March 24, 2016


Desmond Pucket #3: Desmond Pucket and the Cloverfield Junior High Carnival of Horrors. By Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.

Clark in the Deep Sea. By A.W. Alley. Clarion. $14.99

Gretchen over the Beach. By A.W. Alley. Clarion. $14.99.

     When books celebrate imagination even as they entertain, they become a potent mixture of fun and thoughtfulness. That might seem an odd combination for a series of amply illustrated books (not quite graphic novels) about a young master of monstrous mayhem, but Mark Tatulli is really onto something with his Desmond Pucket series. The third book, in which Desmond is a seventh-grader, is even better than the first two – and to see the difference between what Tatulli does here and what graphic novels do, readers have only to read the graphic novel included in Desmond Pucket and the Cloverfield Junior High Carnival of Horrors. Tatulli cleverly sums up “the story so far” by having a teacher give the usual what-I-did-during-the-summer assignment and having Desmond create a graphic novel to tell his story, which is the story Tatulli previously told at greater length in the series. But this does not come across as annoyingly self-referential – instead, it is scene-setting for everything that happens in this third book. And although this one is just as much fun as the first two, if not more so, it also has a veneer of realism – and not just because Tatulli at the end gives kids step-by-step instructions on how to re-create some of Desmond’s monster effects. Here Desmond confronts a typical middle-school dilemma of “first crush” and, in his case, ends up torn between two girls he likes but cannot quite figure out.  Also here, and crucial to the plot, is the return of Desmond’s nemesis, Mr. Needles, who is now principal of the school and whom Desmond has to transform in order to preserve the school tradition of the carnival of horrors of the book’s title. How the transformation occurs is very clever, even when it turns out, in a neat twist ending, that everything Desmond and readers thought about the event is wrong. The scary carnival turns out to be important for trying to preserve the job of the beloved school librarian, who is going to have to leave because budget cuts are reducing the number of days she can work, and she has kids for whose day care she has to pay. This is a pretty serious part of the plot, but handled so deftly by Tatulli that everything Desmond and his friends do on behalf of the librarian – as well as for their own reasons – comes across with light-but-real-world-like sensitivity. Desmond Pucket and the Cloverfield Junior High Carnival of Horrors is great fun to read simply as another story of Desmond thinking up scary exhibits and fending off a competing scare creator – who backs Desmond into a bet that means Desmond will have to stop creating scares altogether if he loses. Readers will know that Desmond cannot possibly lose, but how he wins is as important, and as amusing, as the fact that he does. And everything really does end happily for everybody here, a tie-up handled by Tatulli with considerable deftness. Of course, at the end the scene is set for another book in the series, and that is as it should be, but Desmond Pucket and the Cloverfield Junior High Carnival of Horrors is thoroughly satisfactory both on its own and as a conclusion (for the time being) of the saga that began with Desmond Pucket Makes Monster Magic and continued with Desmond Pucket and the Mountain Full of Monsters.

     There is nothing monstrous in the first two R.W. Alley books about the imaginative adventures of four young children named Clark, Gretchen, Mitchell and Annabelle. But it is kids of these children’s ages who turn out to save the day for Desmond Pucket and his creations, and in Alley’s books the imagination shown in everyday playtime is thoroughly winning on its own. Clark in the Deep Sea is a springtime book, and Gretchen over the Beach a summertime one. The children’s personalities shine through in the simple-to-read, well-plotted stories, and it is easy to see how each tale reflects one specific child’s point of view. Clark’s story occurs on a rainy spring day, when a stuffed toy, Bear, falls off the porch – and Clark immediately dashes for what Alley transforms into the edge of the deck of an ocean liner. Donning deep-sea gear, Clark dives into the deep sea to rescue Bear, who is now alive and has a quizzical look on his face as he is grasped by “a rare, hungry Fur-Shark” that looks just like a Dr. Seuss creation. One “tickle-tussle” later and Bear is free, but more adventures lie ahead as Bear is swept into a smelly cave and then, with Bear held tightly by Clark, “the Million-Mile Eel trapped Clark by the fins!” This creature – a reimagined garden hose – uses its water spray to tumble Clark and Bear into a “seaweed bog,” from which they are rescued by Mitchell and Annabelle in a submarine. And eventually all three return safely to the deck of the ocean liner, now transformed again into the home’s back porch, where Clark gives Bear to Gretchen and everyone dries off while waiting for an end to the rain.

     Equally charming is Gretchen’s beach-day story. She is the youngest of the four children and tends to be ignored by the others, who leap into the water as Gretchen and her toys, “the roly-polys,” are left on the sand. Then Gretchen’s new, ribbon-bedecked hat blows off – and when she chases it, her adventure begins, as she and the now-alive roly-polys are pulled up into the clouds, one of which makes a fine resting place for Gretchen to tell a passing gull about “the roly-polys and their amazing adventures.” But a thundercloud approaches, and Gretchen, now atop the gull’s back, must fly over the dark cloud. She finds the roly-polys and her hat “high, high, high above the clouds,” does an amazing mid-air rescue, and uses the hat as a parachute to return to the beach. Her older siblings are puzzled: Gretchen is all wet even though she did not go in big waves, and the ribbon from her hat is missing – although the gull soon returns it and the whole family (including parents, whose faces are never seen) settles in for a surfside picnic and ignores the mystery of just what happened with Gretchen. Both the Clark and Gretchen stories are lovely little tales for kids ages 4-8 – the age range of the children featured in the books – and Alley’s warm illustrations perfectly complement the gently told stories and their hints of imaginative magic. Forthcoming are the other two kids’ tales, Mitchell in the Moon and Annabelle at the South Pole, completing what promises to be a cuddleable quartet.

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