April 09, 2015
A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans. By Laurence Yep & Joanne Ryder. Illustrations by Mary GrandPré. Crown. $15.99.
The Nerdy Dozen #2: Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind. By Jeff Miller. Harper. $16.99.
One of the ways to make fantasy adventures attractive to the 8-12 age group at which so many of them are aimed is to turn things upside-down in one way or another. That is the central conceit of A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans, the first book of a planned trilogy by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder. The basic concept here is to explore the relationship between a 3,000-year-old dragon who frequently transforms into the human shape of Joan of Arc and goes by the name of Miss Drake – and a feisty 10-year-old girl named Winnie (protagonists are always feisty in fantasy adventures for preteens). Instead of having Winnie keep the dragon as a pet – something that has been done innumerable times before – this book has the dragon keep Winnie as a pet, one in a long line of human pets Miss Drake has had from Winnie’s family. Predictably, the two central characters clash from the start, but readers will realize very soon that they are much alike under the skin, or scales, as the case may be. Miss Drake, who narrates the book, is neither as crusty nor as unemotional as she wants Winnie to believe her to be; and Winnie, who takes care both of herself and of her injured and slowly healing mother, is not as independent and adult-before-her-time as she thinks she is. Obviously, both characters are misfits in the world – that is a trope of books like this, and one that Yep and Ryder make no attempt to turn upside-down – and both find, as the story progresses, that they have much to offer each other. Miss Drake slowly introduces Winnie to the magical world that dragons and other fantastic creatures inhabit, which coexists with San Francisco but which humans are prevented, by spells, from perceiving. However, it turns out that Winnie has some magic-making ability of her own – of a problematical kind. She is a talented young artist, constantly drawing in a sketchbook – which proves to be enchanted in a way that results in her drawings coming to life. Yep and Ryder throw in occasional real-world references to keep this rather frothy concoction of a novel interesting, but young readers may not get them. The Joan of Arc explanation, for example, never actually mentions Joan of Arc. Elsewhere, Miss Drake discusses a magical shopkeeper – an air sprite named Clipper – and says, “Over four hundred years ago, when I had been in London with my pet Renwick, I’d introduced her to a neighbor, an actor named William. Her large eyes and delicate features had inspired him to write a funny little piece about the midsummer that still seems to please audiences today.” Whether preteens will know that the authors are referring to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an open question. In any case, these passing references are not the core of the story; nor are Miss Drake’s often-amusing personality traits, such as her using a bank debit card and having “digital subscriptions to all the fashion magazines” so she can transform into a human wearing trendy clothing. The book’s climax involves a magic-eating monster that Miss Drake and Winnie conquer together at the Enchanters’ Fair, specifically at the Spelling Bee – which is a contest involving spellcasting. The book ends with the promise of further adventures, of course. And if the “turnaround” aspect of the who-is-the-pet issue wears thin long before the conclusion, the humor – abetted by some of Mary GrandPré’s usual high-quality illustrations – bids fair to continue as the sequence does.
The turnaround in the second book of The Nerdy Dozen series is the same as in Jeff Miller’s first series entry: video-game-playing, bullied and misunderstood nerds are crucial for huge tasks such as, say, saving the world. Thirteen-year-old Neil Andertol (“Neanderthal,” and yes, he is really called that) gets contacted a second time by the government in Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind, which takes place four months after the first book (which was simply called The Nerdy Dozen – a play on The Dirty Dozen, although as with the Yep/Ryder book, this sort of thing may go right past the readers Miller is trying to reach). The dozen supernerds were the 12 highest scorers in a game called Chameleon, which turned out to be the training simulator for a real fighter jet. But even that game has lost its thrill for Neil and his friends in the wake of their successful first mission – so when there is a chance to up the ante by helping NASA recover a stolen, super-secret spacecraft, Neil of course jumps at the chance. So do all the others; and there you have the plot of Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind. As with the Yep/Ryder book, the basic turnaround element is really just a launching pad (so to speak) for this space adventure, which otherwise proceeds along entirely predictable lines. So do the dialogue and descriptive passages, as when Neil experiences weightlessness for the first time: “‘Whoa! This is unreal!’ said Neil. It felt like he was rising out of his seat after hitting a huge hill on a roller coaster, only gravity wasn’t pulling him back down.” Of course, Neil again has to contend with the biggest thorn in his side among the dozen nerds, Trevor: “Neil was impressed by Trevor’s consistency. Friend or enemy, he was a jerk to all.” It turns out that the secret ship the young teens are trying to recover was hijacked by two other teens – who are simply trying to find their parents on Mars, where they are sure the adults have survived even though they are believed long dead. And, let’s see, there are the usual video game requirements, or real-world requirements, or some blend of them: “Neil increased his speed. This was Earth’s only chance of survival. He drifted to the right, speeding ahead of the asteroid’s orbital path. …Having earned back his friends’ trust, Neil was never going to lose it again.” The elements of trust and friendship are paramount here, as in so many other books for this age group. At the end, everything works out just fine – Earth is still here, as you may have noticed – and the stage is set at the end of the book for the next, which is sure to be just as formulaic in its adventure and interpersonal elements as this one, even with the underlying twist that makes the entire series possible.