October 01, 2015


The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, Book II: The Terror of the Southlands. By Caroline Carlson. Illustrations by Dave Phillips. Harper. $6.99.

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, Book III: The Buccaneers’ Code. By Caroline Carlson. Illustrations by Dave Phillips. Harper. $16.99.

Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! By James Burks. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

     The gargoyle sidekick is something new, but most of the elements of Caroline Carlson’s The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy are those to be expected in novels for preteens: a protagonist who is more than he (or, in this case, she) realizes, twists and turns in which good guys turn out to be bad and vice versa, a soupรงon of magic, a whole passel of friends to help the central character and/or to be rescued and helped in their turn, and enough humor to keep the adventure light when nothing of special moment happens to be going on. Magic Marks the Spot, the first book of the series, pulls all of these elements into a story centered on Hilary Westfield, who wants desperately to become a pirate despite the disapproval of her father, who is Admiral of the Royal Navy and, naturally, a sworn enemy of pirates. Besides, the piracy apprenticeship program accepts only boys. So Hilary is sent to Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for classes in etiquette, embroidery, and fainting. Unsurprisingly, she runs away, joining freelance pirate Jasper Fletcher, known as “The Terror of the Southlands.” And they have, as Hilary’s first adventure, a quest for the lost magic of the Enchantress of the Northlands. The second book is actually called The Terror of the Southlands and is now available in paperback after originally being published last year. The title, however, now refers to Hilary herself. She has become a full-fledged pirate, but is about to be kicked out of the ranks of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates because she isn’t doing all the fighting and treasure-finding that membership requires. This could be an interesting angle: what happens if a fictional character, heretofore following all the tropes of the action/adventure format for preteen readers, attains her goals and finds they were not worth seeking? But Carlson prefers to go in the tried-and-true genre direction instead of looking for ways to bend it. Thus, Hilary is clearly in need of another quest, and in this book she sets out to find one and succeed in it. In keeping with the amusingly off-kilter narrative style that is the best thing about these novels, that quest turns out to involve not only the mysterious and dangerous group called the Mutineers but also the even scarier thing known as a High Society Ball. The whole balancing act of high-seas adventure and societal expectations is a tad repetitious here, and the quest itself fairly closely echoes the one in the first book, but these are common issues in the middle books of trilogies, and readers who enjoyed Magic Marks the Spot and wanted more of the same will find it in The Terror of the Southlands.

     And then there is the all-new and final series entry, The Buccaneers’ Code. Here Hilary is at odds with the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, which has turned out to be less than very nearly honorable: its leader, the villainous Captain Blacktooth, has betrayed all the good (or very nearly good) that the league stands for, and Hilary has rejected him and the league itself. Indeed, she hopes that the league will one day have a different and very nearly honorable leader – and guess what? Her loyal crew thinks she should be that individual. So Hilary challenges Captain Blacktooth to a pirate battle on the high seas – and this requires Hilary to lead a third quest, this time for supporters who will make her eventual victory possible. Carlson’s approach here is one of throwing everything from the first two books, and then some, into the final one, and letting all the characters mix things up until Hilary eventually and inevitably emerges victorious (in her own way). So there are enchantresses and High Society girls here as well as pirates, and reformed villains and good friends and overprotective mothers and chickens and molasses. This third book is somewhat more madcap than the first two, although it recognizably follows them and flows from the same source (flowing, indeed, far more quickly than molasses does). Dave Phillips’ attractive illustrations, and a format that includes not only straight narrative but also letters, forms, and quotes from the handbook of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, combine to help keep the entire trilogy interesting. And although Carlson never veers far from the usual path of preteen fantasy adventure novels, she does manage to decorate that path in some amusingly offbeat ways – not only by replacing the traditional pirate parrot with the gargoyle but also by having the land of Augusta be a place where pirates grow beautiful flower gardens, letters mysteriously get to ships within hours, and the dungeons contain crocheted rugs. The Buccaneers’ Code is a rollicking conclusion to a trilogy that is, if not be a cut above the usual adventure for this age group, at least half a cut above. With a cutlass.

     Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! also completes a trilogy, this one of graphic novels; and this trilogy also follows a story arc that is typical for series of its type. In James Burks’ first book, Bird & Squirrel on the Run, the two title characters meet and become friends, bonding through their mutual difficulty, which comes in the form of Cat, who is intent on eating them both. The two have opposite personalities: Bird is carefree, reckless, and always looks on the bright side, while Squirrel is nervous and easily frightened of almost everything. In the first book, they head south for the winter (and to escape Cat), and learn entirely expected lessons about friendship and teamwork. In the second book, Bird & Squirrel on Ice, the friends are way south, in the Antarctic, after they crash-land at the South Pole. They soon encounter a spear-carrying penguin named Sakari, who thinks Bird may be the predicted Chosen One, who will rid the penguins of the threat they face from a killer whale. Unfortunately, it turns out that this will involve Bird becoming whale food. So Squirrel and Sakari devise a plan to save Bird and, they hope, the rest of the village. Mission accomplished, Bird and Squirrel head home, which brings readers to Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! They have only to cross the Great Mountains to get their lives back to normal – including having Squirrel once again be afraid of absolutely everything, including death-dealing house dust. But near journey’s end, they encounter a bear cub being set upon by hungry wolves, and Bird insists on stopping their journey to drive the wolves away and save the cub’s life. Squirrel, although he tries to help brave Bird, succeeds only in conking Bird on the head – hard – with a pine cone. This causes amnesia and a personality reversal, in which Bird is now afraid of everything, forcing Squirrel to be the brave one and help Bird and the bear cub past a series of obstacles, including repeated reappearances by the determined wolf pack. Eventually, Bird gets another knock on the noggin, which perfectly reverses the effects of the first one, and the friends make it home, happier and wiser and all that sort of thing, encountering the cub’s mother at just the right point so the bears can have a happy ending as well. The Bird & Squirrel series is a good entry point to graphic novels for younger readers: the stories are simple, the characterization is straightforward, the art is attractive and unchallenging, the colors are bright, and the use of panels that have different shapes and mesh into each other at times while bursting the bounds of their edges at others helps keep the action well-paced. There are no unexpected lessons or particularly quirky occurrences in Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! But there is enough pleasant camaraderie and sufficient adventure and amusement to make this a fine conclusion to Burks’ series and a pleasant work to read and look at in its own right.

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