February 19, 2015
(+++) HOW SERIES BUILD
Clark the Shark: Tooth Trouble. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $16.99.
The Genius Files #5: License to Thrill. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $16.99.
There are several different ways for authors to keep series books and their characters going and keep them interesting to young readers – and, hopefully, to newly emerging readers who will then seek out existing series entries. One method is through a book such as Clark the Shark: Tooth Trouble. This actually keeps two series going: the one about toothy, well-meaning but easily intimidated and socially awkward Clark, and the “I Can Read!” series for ages 4-8 – in which this is a Level 1 book featuring “simple sentences for eager new readers.” Many books in this early-reading series are created by authors and illustrators other than the originators of the characters featured – but in this case, Bruce Hale and Guy Francis do the book themselves, and the result is pleasantly consistent with other Clark the Shark books. Clark looks, talks and reacts here just as in the books about him outside the “I Can Read!” series, and this low-key adventure fits well with his others. The idea here is that Clark has a loose tooth and needs to visit the dentist, but one of his friends warns him about all the terrible things dentists do, so timid Clark becomes frightened and does not want to go. Of course, when he does have his appointment, everything is fine, and the dentist proves to be a very small fish who favors humor as a way to relax patients. This works just fine for Clark: Doctor Pia “had the gentlest fins and the silliest jokes.” Soon the loose tooth is out, Clark is back to his usual very toothy smile, and everything ends happily – with Hale being good enough to explain, on the last page, some things about real sharks (such as the fact that “they never run out of” teeth and “some lose up to 30,000 teeth in their lifetime!”). Hale’s usual pleasant plotting and Francis’ typically amusing drawings help the underlying lesson here go down easily, all within a series that gets new readers into the, umm, swim of things.
In other cases, a series for young readers builds on itself by taking the same adventure, or series of adventures, through not one or two but three or more books. Trilogies are especially common, but sometimes authors push things beyond that and create tetralogies. Dan Gutman goes even farther with The Genius Files, for which he has written a five-book series (quintology?). The standard perils-of-Pauline plot, with the twin protagonists (a boy named Coke and a girl named Pepsi, mercifully shortened to Pep much of the time) subjected to torment after torment and mystery after mystery, has worn rather thin by its finale, License to Thrill. There is a sameness to the diabolical-traps-barely-escaped narrative that even some of the target readers, ages 8-12, may find wearing by now. Others, though, will revel in yet more escapades and more dangers and more troubles to be overcome – and more parents so hopelessly clueless about what is going on that they strain the already very modest credibility of parental participation in all books of this type. The parents of Coke and Pep spend most of their time in the books being beyond oblivious and all the way into brain-dead, although at the very end they finally say, “We thought you were just putting us on. …You know, the way teenagers do.” And this leads the twins to recite, for readers who may have forgotten, all the things they endured on the cross-country trip chronicled in these five books, during which they were “almost frozen to death, boiled in oil, pushed into a sand pit…thrown into a vat of Spam, kidnapped, blasted with loud music…swarmed by bats, abducted by aliens, sprayed with poison gas, [and] had stuff dropped on our heads.” You get the idea. So do the twins’ parents, very belatedly indeed. And it is clear from the list of perils that Gutman knows one sure way to make a series as ridiculous as this one work: humor. That is the best thing about The Genius Files, and there is certainly plenty of it in the concluding volume, often couched in comments to the reader: “At this point, you’re probably starting to feel a little angry that Coke hasn’t been thrown into a volcano yet. I mean, I promised back in chapter 1 that Coke was going to get thrown into a volcano. And here we are in chapter 11, and the twins are nowhere near a volcano.” No worries, though, for the author delivers what he promises, in his own time and his own way. And he delivers it with frequent asides and nudges that make it clear he knows exactly what he is doing: “I know what you’re thinking, dear reader. You’re thinking that this story is totally preposterous.” Well, yes. But in a series like this, that doesn’t really matter. In fact, it is pretty much the point of the whole thing – a point that Gutman, a prolific writer for this age group, clearly understands, and uses as a building block to lengthen the series and eventually, with License to Thrill, bring it to a conclusion that fans will find quite satisfyingly absurd.