November 05, 2015
(++++) AMUSEMENT OR SERIOUSNESS
The Naughty List. By Michael Fry and Bradley Jackson. Illustrated by Michael Fry. Harper. $12.99.
Nancy Clancy, Book 6: Soccer Mania. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $9.99.
Balance Keepers 2: The Pillars of Ponderay. By Lindsay Cummings. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Preteens seeking adventure can find it in many forms, seasonal and otherwise, funny and serious. The Naughty List is obviously a Christmas story, but is so amusing and offbeat a romp that it transcends winter-holiday time and ends up being just plain fun. Silly fun. Very silly fun. The tropes of preteen novels are played for laughs here: separated parents (father away working, mother at home with kids but working as many shifts as possible at her job), money problems, strange relatives, brother-and-sister issues. True, the underlying job and money matters are far from amusing, but Michael Fry and Bradley Jackson keep them in the background except when they are needed for a little tear-jerking (as when little brother Tad, who supposedly wrote Santa asking for the latest thing in video gaming, turns out to have written that the only thing he wants for Christmas is to have his dad come home). Most of the tears here are tears of laughter, though. A lot of them come from big sister Bobbie, who narrates the story, loves the color black, and was attacked by a zombie Santa and broke her wrist. Actually, the Santa was the blow-up kind, and it was on the roof, and it deflated and banged against the window of Bobbie’s bedroom and was driving her crazy, but when she tried to do something about it, she and the Santa fell off the roof. And that’s just the opening of this story, which gets steadily weirder. One reason it does that is Uncle Dale, who is clearly battier than the bats in the attic (if there are bats in the attic) – his wearing a spaghetti strainer on his head to protect his thoughts, and his texting with elves, are among his milder idiosyncrasies. But it turns out that all the weird things Uncle Dale says are actually, like, really for real, which is important because Bobbie accidentally steals the game console Tad wants because a couple of Santa’s elves put it in Tad’s sack, and that lands Tad on the Naughty List, which is maintained by the Watcher rather than by Santa because Santa is – well, not what you would expect him to be, except he is just what you would expect in a book like this, and if that makes little sense, remember that Uncle Dale also makes little sense but really does know how the world and magic and Christmas work. So Uncle Dale and Bobbie soon find themselves aboard a submarine heading for the North Pole, where Bobbie intends to use the never-before-used appeals process to get Tad off the Naughty List and make sure her little brother has a great Christmas even if no one else does. This means, among other things, getting past the “Figgy Pudding Swamp surrounded by the Missile-Toe grove,” which really is a grove of toes firing missiles (Yule logs). This makes sense because, when Bobbie and Uncle Dale and their accompanying elves (the nice ones named Gumdrop and Phil, not the evil robot kind) get where they are going, Bobbie comments, “And then I saw it. The North Pole. Or Cleveland. I wasn’t sure.” Yes, things are a tad messed up way up there, and if the words are not enough to describe how messed up, the flood of hysterically funny illustrations, the comic-strip sequences and the giant exclamations of “KA-BOOSH” and “AYEEEEEEE” certainly are. Of course, the whole book is a save-Christmas story, but doggone it, it doesn’t really feel like one a lot of the time, or rather it does feel like one when you step back and stop laughing, but that’s really hard to do. Fry’s illustrations, many of which look so much like drawings from early Bloom County comic strips that Berke Breathed should get a co-illustrator credit, make the exceptional silliness of the whole production even more delightfully amusing (Fry actually does Over the Hedge, but so it goes). As for what happens when the family is, inevitably, reunited at the end of the book, well, let’s just say it fits quite well with the rest of The Naughty List, which means it is not quite the super-sappy conclusion of a typical save-Christmas story. Nope – not much that’s typical here – merely a lot that’s hilarious.
The adventures are far more mundane and the characters far more traditionally endearing in the sixth Nancy Clancy novel, Soccer Mania. This too is a seasonal book – pretty much autumnal, to the extent that kids’ soccer has a season – but its real reason for being, as in the previous five books in this sequence, is to showcase the life of a slightly older version of Fancy Nancy, one of the most amusingly endearing characters created in recent times for young readers. If Fancy Nancy is five or six years old, Nancy Clancy is a couple of years older and has moved beyond her fascination with all things French and all hyper-fancy clothing to become interested in the sorts of much-more-straightforward things that attract so many kids up to about age 10. Nancy has not quite stopped muttering little French terms here and there – “double ooh la la” here and “voilà” there, to cite a couple of specific examples – but most of what happens in these older-Nancy books is on the mundane side. This time, Nancy wants to become a mediocre soccer player – she is not even at that level yet – and has a series of soccer-related adventures that involve dressing just like everyone else to show team spirit, eating post-game pizza, being temporarily traded to an opposing team, cheerleading for her friend Lionel’s team, helping Lionel after he suffers a sports injury, being injured herself (in a moderately amusing way that has positive consequences but that may still be a bit much for Nancy’s younger fans), and so forth. This is one of the better books in the Nancy Clancy series, deserving a top rating as much for its non-core matters (such as Nancy’s creation of a “spooky soccer story” that she writes entertainingly by using a thesaurus to expand her vocabulary) as for its main events. Young readers who have outgrown the Fancy Nancy books and want a more “grown-up” version of Nancy will enjoy themselves here, especially if they themselves play soccer, since so much of the book does revolve around that sport.
Speaking of playing, one requirement for authors is that they play fair with readers – or it should be a requirement, anyway. Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser certainly keep the Nancy Clancy books reflective of a consistent personality in a more-grown-up Fancy Nancy, even if the older Nancy is not as quirkily amusing as her younger self. But sometimes authors try too hard to create books with twists and turns, and in so doing pull proverbial rabbits out of their proverbial authors’ hats in ways that diminish the effectiveness of their work. That is the problem with the second Balance Keepers novel by Lindsay Cummings: the author seems to develop things rather neatly in some new directions through most of the book, but at the end takes some distinctly wrong turns that readers cannot possibly figure out in advance and that therefore spoil the flow of the narrative. The whole premise of Cummings’ fantasy/adventure series is absurd, but no more so than that of other would-be-serious sequences of this type. The idea is that there is a magical inside-the-Earth world that must be kept in proper balance so that the surface world will stay balanced as well – and since the balancing job is so utterly crucial to everyone on the planet, it can only be done by preteens (not that Cummings actually says that: it is simply expected in works like this that preteens can do world-shaking – or in this case world-unshaking – things far better than adults can). The first book took Albert, Birdie and Leroy to the realm of Calderon, where they balanced things properly and thus saved New York City. The second has them competing with a team led by Albert’s nemesis – the bully, Hoyt – for the right to help balance things in Ponderay, a land of huge pillars. In the first part of the book, Hoyt’s team is actually outplaying Albert’s, which is a nice touch. Then Albert’s team comes from behind and the rather dull adults in charge of all this send the two teams together, as a single group, to deal with a Ponderay problem that is bigger than originally, ahem, pondered. This is a traditional plot element – enemies forced to work as comrades and learning something about themselves in the process – and Cummings handles it well. The possibility of a traitor among the inner-Earth denizens, another entirely predictable plot twist, is also handled adeptly, if scarcely with a great deal of originality. But things go very much awry as The Pillars of Ponderay heads for, to and beyond its climax: the improved Hoyt not only reverts to type but also does so to such an extreme that he nearly dooms the entire world, within Earth and on it; and an underlying premise of what makes Albert special – his possession of the one and only Master Tile that confers multiple powers on him during the quests – is suddenly yanked out from under readers in a way that spoils the continuity of the entire Balance Keepers sequence. The early part of The Pillars of Ponderay is good enough to gain the book a (+++) rating, but the swerving near and at the end is so pronounced and so impossible for readers to anticipate that it casts a pall not only on this book but also on the sequence as a whole. Hopefully the next Balance Keepers novel will be in better balance between imaginative fantasy in a created world and fairness to readers in the real one.