May 28, 2015
(+++) PUSHING THE ENVELOPE OF ADVENTURE
Masterminds. By Gordon Korman. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Platypus Police Squad 3: Last Panda Standing. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Walden Pond Press. $12.99.
In searching for ways to engage more readers ages 8-12, experienced authors such as Gordon Korman and Jarrett J. Krosoczka are increasingly looking to expand the boundaries of traditional stories for this age group – but not by too much. This leads to their coming up with adventures that contain many of the same story elements as in other novels for preteens – a group of protagonists rather than a single one, an encounter with noir-ish forces, a strong subtext on the importance of “finding yourself, who you really are and where you fit in” – but that use the elements in new ways. You can almost see Korman’s creative wheels turning. Kids have to escape captivity? Been done. But what about if it’s pleasant captivity? How about a town that’s a little too perfect to be believed, like something out of The Stepford Wives, which no one in this age range will know about? And how about the kids themselves? Why are they kept captive there? Can’t be bad parents or bad guys holding them – wait! What if the kids are the bad guys? But not really bad guys. Maybe the parents – if they are the kids’ parents – think they’re bad. But why would they think that? Some mastermind must have convinced the parents – wait! Mastermind! What if the kids themselves are thought to be criminal masterminds? But they’re just kids. Maybe they’re trained to be bad? No, that’s been done…maybe they’re the children of bad guys? No, wait – maybe they’re the clones of bad guys! That would do it! And so we have Masterminds, the first book of a series built on exactly that premise: that a supposedly perfect town of 185 contains within it a number of kids who have been cloned from some really, really bad people, as part of a nature-vs.-nurture experiment run by a mastermind named Hammerstrom (whose name gives away that he’s controlling and probably evil). Masterminds is entirely typical in having a central character (Eli Frieden) who is first among equals in the typical group of friends and compatriots that is at the heart of this adventure. Eli in turn has a friend named Randy, and Randy is a prime mover of the plot because he pushes limits – specifically by heading for the edge of town (something that has never occurred to Eli, who is something of a dim bulb at the start of the book, as the central character usually is). When Eli and Randy get too close to the town’s border, Eli gets violently ill and has to be rescued by the Surety, the local enforcement-of-order corps called the Purple People Eaters by all the kids – and Randy soon finds himself expelled from “America’s Ideal Community” under a transparent pretext. He manages to get word back to Eli, and soon little details that don’t quite add up start to trouble Eli and a number of the other kids. Bit by bit, the kids start to figure out that something is deeply wrong in Serenity and that their parents are not to be trusted – another common theme in books for this age group, although one handled a bit differently here, as when one “mom” upbraids a “dad” for not moving fast enough to save a child from a rattlesnake, because the boy is “valuable.” The kids eventually learn just why and in just what way they are “valuable,” and the revelation is not a pleasant one – leading several of them to stage a daring escape (what other kind is there?), after which they eventually show up at the place to which Randy has been sent. And that ends the first book and sets up the next. Korman, as always, plots things with a sure hand and paces them well for his intended audience. Also as always, his plotting is so over-the-top and unbelievable that it takes more than the usual willing suspension of disbelief to accept what is going on, never mind the motivations of the one-dimensional characters. Still, Masterminds works as an easy-to-read, exciting series opener that is just different enough to attract readers and just similar enough to other preteen adventures to keep them comfortable as the story unfolds.
Krosoczka’s Platypus Police Squad series takes a different approach. The stories are right out of a noir-ish police procedural, suitably toned down for younger readers and told in a straightforward cops-solving-crimes tone. But the characters are all animals, and the central ones are indeed platypuses, albeit ones that walk upright, dress in detectives’ suits, carry weapons (boomerangs, not guns), do not appear to lay eggs (that we know of), and do not have the poison-injecting spines on their feet that real male platypuses have. For Krosoczka, absurdity is stock-in-trade; witness his Lunch Lady graphic novels, about a lunchroom chef who fights school-related crime using modified kitchen utensils as weapons. So Platypus Police Squad is not much farther-out than Krosoczka’s other work – but it is farther out than other authors’ work, and that is one thing what should attract young readers to it. Another thing is Krosoczka’s illustrations: watching platypus detectives barking commands into cop-car microphones, a giraffe pushing a wounded panda out of a building, a moose applying TV makeup, a scraggly chameleon doing his job as a news reporter, and a lab-coated squirrel discussing nut processing, is enough to appeal to any preteen with a penchant for the offbeat and silly. To counter the visual absurdity, what Krosoczka does is to keep the narrative absolutely straight and familiar almost all the time: “I want the perp in custody YESTERDAY!” “Well, that’s a theory. Where are you getting that from?” “I’m really trying hard to keep an open mind.” “He was one of the best. …Heart of gold, spine of steel, that one had.” “Platypus Police Squad! FREEZE!” The story here involves a mayoral campaign in which one candidate, Frank Pandini Jr., is rich, but comes from a suspect background – his father served as mayor, was thoroughly corrupt, and was eventually jailed as a crook. The other candidate, a bulldog named Patrick McGovern, appears honest, but may be behind a series of attacks on Pandini by flying squirrels – or rather squirrels that seem to fly but may actually be regular squirrels decked out with phony wing flaps. Prior books in this series introduced Detectives Corey O’Malley and Rick Zengo; this time the partners are separated – Zengo being assigned to stay with Pandini’s campaign while O’Malley gets a new, female partner, Jo Cooper. Zengo and O’Malley both have a bad history with Pandini’s father (this is one of many noir elements Krosoczka employs), but both must now focus on protecting Pandini Jr. O’Malley and Cooper are both careful and methodical, but both find they need some of Zengo’s intuition and disorganization to come up with leads in the case. Remember, these are platypuses, and reading about (and seeing) them go through typical detective plot points is a big part of the fun here. Eventually, in the best noir tradition, the detectives solve the mystery, the bad guys appear beaten, but a final twist ending shows that what everyone (including readers) thought was the right solution has really left the fox in charge of the henhouse. Or something like that – there’s no actual fox or hen here, but there are plenty of other animals playing human roles. Last Panda Standing is best read after reading the first two books, although doing so is not strictly necessary. This book is also most appropriate for preteens who already know the tropes of detective stories, since its humor depends heavily on ways in which it mirrors or overturns those standard elements. For the right audience, it is a lot of fun; but it will miss the mark for those who cannot quite figure out what is so funny about what seems to be a fairly standardized crime tale featuring anthropomorphic animal characters.