February 25, 2016
(++++) HOW SERIES START
Stick Dog Tries to Take the Donuts. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.
The Dino Files 1: A Mysterious Egg. By Stacy McAnulty. Illustrations by Mike Boldt. Random House. $9.99.
Confidentially Yours #1: Brooke’s Not-So-Perfect Plan. By Jo Whittemore. Harper. $6.99.
Confidentially Yours #2: Vanessa’s Fashion Face-Off. By Jo Whittemore. Harper. $6.99.
Tom Watson manages both to continue an ongoing series and to start a brand-new one in Stick Dog Tries to Take the Donuts. The main part of the book is the fifth adventure of Stick Dog, the poorly-but-amusingly-drawn leader of a pack of five poorly-but-amusingly-drawn strays (the others being Poo-Poo, Stripes, Mutt and Karen). As in all the other books, the driving force here is food – not hot dogs, ice cream or pizza this time, but donuts (spelled that way) and, not incidentally, coffee, which Karen the dachshund tastes and which makes her considerably more hyper than usual (yes, it is possible). Indeed, “driving force” is a good phrase here, since the dogs’ encounter with donuts happens when they come upon a bucket truck, the kind used for repairing power lines, getting into trees, and doing other high-up things. And Stick Dog ends up driving it – not the truck but the bucket – several times. The whole adventure is as improbable as earlier ones, and follows the same pattern, in which Stick Dog does the thinking while the other four dogs criticize him and say he has no idea what he is doing and is lost somewhere in dreamland. For instance, at one point Karen needs to be rescued, because she has her head jammed in a large takeout coffee cup and cannot hear or see anything, so Stick Dog gently picks her up and carries her to safety – at which point the other dogs tell him that it is not right to eat Karen, no matter how hungry he and they may be. Eventually two themes of these books come together: finding food and dealing with Poo-Poo’s obsession with squirrels, which he deems his mortal enemies. Stick Dog not only gets donuts but also uses the bucket to get to apples in a tree, at which point he sees – a squirrel. So he takes the bucket down, gets Poo-Poo into it, and brings it up again, so Poo-Poo can once and for all deal with his nemesis. Except that it turns out that Poo-Poo does not attack the squirrel after all – for good, sufficient and happy reasons. By the book’s almost-end, the dogs have donuts and apples to eat, but no more coffee to drink (Karen has had quite enough, Stick Dog declares), and all ends well. But that is not quite the end – which is where the series startup comes in. After completing the latest Stick Dog adventure, Watson – who behaves in these books as if he is a preteen rather than an adult creating books for preteens – talks about a girl “in my class” whom he kind of likes and who really, really likes…cats. And she would just love to read something about cats, if only Watson would write something about them. And so Watson is going to do just that, creating a series about – wait for it – Stick Cat! There are even a few pages from the very first (upcoming) Stick Cat book included at the very, very end here; and thus a new series is born, or about to be born.
Stacy McAnulty’s series, The Dino Files, is being born in a more-conventional way, with book number 1 – in which, in fact, both the series and a dinosaur are born. A Mysterious Egg introduces Frank L. Mudd, narrator and preteen dinosaur expert, and the Dinosaur Education Center of Wyoming, which his grandparents own and which he and his parents visit every summer. This summer, his cousin Samantha (Sam) is there, too, being highly annoying by being, well, a girl, and also because she does not even like dinosaurs. Also on hand are Aaron Crabtree, the obligatory adversary in books of this sort, and Aaron’s nasty father – who gets into a conflict with Frank’s grandmother (Gram) over a dinosaur egg that Gram finds but that happens to have been on Crabtree land. None of this might be a big deal, except for the fact that Saurus, Frank’s cat, decides to sit on the fossil egg – and it, well, hatches. And various complications ensue, involving who should and should not know about Peanut (so named because he has a peanut-shaped horn on his nose, although in Mike Boldt’s illustrations it sometimes looks disconcertingly like a large wart); and what Peanut needs to eat; and where Peanut should live; and so on. The story arc here is a highly familiar one for preteen series (a sort of alien-in-our-midst thing), and most of the characters are pure types. Sam, for instance, “always pretends to talk to an invisible camera” because, Frank explains, she “says she has to practice being famous.” But The Dino Files is a cut above similar series, at least potentially, because Frank really does know about dinosaurs, and there is some genuine information here on how fossils are found and what they are – plus use of real dinosaur names. Indeed, there is enough potential learning here so a glossary (although admittedly a short one) needs to be included. It remains to be seen whether The Dino Files will become deeper and more intriguing in subsequent books, or whether it will turn into just another hunt-find-and-argue sort of series. For now, though, is deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Jo Whittemore’s Confidentially Yours sequence, on the other hand, is already showing in its first two books that there will be nothing particularly distinctive about it. This is one of the innumerable imitations of The Baby-Sitters Club, that preteen-girl-oriented success of the 1980s and 1990s that included 35 novels by Ann M. Martin and 43 by Peter Lerangis (plus plenty more by other authors). Whittemore’s take on this is to have three best friends – Brooke, Vanessa and Heather – just starting middle school and becoming columnists for the school newspaper, the Lincoln Log, after signing up for a journalism elective. The girls are not the only brand-new thing: the paper’s advice column, which they are to create, is new, too. The baby-sitters started with four members, and so does this group, because the teacher insists that a boy named Tim work with them to provide a male perspective on whatever issues they write about. Whittemore intends to focus each book on a different member of the advice-column set. Brooke’s Not-So-Perfect Plan deals with overachiever Brooke realizing that with her demanding friendships, her travel soccer team, her newspaper commitment and, oh yes, her school work, she may be overextended. Dropping school work is unfortunately not an option, so how is she going to juggle everything else? Might she have to stop doing the advice column? Of course not (if she did, there would be no series, after all). Brooke, who narrates this book (just as the baby-sitter books were narrated by each character in turn), bemoans her life: “Last year, I did soccer, coed baseball, made honor roll, and still had time for my family and friends. This year, I’m failing at everything.” Eventually an incident with a lost dog convinces Brooke that even though she is doing so much, her real problem is that she is not organized enough, and she gets a little help figuring out how to use time more efficiently, and even turns that information into an advice-column entry. So everything in this (+++) series opener ends well.
Its (+++) successor focuses on Vanessa, who loves fashion and her friends and the advice column – but readers will already get all that, and if they don’t, Vanessa, who narrates this volume, will soon tell them. Vanessa’s problem is competition: a new neighbor named Katie moves to town from the glamorous world of Los Angeles (a city that is always glamorous in books like this), and she may have even more style and more fashion savvy than Vanessa does, and that would be just awful. Soon the two are competitors not only in how they look but also in how they see things – with the advice column at the center of their dispute. The competition between Vanessa and Katie quickly escalates to absurd levels, and the cluelessness of Vanessa’s parents – a foundation of all series like this one – reaches even higher heights of silliness. Then Vanessa helps a fellow student in a way that makes him a success and gets her face and voice on television, and then there’s a party, and then Katie and Vanessa decide they can really be friends rather than competitors, and then “Katie and I hugged,” Vanessa writes, so everything is forgiven and everything is fine and wonderful. Like the first book in the series, this second one has a feel-good ending after some largely inconsequential trials and tribulations – ones that do not feel inconsequential to the characters and presumably will not feel that way to girls who read the books. The problem with Confidentially Yours is not that it fails to be well-meaning – it is certainly that – but that the characters have little character and the problems they face have been faced, in this form or a similar one, by so many other characters in so many other series for preteen girls. Confidentially, these books are fast reads, easy reads and not very meaningful reads.