January 14, 2016
(++++) HITHER AND THITHER
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics. By Chris Grabenstein. Random House. $16.99.
Mouse Scouts No. 1. By Sarah Dillard. Knopf. $12.99.
Mouse Scouts No. 2: Make a Difference. By Sarah Dillard. Knopf. $12.99.
These books offer lots of racing about in search of one thing or another – for very different purposes. Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics is a sequel to Chris Grabenstein’s first-rate Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, which was a book about books and a wonderful quest-with-riddles in the Willy Wonka tradition. To understand all the ins and outs of Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, set a year later than the first book, it helps immensely to have read that earlier novel: it is not 100% necessary, but character motivations are thin and not entirely clear in the sequel if you do not know what happened to the same characters the first time. Also, being a sequel set in the same place and featuring many of the same characters, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics lacks the “wow” factor of the earlier book: the idea of solving convoluted puzzles while listening to Luigi Libretto Lemoncello mangle the English language through wordplay that makes perfect sense when you think about it is no longer original, although it is still fun. The ostensible reason for the “Olympics” of the title is to give preteens from all around the United States a chance to compete for an all-expenses-paid college education, courtesy of Mr. Lemoncello, a self-described “bazillionaire” whose love of games and words is reflected throughout his highly improbable library in Alexandriaville, Ohio. The town’s name is derived from the classical Alexandria, whose library was destroyed by decree of the Christian Emperor Theodosius; Mr. Lemoncello’s replaces a library that was also destroyed, for a reason made explicit at the end of Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics. Because this book, like its predecessor, is built around the extremely eccentric game creator of its title, it is obvious from the start that the supposed reason for the Olympics is not going to be the real reason. There are hints early on that something more is occurring, such as the involvement of one character, Andrew Peckleman, in work at a motel that has been taken over by someone who is allegedly his long-lost great-uncle-twice-removed. Andrew is one of the characters whose motivations here make sense only for readers of the earlier book. Also less than fully clear is the reason for the hatred of Mr. Lemoncello by Charles Chiltington and his mother, who hatch a rather feckless plot to run Mr. Lemoncello out of town and take over the library for their own nefarious (or at least dull) purposes. What is clear from the start here is how much protagonist Kyle Keeley and his teammates, after winning Mr. Lemoncello’s competition in the earlier book, want to win the rematch in this one. There is nothing especially innovative in the games played here or the puzzles to be solved, nor is there much surprising this time in the role played by “Dr. Yanina Zinchenko, the world-famous librarian,” in bringing the wonders of Mr. Lemoncello’s library to life. True, there is a new nemesis here for Kyle in the person of Marjory Muldauer, a Dewey Decimal Systems know-it-all who objects to the apparent lack of seriousness shown by Mr. Lemoncello at his library; but she turns out to be all right – unlike Charles Chiltington in the first book. There is also a serious undercurrent in Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, relating to people trying to ban and even burn books to which they object, but this subplot is unfortunately not explored as much as it could be, even though it is crucial to the book’s climax. Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics has enough twists and turns and enough underlying seriousness of purpose to be a worthy successor to Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, and the whole notion of just how attractively interactive a library run by a bazillionaire could be remains a great one. If the new book does not quite measure up to the earlier novel, it is still a first-rate blend of escapism and thoughtfulness for readers in the target age range of 8-12.
The new Mouse Scouts series is for slightly younger readers, ages 7-10, and is aimed specifically at girls. Sarah Dillard’s idea here is to follow two newly minted Acorn Scouts (who were previously in the Buttercups, a lower level for younger mice) through a series of merit badges; while earning the badges, Violet and Tigerlily will also teach human readers about real-world topics that are discussed in pages from the Mouse Scout Handbook. The blend of mundane adventure with instruction works well, and the opposite portrayals of the two best-friend scouts – quiet, careful, nervous Violet and enthusiastic, bouncy Tigerlily – give young girls of varying personalities someone (or some mouse) to relate to. The first book is about the “Sow It and Grow It” badge, which involves “creating and maintaining a vegetable garden” under the stern gaze of Acorn Scout leader Miss Poppy. The Mouse Scouts have small adventures as they locate seeds, prepare and plant the garden, and discover their skill – or lack of it – at making things grow. Time and again, they refer to their handbook, which includes, for example, pictures of various vegetables to consider growing and amusing mouse-focused illustrations (such as one showing the size of a Mouse Scout as being between that of a cherry tomato and that of a regular tomato). Dillard cleverly shows gardening from a mouse perspective that could also be a young child’s perspective: tools, for instance, include a “spoon for scraping and scooping” and “chopsticks for planting seeds and staking tall plants.” Eventually, the Mouse Scouts overcome adversity in the form of garden-raiding pests (after the handbook tells them, and human readers, all about “Friends and Enemies in the Garden”), and Miss Poppy presides over their badge ceremony. Then it is on to the second book, Make a Difference, which revolves around trying to decide what sort of positive difference to make. There is a hint of what will happen early on, when the handbook explains that a Mouse Scout is “Cheerful, Aware, and Thoughtful (CAT, for short).” And sure enough, the scouts’ eventual way of making a difference turns out to involve a cat – not exactly a creature with which mice, whether scouts or not, are comfortable. To earn this badge, the scouts have to defy one of Miss Poppy’s rules, which is in conflict with the handbook’s statement that “a Mouse Scout must use her inner resolve and put someone else’s needs above her own.” Everything works out just fine, of course, and the scouts learn self-reliance and how to do the right thing even when they fear the consequences of rule-breaking. There are 16 Mouse Scout badges in all – they are shown at the back of each book, along with the words and music for the Acorn Scout Song. So presumably Dillard is planning a series of 16 books – all of which will be, if the first two are any indication, pleasant, easy to read and gently instructive.