July 31, 2014
(++++) ALL IN THESE FAMILIES
Oliver and the Seawigs. By Philip Reeve. Illustrated by Sarah McIntyre. Random House. $12.99.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher. By Dana Alison Levy. Delacorte Press. $15.99.
Kevin Spencer 5: Family Ties. By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.
The Never Girls #7: A Pinch of Magic. By Kiki Thorpe. Illustrated by Jana Christy. Random House. $5.99.
Families are the ties that bind preteens in a great many novels for ages 7-12, although “family” is differently defined in various books – sometimes even involving characters who are not related to each other but who feel like family members (generally idealized ones). Fantasy adventures frequently involve the preteen family member(s) rescuing parents, lending grounding of a sort to stories that are otherwise fairly far out – such as Oliver and the Seawigs. This is an amusing, amply illustrated tale in which Oliver and his explorer parents have an adventure that revolves around Oliver rescuing his mom and dad from a living island that is using them, encased in bubbles, as decoration. Oliver’s folks are to become part of the “seawig” contest in the Hallowed Shallows, where the moving islands all get together to decide who has the best seawig and therefore deserves to, in effect, lead all the rest. The fact that this makes not a lick of sense is wholly irrelevant: Philip Reeve’s book is created entirely for fun, and Sarah McIntyre’s two-color illustrations dial the amusement up a notch. Of course, Oliver will need help to rescue his folks, so he turns to a mermaid named Iris who does not fit in with the other mermaids because she is on the plump rather than svelte side, has a much-less-than-mellifluous voice, and is quite nearsighted. Also helping Oliver out are some jumbo-sized sea monkeys and Mr. Culpeper, a self-described Wandering Albatross, who is able to talk – which seems unlikely, Oliver points out, until Mr. Culpeper explains that parrots can talk (which, again, makes no logical sense, but so what?). On the bad-guy side are the Thurlstone – that’s the bad island holding Oliver’s parents captive – and a boy named Stacey de Lacey, who is upset that his first name sounds like a girl’s and has therefore turned to rather undifferentiated evil. The mixed-up mishmash of these characters provides a roller-coaster ride for readers, and includes some ideas that go beyond chuckles into genuine amusement – such as the Sarcastic Sea, which is. Reeve and McIntyre call this book “a not-so-impossible tale” and are certainly planning more of the same in the future. One hopes.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, in contrast, is – except for one thing – an entirely ordinary book about growing up and facing everyday issues involving school, homework, friends, neighbors, animals, holidays and so forth. It is intended to be amusing, too, although the hilarity in Dana Alison Levy’s debut novel is far more studied (and ultimately less funny) than in Reeve and McIntyre’s work. This is the story of four boys, one aged 12, two aged 10 and one aged six, and their various interests and preoccupations, which range from soccer and books to an invisible cheetah. The book’s cover shows two Caucasian and two African-American boys, but mixed and blended families are nothing particularly new in preteen books anymore; in fact, authors often bend over backwards (to the point of extreme obviousness) to create racially and ethnically balanced character groups. What is out of the ordinary here, and what turns this into a “cause” book, is the family parents: Dad and Papa. Levy’s point is quite clearly to show that families headed by two men are every bit as usual, typical, ordinary and worthy of acceptance as any other kind of family. Indeed, the ordinariness of the Fletcher boys’ adventures seems intended to make the point that their family is just like every other one. That this is transparently not the case is what makes this (+++) novel a subtle advocacy book rather than a straightforward coming-of-age tale. Context matters, and Levy’s point is that once you get past the issue of who the Fletcher parents are, what happens with them and their kids (misunderstandings, discipline issues, worries, concerns, celebrations) is just like what happens with other families. Parents in families headed by a man and woman, or a single mom or dad, will need to think about Levy’s advocacy before deciding whether this book will work for their kids. Sam, Jax, Eli and Frog (real name: Jeremiah) are cardboard characters, their individuation minimal and patterned on that of characters in many other books for this age group. Their adventures and misadventures (including an amusing one involving a skunk) will be quite familiar to parents and young readers alike. But the context within which those adventures occur is one that will invite considerable discussion in at least some families – and that, more than the book’s formulaic plot, seems to be what most interests Levy.
Gary Paulsen’s short (+++) books about Kevin Spencer are somewhat over-plotted and on the obvious side, but Kevin does have real personality, and Family Ties, the fifth book about him and those around him, does as good a job of bringing that personality out as did the previous four: Liar, Liar; Flat Broke; Crush; and Vote. Family drama is front-and-center throughout the latest book, as Kevin decides to use his uncle’s planned wedding – which quickly turns out to be one of two planned weddings – to bring his dysfunctional family together and impress his too-good-to-be-true girlfriend, Tina. Add in a mismatch of affection between Kevin’s cat, Teddy, and Uncle Will’s huge and bladder-challenged dog, Athena, and you have all the ingredients for a romp. But wait – there’s more; there is always more in these books, which accounts for their frantic pace and somewhat overdone hyperactivity. The “more” here is the family-focused school project that Kevin is working on with classmate Katie Knowles while he is also trying to juggle two weddings and an increasing number of oddball relatives oozing out of the figurative woodwork. The project has Kevin and Katie as make-believe husband and wife, dealing with joblessness, financial trouble and a baby girl named Dumpster Assassin. Kevin’s hopes that he will excel at pretend-marriage and thereby prepare Tina for eventual not-pretend marriage go awry, of course, and in fact pretty much everything goes awry, which is the story arc of all the Kevin Spacey books. Paulsen, who is nothing if not an expert at untangling the skeins that he tangles in the first place, eventually knits things up as neatly as usual, and Kevin aptly concludes, “I always knew that a guy like me had to get one of his big ideas right eventually. I just needed a whole lot of help from people who care about me.” And that, of course, is what family, and Family Ties, are all about.
The seventh Never Girls book continues the adventures of four human girls – Gabby, Kate, Lainey and Mia – who are able to travel between the human town of Pixie Hollow and the fairies’ Never Land. Their portal is a mere broken fence slat; their adventures are equally mundane in most respects. In A Pinch of Magic, the focus is mainly on Mia – different books give different girls the limelight – and the bake sale for which she is preparing. Mia enlists the help of Dulcie, a fairy with talent for baking little (of course, little) cakes. But as in other books of this series, one must not rely solely, or too much, on magic: Mia must finish the cakes on her own after Dulcie returns to Never Land. But Mia does not have baking talent, which is why Dulcie has been helping her in the first place. What to do? This sort of minimalist worry is typical of these easy (+++) chapter books, in which the girl protagonists invariably discover that they are more self-sufficient and talented than they think they are, and can use a little magical help (who couldn’t?) but do not really need it. Thus, Kiki Thorpe makes sure that after all the misunderstandings and humorous occurrences (such as Dulcie being temporarily trapped in a grocery-store freezer and inadvertently using her dress to butter a saucepan), Mia herself makes her baked creations – which she labels “Fairy Cakes” – a big success, raising plenty of money to help a neighborhood family recover after a house fire. Fans of this series, which extends the Disney version of Never Land from Peter Pan, will enjoy A Pinch of Magic as much as any of the other Never Girls books, and will find themselves enjoying the notion that even humans and fairies can become members of the same family, more or less – you just have to believe it can happen.