October 02, 2014


Sky Jumpers 2: The Forbidden Flats. By Peggy Eddleman. Random House. $16.99.

Cheesie Mack #5: Cheesie Mack Is Sort of Freaked Out. By Steve Cotler. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Random House. $15.99.

Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child. By Maria T. Lennon. Harper. $6.99.

Watch Out, Hollywood! More Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child. By Maria T. Lennon. Harper. $16.99.

     Adventures for preteens, ages 8-12, tend to be either boy-focused or girl-focused, not both, and tend to be written to appeal to specific kinds of readers – for example, ones interested in fantasy or ones preferring twists on their own daily lives. Sky Jumpers is one of many series set in a future dystopia, although a somewhat milder one than is found in other sequences. It is girl-focused, its protagonist being aptly named 12-year-old Hope, who lives in the town of White Rock in the days after World War III. The town is close to a poisonous, invisible, 15-foot thick area of compressed air called the Bomb’s Breath, left over from the war. Hope is the only person who has ever found a way through it – that happened in the first Sky Jumpers book. In the second, The Forbidden Flats, an earthquake displaces the Bomb’s Breath and it starts to move lower and lower, toward White Rock. It is up to Hope – in books like this, things are always up to the young, imperfectly qualified protagonist, never to adults – to journey across the bandit-controlled areas of the book’s title to find something that can stop the Bomb’s Breath from continuing to drop lower and eventually wipe out the town. The whole plot is less believable and less original than that of the original novel, and the interplay among Hope and the friends who accompany her, Brock and Aaren, is predictable and not terribly involving. That Hope will face multiple challenges and overcome all of them is a given; that she will do so in spite of, or because of, her headstrong ways, is also a given. There are a few elements here that are intriguing and even amusing, such as Hope’s bringing back a piece of pavement as a souvenir because “it’s what the roads were made out of before the bombs.” By and large, though, the adventure here proceeds in unsurprising ways, its eventual success a foregone conclusion, with Hope’s mission-accomplished return to home and family being a sure thing.

     Books for this age group that happen in our workaday world also tend to rely on specific central characters with whom readers are supposed to identify – characters such as Cheesie Mack (for boy-oriented books) and Charlie C. Cooper (for girl-focused ones). Steve Cotler’s fifth Cheesie Mack book, Cheesie Mack Is Sort of Freaked Out, has a Halloween theme, with Cheesie’s best friend, Georgie, planning a prank to end all pranks: convincing people that a flying saucer filled with aliens is hovering right above their town. The practical joke works, freaking out everybody in sixth grade, but then things backfire when Cheesie’s older sister, Goon, plots a revenge prank that has Cheesie thinking that maybe there really are aliens out there after all. Amusing illustrations by Douglas Holgate enliven the proceedings, whether showing an overdone candy-cane costume or a bewildered-looking tortoise; Cheesie’s innumerable lists help as well; and everything moves at a quick enough pace to distract readers from the fact that not all that much actually happens here – the book simply reshuffles characters who have appeared in previous series entries and has them do somewhat different, somewhat seasonal things. Still, that will be plenty for preteens who have enjoyed Cheesie’s previous adventures.

     And then there is Maria T. Lennon’s Watch Out, Hollywood! More Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child. The book’s title makes it clear that this is a companion book to Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child, originally published last year and now available in paperback. The first book introduces Charlie and develops her into a reformed bully and basically good person who eventually saves her friend Marta from being taken away by Social Services as part of a plot by Charlie’s nasty ex-friend, Trixie, to get Marta off the gym team. It really helps to have read the first book to enjoy the second one, even though the entire plot of the original novel is quickly summarized in the follow-up – because Watch Out, Hollywood! More Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child is all about what happens in the aftermath of the events of the prior book. Members of the media are falling all over themselves to get Charlie’s story, calling her a hero and swelling her already-swollen head as she dreams of becoming a big-time celebrity. She even has her own agent to help make it happen. But there would be no book if the sequel were only a rehash and update of the events of the previous novel, so of course there have to be new plot threads in it. And there are. The problem in Watch Out, Hollywood! More Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child is that Charlie decides that to get where she wants to go, she needs to tell a lie, just a little one, and of course that small untruth quickly expands into a whole pile of trouble, resulting in Charlie being labeled a “scorpion” by her classmates – even including Marta, who stops believing that Charlie was at all selfless in helping her. “Maybe a long time ago I had a little scorpion in me, but now I am good. I am kind.” So says Charlie – but others are having none of it, and predictable complications ensue that force Charlie to confront her inner uncertainties, determine the difference between right and wrong, and rediscover what friendship is all about. That is, what happens in Watch Out, Hollywood! More Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child is almost identical to what happens in many other novels for this age group that are set in an approximation of the real world – even the fact that Charlie develops an honest-to-goodness crush, a nearly universal element in books for girls in this age group, is part of this second book’s plot. The sequel may be formulaic, but girls who enjoy Charlie in the first book will like following her further misadventures in the second. And that, of course, is the point of companion books and series for preteens: to continue bringing a pleasantly comfortable sense of more-of-the-same to readers who already know and like the central characters.

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