July 30, 2015
(++++) HITTING AGE TARGETS
Little Blue Truck’s Beep-Along Book. By Alice Shertle. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
5-Minute Berenstain Bears Stories. By Jan, Stan, & Mike Berenstain. Harper. $12.99.
The Fog Diver. By Joel Ross. Harper. $16.99.
Although publishers can never predict which of their books for children will be top sellers and which will not do well, they can and do predict which age ranges will be attracted to specific books. In fact, they are quite good at the business of targeting kids by creating works that – for all their surface uniqueness – have certain important elements in common with other books intended for children of roughly the same age. Books for pre-readers and the youngest readers, for example, are highly tactile as well as simply written, often taking the form of board books and sometimes including interactive elements – meaning things to push, turn, pull or twist. Or, in the case of Little Blue Truck’s Beep-Along Book, beep. Actually, the sound made by Little Blue Truck, a bound-in plush toy with big googly eyes and a smiling, waving frog behind the steering wheel, is closer to a cheep than a beep, but kids in this age range will not care. The truck sticks through the middle of all the pages of Alice Shertle’s book as the author urges kids to “beep along” throughout the story: “If the cows are in the corn, beep along – Beep! Beep!” “If the pigs are in the clover, beep along – Beep! Beep!” And so forth. Jill McElmurry’s illustrations appear in the margins around Little Blue Truck, showing various animals smiling, waving and generally having a good time as the truck passes them. The oversize board book, its strongly reinforced pages making it unlikely that young children will be able to yank Little Blue Truck out of the binding (although some of them will certainly try), is only eight pages long, but manages to convey a pleasantly upbeat, amusing, beep-ably rhythmic story for kids up to age four.
The 12-tale collection called 5-Minute Berenstain Bears Stories targets the next age group, 4-8, and is – as usual when the Berenstain Bears are involved – intended to instruct and advise, not just entertain. These stories are drawn from various times in the Bears’ history, but all contain the mixture of homespun adventure and moralizing that Bears fans find attractive but that may lay things on a bit too thickly for those not already enamored of these characters. For example, “The Berenstain Bears Hug and Make Up” shows a rarity: the family having disagreements, resulting in “a bad day in the tree house.” The problem is quickly solved with a round of giggles and some hugs. “The Berenstain Bears and the Spelling Bee” features Sister Bear winning the school-level contest and then deciding that she does not want to go to the “All-Schools Spelling Bee” because she just wants to “play soccer, and do things with my friends” – and that is just fine with her parents, even though Papa has been training her in spelling and urging her to do better. “The Berenstein Bears at the Aquarium” features Brother and Sister Bear rushing through most of the exhibits because they are so interested in seeing the now politically incorrect “Whale & Dolphin Show,” which they thoroughly enjoy. “The Berenstain Bears Come Clean for School” is about germs, which for some reason the Bear family (except for Mama) does not understand, so everyone (particularly including Papa) sneezes loudly, fails to wash hands, and so forth – with Papa of course coming down with a cold at the end. The tales are simple, straightforward and preachy, easy enough for kids in the target age range to read and understand, but somewhat overwrought in their eagerness to provide simplistic lessons. Whether adopting a kitten “so covered in mud that you couldn’t tell what color it was” or going out to a restaurant (“If you eat your broccoli, you get dessert”), the Bear family has answers for everything – which, however, may not be the answers that human families favor. 5-Minute Berenstain Bears Stories is a (+++) book for kids and adults who have already met the Berenstain Bears and who find their particular brand of interaction attractive.
The interactions occur at a different level in books for preteens, ages 8-12. These are more-complex narratives, filled with adventures that are often set in exotic places where magic or pseudo-science is a big element of the story. There are central protagonists, but they are almost invariably surrounded by other important characters – all of them preteens or young teenagers, of course – so that the stories emphasize the importance of friends and of one’s peer group rather than individuality, and frequently dwell on the evils of the adult world. There is usually a positive adult character or two, cast in the role of mentor and/or rescuer, but the main action and the main success belong emphatically to the young people featured in the story. Every single one of these elements is present in Joel Ross’ The Fog Diver, a future-dystopia tale (a very popular type in recent years) in which the Earth is cloaked in a white mist that is deadly to people but not to other living things – and that conceals within it the precious objects of long ago that poor slum dwellers like the four protagonists of the tale must hunt and trade to survive. It is inevitable in stories like this that the members of the group are different but complementary, and that the most-central of them has a deep secret that will eventually be revealed. Chess, the 13-year-old “tetherboy” who makes the actual dives into the fog, has that secret: one of his eyes actually appears to contain some of the fog, the result of a vicious experiment conducted by the evil Lord Kodoc in years past. This feature may (or may not) help him survive longer and perhaps find things that others cannot locate. The other three young people who crew the airship from which Chess explores are Hazel, the captain; Swedish, the pilot; and Bea, the mechanic. All are one-dimensional characters and are as bold and supportive of Chess as can be. And all four are involved with Mrs. E, a woman who serves as mentor and rescuer but now (unsurprisingly) needs rescuing herself, having come down with a fog-related sickness that subsides long enough for her to play a commanding role one single time, at exactly the right moment in the story. There are some clever elements in The Fog Diver, including misstatements of what the past must have been like (the kids believe there were once a ruling Burger King and Dairy Queen), decisions on what things from olden times have real modern value (paper money is only good for toilet paper), and the fact that Lord Kodoc’s airship is a kind of transformer whose “harmless” version is called the Teardrop while the name of its battle version is an anagram: Predator. Nevertheless, The Fog Diver is for the most part yawningly predictable, even though Ross keeps the pace fast and makes sure to have adventure and peril lurk around every corner (and up in the air, too). The notion of machine awareness lies in the background here – the fog is actually made of nanoparticles deliberately designed to block only humans – but this is fantasy, not science fiction, despite a smattering of science thrown about as a veneer. Like so many stories for this age group, this (+++) novel is a quest tale, in this case involving the young crew’s search for a place called Port Oro, where Chess will be safe and hopefully Mrs. E can be cured. But the book’s ending – after an unsurprising, inevitable encounter between Chess and Lord Kodoc, which is disappointingly dull, as is the supposed master villain himself – is abrupt and unconvincing, with the kids approaching Port Oro at last and saying that everything will be fine now because they are “home.” But they have never before been to Port Oro, do not really know what is there, have not quite reached the place by the book’s end, and are not sure whether Mrs. E can really get proper care there. Perhaps all these loose ends are designed to set up a planned sequel, but whether or not that is the case, they make for a distinctly unsatisfying conclusion to a book that quite clearly targets a specific age range and makes no attempt to move outside the straitened conventions of novels planned for that specific group of readers.