June 12, 2014


The Cabinet of Curiosities. By Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand and Emma Trevayne. Illustrated by Alexander Jansson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Gollywhopper Games 2: The New Champion. By Jody Feldman. Illustrations by Victoria Jamieson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Anthologies are rarely as well-thought-out, well-written and successful as The Cabinet of Curiosities, but then, this is more than the traditional sort of anthology in which vaguely connected works on similar themes are rather haphazardly assembled. The Cabinet of Curiosities grows organically – a rather frightening concept, given what the book is about – with its four authors, all experienced in creating works for preteens and teenagers, producing what the book’s subtitle accurately characterizes as “36 Tales Brief & Sinister.” The stories, whether as short as five pages or as long as 28, serve up chills that range from the moderately cool to the genuinely frigid. They are gathered loosely into eight sections, labeled “Drawers” as if they are indeed parts of a cabinet: “Cake,” “Love,” “Luck,” “Tricks,” “Flowers,” “Travel,” “Song” and “Fairy Tales.” Those titles are only general guidelines: “Cake,” for example, is really about food and the people – and things – that eat it. The “framing tale” of the book casts Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand and Emma Trevayne as “curators” of the “cabinet,” searching the world (and perhaps beyond it) for oddities to store in the drawers and stories to tell about those peculiar things. The curators exchange notes in the course of the book, and this is one thing that makes the work far more unified than a typical anthology. But what really sets the book apart is the way each of the contributors subsumes his or her authorial personality into the concept, producing stories that focus effectively on the eerie, even creepy themes, encapsulating the strange and outrĂ© without delving into the stylistic flourishes that Bachmann, Catmull, Legrand and Trevayne bring to their work elsewhere. Because the book targets young readers, there is no dwelling on gore, but the very absence of explicitly descriptive mayhem makes some of the stories more frightening (a lesson that writers of works for adults might well take to heart). Legrand’s “The Cake Made Out of Teeth,” for example, sees to it that a particularly nasty child gets his comeuppance after he is presented, by the requisite mysterious stranger, with a cake that looks just like him. And Legrand’s “The Sandman Cometh,” a retelling of a truly frightening Hans Christian Andersen story (Andersen’s works are far scarier than people who know only their sanitized or Disneyfied versions realize), makes the boy’s trials very terrifying indeed in a psychological way. The other authors are equally good and handle equally diverse topics. For example, Bachmann offers a chilling take on the apparently innocent statement, “I just love babies.” Catmull considers how one little girl’s very, very good luck may be other people’s very, very, very bad luck. Trevayne considers what may happen to people who can hear the music that spiders make. There are all sorts of scares here, and if a particular tale is a touch too frightening – or, less likely, not chilling enough – there is always another just a few pages ahead. The Cabinet of Curiosities is, as Lewis Carroll’s Alice would have said, “curiouser and curiouser” as you enter farther and farther into it. But it is worth remembering, while doing so, just what curiosity is proverbially said to have done to the cat….

     Curiosity of a different kind – the intellectual sort – was at the heart of Jody Feldman’s very clever The Gollywhopper Games (2008) and remains central to the book’s newly released set-one-year-later sequel, The New Champion. Clearly modeled on books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and resembling the much more recent Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, Feldman’s new novel focuses on the second year of the Games and on one unlikely contestant, Cameron Schein, who lives constantly in the shadow of his super-successful older brother, Spencer. The Golly Toy and Game Company poses a series of mathematical questions and word problems to the various contestants, and Feldman uses this setup to throw some actual educational information at readers in ways that Chris Grabenstein does but Roald Dahl does not. For example, when a question requires would-be contestants to pick the name of one of four famous people, the answer is gradually revealed as the wrong choices are eliminated: “‘So long to the architect whose accomplishments include the pyramid at the Louvre in Paris and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.’ I.M. Pei’s name was gone.” It is highly unlikely that both Cameron and Spencer will become Game participants, but the whole point of the book is that they do both end up as competitors, so Feldman arranges for them both to participate. Many of their interactions are quite predictable – Cameron learning self-reliance and discovering his own (heretofore latent) abilities, Spencer being forced to admit that Cameron has abilities and deserves respect. Cameron’s eventual triumph, which comes through an unusual twist that shows just how special he is, is scarcely a surprise. But if the overall sibling-rivalry elements of the plot are straightforward, and the notion of the Games themselves no different from the one set forth by Feldman in the original book (which was her debut novel), the specific puzzles and questions are unusual and are structured in a way that encourages readers to try to solve them on their own. Now that is something. “It’s like an endurance test,” one contestant says of the Games, and in fact one “challenge card” late in the Games begins, “The day’s been long, but you’ve been strong.” But the book is not a slog for readers, because Feldman does a fine job of showing how Cameron thinks through the various problems – his thinking is the book’s narrative on many pages, so readers figure out the questions along with him. The New Champion is the second book of a planned trilogy – the third will be called Friend or Foe – and does have some of the running-in-place feeling of a middle volume. But because this particular Games competition is self-contained, readers who missed the first book can pick this one up and enjoy it from start to finish. And Feldman’s clever building blocks – the puzzles that make up the Games – ensure that the book is not just an adventure, not just a finding-yourself book, not just a family-becomes-closer work, but is all of those plus an experience in thinking things through and understanding the importance of everything from punctuation to math. It is the way Feldman combines all the elements of the story, both the usual-for-this-age-group ones and the unusual intellectual ones, that makes this novel a standout.

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