June 12, 2014
(++++) CHARACTER COMPILATIONS
Zoe’s Jungle. By Bethanie Deeney Murguia. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.
Nancy Clancy, Book 4: Secret of the Silver Key. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Robin Preise Glasser. Harper. $9.99.
Alien in My Pocket 3: Radio Active. By Nate Ball. Illustrated by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $4.99.
The Berenstain Bears’ Lemonade Stand. By Mike Berenstain. Harper. $3.99.
Favorite Stories from Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: School Days. By Erica Silverman. Painted by Betsy Lewin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
50 States to Celebrate: Celebrating Massachusetts. By Marion Dane Bauer. Illustrated by C.B. Canga. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $3.99.
Stories matter, of course, but in some kids’ books, the attraction of recurring characters is as much an element of the fun as is the plot. Zoe’s Jungle brings back Bethanie Deeney Murguia’s charmingly imaginative character from Zoe Gets Ready and Zoe’s Room (No Sisters Allowed), this time in a story in which Zoe is thoroughly comfortable with her little sister, Addie, whom she imagines as the elusive “Addiebeast” that Zoe must capture within a strict five-minute time limit. The real-world part of the story takes place at a playground, where the girls have been given a five-minute warning by their mother – it is just about time to leave. Zoe volubly protests the deadline in a wonderful two-page layout connecting her words and body language with a dotted line along the lines of those in The Family Circus cartoons: “Is there no respect for the explorer and her quest?” she finally asks. But the countdown continues inexorably, and Zoe’s imagination shifts into high gear for a chase game: “No human has ever come so close to catching this strange animal,” the Addiebeast. This “career-defining mission” (the language here is wonderful) eventually brings explorer Zoe past all sorts of imagined perils – which Murguia contrasts with scenes in the actual playground – until “a lifetime of preparation comes down to this moment,” which is “a great moment in the history of everything.” So Zoe takes Addie’s hand and the two get ready to leave the playground with their mom – a not-quite-mundane ending, since the book concludes with Zoe promising that they are on their way to story time and that she has a great one about a fearless explorer. Zoe is a wonderfully ebullient character whose everyday adventures are anything but ordinary, thanks to her imaginative approach to her world.
A more-directed form of imagination is needed by Nancy Clancy – the chapter-book, somewhat-more-grown-up version of “Fancy Nancy” – as she and best friend Bree solve a series of minor mysteries, the fourth being Secret of the Silver Key. Nancy was ebullient when younger – her French-language-obsessed, big-word-using, tutu-wearing younger self is still one of the most attractive characters around – but she is more ordinary in these mild-mystery books. In this (+++) volume, Nancy’s family buys an old desk at a yard sale, and Nancy finds a key in a secret compartment. The key is not for the desk itself, so Nancy and Bree set out to discover what it is for. As Nancy puts it to the woman who sold the desk, “‘I’m hoping you know what secret the key will reveal.’ ‘Reveal’ was also one of Nancy’s favorite words. It sounded so much more mysterious than ‘show.’” The mystery turns out not to be a very significant one at all, at least in traditional Nancy-Drew-like terms, but it does bring about the unexpected reunion of two women who had lost track of each other over the years, and that produces a happy if somewhat overly sweet ending. The Nancy Clancy books are less exuberant than the Fancy Nancy ones, but older girls who have outgrown the picture books will enjoy the continuing adventures of the central character.
The continuing adventures in the silly Alien in My Pocket series are those of Zack McGee, who is host and friend to a four-inch-tall alien named Amp who crash-landed in Zack’s bedroom and has no way to get home to his own planet. This is not an “E.T.” sort of series – it is more an annoying-little-brother series in which the little brother just happens to be really little, colored blue, and able to affect people’s minds so they do not realize they have seen him. Actually, Zack already has an annoying little brother, Taylor, who knows Zack is keeping something secret but isn’t sure what it is and is constantly trying to figure out the mystery. True, it’s not much of a mystery, but Nate Ball’s (+++) books aren’t really intended to be much more than easy-to-read, somewhat humorous stories for kids who find jokes about passing gas endlessly fascinating (the whole first chapter of Radio Active and much of the second are taken up with that topic). The story here has ordinary-guy Zack and his obligatory really-smart friend and sidekick, Olivia, trying to stop the town from panicking after Amp builds a “quantum radio” to contact his home planet and accidentally makes everyone think aliens are about to invade Earth. There is really not much to the plot or, for that matter, the characters, but the book is a quick and easy read – and the bonus material, which shows kids how they can actually build an AM radio, is quite good, being well and simply explained and containing matter-of-fact comments such as, “Like any project, it might not work perfectly on the first try.” Fans of Blast Off! and The Science UnFair, the first two books in this sequence, will enjoy this third entry.
Even easier books, still with recurring characters at their core, can be found in various publishers’ early-reading series. The I Can Read! sequence from HarperCollins includes books at five levels, from “My First” to Level 4; The Berenstain Bears’ Lemonade Stand is at Level 1 (“simple sentences for eager new readers”). It is a (+++) book in which Brother, Sister and Honey Bear set up a lemonade stand and soon have so much business that they run out of the cooling drink. Early readers will quickly come to recognize the very-often-repeated phrase, “Aaah! It is good.” And fans of the Berenstain Bears will enjoy the straightforward story, which thankfully lacks the sometimes heavy-handed moralizing of Berenstain books. Slightly more-advanced readers, especially ones with a taste for horses, will enjoy Favorite Stories from Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: School Days, which includes the school-focused stories “A New Friend” and “A Report.” In the first of these, Cocoa becomes temporarily jealous of Kate’s new friend from school; in the second, Cocoa helps Kate do a school report on horses by, of course, showing her all the things horses do. The Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “Green Light Readers” series, in which this book appears, has only three levels rather than five, and this (+++) book is at level 2 (“reading with help,” intended for kids from kindergarten through second grade). Another book in the same series – this one written for young readers with an interest in facts rather than fiction – features a character known as Mr. Geo, a professorial guide to the U.S. states who helps young readers explore throughout the country. This book is at level 3 (“reading independently”). It is slightly more complex than the Cowgirl Kate book and considerably more advanced than The Berenstain Bears’ Lemonade Stand, but it is not really difficult: officially intended for grades 1-4, it will mostly attract first- and second-graders. The story, being essentially a recitation of facts (including some trivia), will not “pull in” readers in the way that the fictional adventures likely will, but the book does make some attempts to lighten what could otherwise be a dry recitation: “This state is home to more than 100 colleges and universities. …Many colleges have great rowing teams. How do they make it look so easy?” A (+++) book for a clearly targeted audience, Celebrating Massachusetts will appeal to kids for whom recurring fictional characters need not be shaped like aliens or bears but can simply be people who provide an introduction to informative subject matter.