves, is reprimanded at the library, and so on. Peter is three years old, but tantrums often start at a younger age and continue for quite some time – especially when not corrected lovingly but firmly. But they are not corrected in Bennett’s book, and that is a weakness: each scene ends with Peter throwing the tantrum, after which the next scene begins as if nothing has happened. Peter’s mother shows minimal signs of annoyance each time, but says nothing stern to her little boy and makes no attempt to do anything about his behavior. Eventually she has had enough, and she herself has a temper tantrum of her own, for which she quickly apologizes. But the closest she comes to disciplining her child occurs when – in the library, where somehow neither patrons nor librarians have anything to say about Peter’s loud and disruptive behavior – Mama says, “Stop whining, Peter. Now don’t shout or pout./ Here’s a nice book that you can check out./ If you calm down, I will make you a deal./ For supper, I’ll cook up your favorite meal.” Any parent who thinks this will work with a child in mid-tantrum is welcome to try it – once. Then, after learning his or her lesson, the parent can apologize to all the others in the library, soothe his or her own headache, and take the misbehaving child home – not to one pleasant activity after another, where tantrums occur with depressing regularity. And bribing a tantrum-throwing child with favorite food? All that does is teach the child that misbehavior brings wonderful rewards! Of course, Peter Panda Melts Down! is not intended as a teaching aid or parental instruction manual, but like all books about children’s behavior, it does contain a serious message beneath its lighthearted story. In this case, despite the charms of the illustrations and the amusement value of the narrative, the message goes awry.
The message of Halley Bondy’s 77 Things You Absolutely Have to Do Before You Finish College is of course aimed at much older readers, but here too an author uses the time-honored method of presenting serious material beneath a lighter veneer. “College wouldn’t be college if it didn’t include a wide range of experiences,” Bondy writes, suggesting that even students who do not get around to doing all 77 things in the book – or do not want to do all of them – can have an “unforgettable” college experience by following at least some of these suggestions. They come in seven sections, labeled “Around the Pad,” “Getting Out and About on Your Own,” “Taking Advantage of School,” “Being Social,” “Body and Health,” “Spoil Yourself,” and “For the Future.” The last section is the one of which parents of college students will immediately approve –it includes short discussions on building a résumé, obtaining an interview outfit, getting a part-time job, learning to network, and becoming “financially empowered,” which boils down to two things: “Assess your current situation honestly and frankly” and “Consider what you could do differently.” The how-to-do-it sections within each of the 77 items are the most valuable part of the book – and yes, there are how-to-do-it explanations even for matters that parents would not necessarily encourage, such as “eat something weird,” “prank your friends” (which includes “the holy trinity of pranks,” those being the gross, the inconvenient and the hoax), “pimp your ride,” and “indulge in an all-day TV marathon.” Despite these recommendations, most of the ideas here involve more or less plain-vanilla activities, or at least unexceptionable ones: take care of a plant, learn to prepare at least one meal perfectly, learn some survival skills, join a political campaign, volunteer at a shelter, take a class that has nothing to do with your major, and so forth. There is nothing really wild and crazy here – presumably students will come up with those things on their own – and plenty that can enrich both a college experience and life afterwards. Taken as a whole, though, the book is rather bland. Its suggestions are certainly well-meaning, but a sense of fun and unguided exploration of life and one’s place in it is largely absent. “Hold a karaoke night” and “have a shameless junk food night” have possibilities, though.