November 26, 2014
(+++) ADVENTURES IN FANTASYLANDS
The Zombie Chasers #5: Nothing Left to Ooze. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by David DeGrand. Harper. $6.99.
The Zombie Chasers #6: Zombies of the Caribbean. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by David DeGrand. Harper. $16.99.
Double Vision #3: The Alias Men. By F.T. Bradley. Harper. $16.99.
Adventure series for preteens, ages 8-12, often seem to become less realistic and more fantastic as they go on – even series that have been pretty far-out to begin with. John Kloepfer’s The Zombie Chasers has always been even sillier than most don’t-take-things-too-seriously zombie stories, because it involves people being turned into zombies – that is, dead and resurrected into shambling, bodies-crumbling-into-pieces form – and then being turned back into non-dead people whose skin grows back normally, whose rotted and fallen-out teeth miraculously reappear, and so on. David DeGrand’s illustrations have always made it abundantly clear just how difficult such a re-transformation would be, but hey, that’s what happens, and there’s no reason for readers to turn away from the premise if they have already made it through the first books of the series. The fifth entry, Nothing Left to Ooze, which is now available in paperback, includes finding and then losing a zombie-virus antidote, thanks to the attempt by Rice – one of the intrepid band of preteen zombie hunters – to make the antidote even stronger so it will cure the even-stronger zombies infected by the even-stronger virus. Get it? Anyway, pretty much everything goes wrong, leading the anti-zombie brigade, which by the end of this book includes six kids – Rice, Zack, Zoe, Madison, Ozzie and Olivia – to head for the private Caribbean island fortress of a zombie expert who may be the only one who can help them. Unfortunately, other “only one who can help us” types have all proved less than effective, but maybe this time...but no such luck. In Zombies of the Caribbean, the kids do indeed locate an explorer named Nigel, who is as knowledgeable as they had hoped. But it turns out that he lost a leg in a zombie attack and therefore cannot help them on their latest quest, which involves hunting for a gigantic “rare breed of giant frilled tiger shark” that preys on a certain jellyfish that is needed for a new and improved zombie antidote. The kids are careful to bring Nigel up to date when they meet him, with Rice explaining, “I was a zombie for a while, too, because Madison mistakenly lost her vegan antidote powers to a piece of pepperoni pizza. But then I ate the Band-Aid in Central Park and was unzombified. Man, being a zombie was cool.” And now that that clears everything up, readers will find that the kids are, as usual, on their own in their latest adventure, facing down zombie vacationers, zombie spring breakers, zombie pirates (hey, it’s the Caribbean), and the usual cast of ridiculousness, at the end of which they (of course) do capture the elusive tiger shark and it turns out that (of course) that is not enough, so they have to go on an even longer voyage – this one will be to Madagascar – to find the really-truly-no-kidding last piece of the puzzle to get rid of the zombies once and for all. Maybe. (Probably not.) The kids have no distinguishing personality traits whatsoever, because the point of this series is that the group as a whole is heroic and friendship is what matters when fighting zombies or doing, well, pretty much anything.
On the other side of the coin in fantasy-adventureland is the “lone wolf” type of protagonist, such as Lincoln (Linc) Baker in F.T. Bradley’s Double Vision, Code Name 711, and the concluding book of the trilogy, The Alias Men. Linc is the usual type of solo preteen hero: “On my first mission, to Paris, I was just there to take the place of the junior agent I looked like, Ben Green. On my second mission, in Washington, D.C., Pandora [the super-secret secret-agent organization at the heart of these books] had invited me to throw the bad guys off Ben’s trail (but I kind of ended up saving the day).” Actually, the first book of the series was primarily a mystery/thriller, despite the presence of a painting that could hypnotize people, but the second one moved firmly into the fantasy realm by prominently featuring a jacket that could make people invulnerable – and by having kids break into the CIA’s headquarters in the course of a story in which, when the president’s life is in danger, a preteen agent is assigned to handle the case. The Alias Men moves all the way into fantasy in a prime geographical location for the unbelievable: “Hollywood, all full of lies and agendas,” as Linc’s grandfather accurately puts it. This time the story revolves around the Dangerous Double of Charlie Chaplin’s famous bowler hat: Linc is supposed to help the regular Pandora agents prevent a master thief named Ethan Melais from using the object’s invisibility power to take over the world (what else?). And if that isn’t enough fantasy, there is also the small matter of Linc accidentally getting a role in a major film called The Hollywood Kid. And there is a climax when a certain someone wins, or appears to win, an Oscar. And an epilogue in which, totally unsurprisingly, it turns out that Linc will have his very own chance to become a junior secret agent because of his very own abilities, not because of his resemblance to the “annoying know-it-all” Ben. The clichés flow freely in F.T. Bradley’s trilogy, and the silliness more freely still, but like Kloepfer’s ongoing zombie series, the Double Vision books are intended simply to entertain in an amusing and thoroughly unrealistic way, showing kids the same age as the intended readers doing tremendously heroic (if often ridiculous) things that adults are incapable of doing, thereby building up young readers’ self-image and self-esteem to a degree that will certainly serve them well the next time they have to live in a fantasyland. Until then, Bradley and Kloepfer do serve up easy-to-read, fast-paced, inconsequential but often-engaging stories requiring a heaping helping of Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” but not a lot of time or intellectual investment.