September 10, 2015


The Chronicles of the Black Tulip, Volume 1: The Vanishing Island. By Barry Wolverton. Walden Pond Press. $16.99.

Alien in My Pocket 6: Forces of Nature. By Nate Ball. Illustrated by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $4.99.

Fart Squad #2: Fartasaurus Rex. By Seamus Pilger. Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. Harper. $4.99.

     There is never a shortage of new or ongoing series intended to take preteens, and even readers as young as age six, to new places and into new realms, real or fictional of a mixture of both. Sometimes the books are elaborate, sometimes entirely surface-level; sometimes they are intense and serious, sometimes frothy; but the one thing they all share is ready accessibility – they are fast-paced, easy to read and designed to sweep young readers along from page to page without allowing too much time for thought. The Vanishing Island, which opens a new trilogy called The Chronicles of the Black Tulip, is decidedly of the elaborate-and-serious type. It is one of those alternative-history stories that tosses together elements of Western and Eastern culture and mixes everything up in a rather uneasy broth that works mainly because readers in the target age range can be expected to know, at most, only a little about what is being thrown into the mixture. The basic story line is completely predictable for adventures of this type. There is a bold but misunderstood and trouble-prone protagonist – in this case, a boy named Bren Owen – who leaves his family behind (or rather his father: his mother dies) to seek his fortune. The year is 1599 in this non-historical history, which means it is the Age of Exploration, and Bren, who lives in a port city and whose father makes maps (for a boss named Rand McNally), hears many stories of the wonders to be found elsewhere. He yearns to see these things for himself; that is his only real motivation. Since books of this type nowadays include a girl protagonist as well as a boy, Bren – when he finally does manage to escape from his home town (which is aptly named Map) – soon encounters a girl named Mouse, who is from China and is wise beyond her years, with secrets that only slowly start to be revealed. Barry Wolverton picks and chooses elements of culture, myth and fairy tale to include here. Mouse’s story, for example, is right out of fairy tales: she tells Bren of a flock of cranes that landed at a Chinese mountain lake, undressed and turned into beautiful girls – with a hunter seeing them and withholding the robe from one, who therefore could not return to crane shape and had to become the hunter’s wife. Eventually the crane wife manages to escape, and the hunter casts away all her daughters, one of whom is – or may be – Mouse. As for Bren, his guiding spirit is not so much his heritage as his being given a strange object by a dying sailor – an object that turns out to be a paiza, a sort of passport created by the Mongols at the court of Kublai Khan. Bren and Mouse have a series of far-flung and dangerous adventures involving the search for a vanished island, a search that obsesses a strange Dutchman, Admiral Bowman, of whom readers first learn that he is interested in the paiza and is good at chess – clearly troubling signs in a book of this type. Quests, discoveries, dangers, revelations, betrayals and a number of deaths of subsidiary characters later, some of Mouse’s true powers and true knowledge emerge, with troubling results, and Bren and she find themselves marooned – on an island. What all this means will presumably be revealed as the trilogy continues. Young readers seeking an exciting, if improbable, voyage to places of derring-do and unreliable magic will find those places – which appear regularly in preteen-oriented novels – in abundance here.

     Far more humorous and frequently ridiculous, but with a serious underlying purpose connected with Core Curriculum principles, the Alien in My Pocket series by Nate Ball is now up to its sixth entry, again featuring pocket-size alien Amp and the human boy, Zack, in whose bedroom Amp crash-landed his spaceship. Amp is a mixture of advanced technology, sort-of-magical attributes, and incompetence: space travel, yes, but no ability to repair his ship and leave Earth to help stop a planned invasion; an “Erdian mind trick” ability to convince people “they could smell or taste things – usually gross things”; but no understanding of, say, the tents used in camping or the concept of camping itself. That is what Forces of Nature is all about: Zack’s family on a camping trip that goes seriously awry and was never supposed to include Amp, but does. Here too there must be a girl as “second lead” in the story, and this is Olivia, who alone knows about Amp and  who is often more level-headed than Zack. Inevitably, Zack and Olivia, with Amp, end up separated from Zack’s parents (who are as completely clueless as parents usually are in books of this type); the kids are lost in the woods, with Amp along, and have to figure out how to read a map, use a compass, and handle rumors of an unpleasant ghost by the name of Nasty Ned, who is said to have significant anger issues. Mosquitoes and bears complicate matters (but only mildly), and eventually Zack and Olivia make a water compass – a project outlined at the back of the book for real-life readers, this being the tie-in to educational matters. Rescued thanks to their own ingenuity and the timely appearance of park rangers, Zack and Olivia find again that they and Amp make a good team – and Zack learns that science is not “boring stuff to be avoided” but something that “could really be important, useful, and – dare he think it? – fun!” That is a “mission accomplished” not only for Amp but also for Ball and illustrator Macky Pamintuan, whose pictures help add to the amusement here, if not to the underlying science.

     Stephan Gilpin’s illustrations for Seamus Pilger’s Fart Squad books are intended to do nothing but show various ways in which invisible, unpleasant odors affect characters human, animal and even – in the series’ second entry – prehistoric. There is no science or other educational material so much as hinted at in these gas-obsessed stories, in which four kids consume radioactive five-bean cafeteria burritos and develop various powers associated with expelling gas. Pilger and Gilpin clearly find this concept a lot funnier than most parents will, but kids in the target age range of 6-10 (the same as for Alien in My Pocket but younger than that for The Chronicles of the Black Tulip, which is aimed at ages 8-12) will revel in the juvenile amusements that permeate the writing. They include a town called Buttzville, a lead character named Darren Stonkadopolis, a nasty rich kid named Harry Buttz Jr., a fossilized Buttosaurus, and a real live Fartasaurus that Darren accidentally releases from 150-million-year suspended animation in the local tar pit. None of this makes an iota of sense, and none of it is supposed to. Fartasaurus Rex simply gives the four-member Fart Squad its second chance to do some, err, butt-kicking, when the dinosaur stampedes throughout the town. But then it turns out that the revived dino is not a bad guy at all, not even a flesh-eater – there was a mixup when assembling a skeleton, and “F. Rex” is actually herbivorous. So the Fart Squad must find a way to save the Fartasaurus – and in the process rescue the museum by the tar pit, since the institution is threatened with closure because attendance has fallen dramatically. Everything works out just fine, of course. Darren’s gas expulsions are explosive; one Fart Squad cohort, mixed-ethnic entry Juan-Carlos Finkelstein, has timed expulsions that “go off” after he has left the scene; another, super-brain Walter Turnip (who looks turnip-y, therefore being both the token smart character and the token obese one) can fly as a result of consuming the burritos; and the last squad member, the girl who must be included even in a group like this one – and whose name, Tina Heiney, needs no explanation – is expert with “silent but deadly” emissions that no one would expect to come from someone so petite and angelic-looking. All four get a chance to use their particular and peculiar powers in Fartasaurus Rex, and no reader who finds this sort of ongoing joke funny will go away disappointed by this adventure, which stinks because it is supposed to stink.

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