April 28, 2016
(+++) HOMESPUN HEROES AND HEROINES
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook. By Leslie Connor. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Teddy Mars, Book #1: Almost a World Record Breaker. By Molly B. Burnham. Illustrated by Trevor Spencer. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $6.99.
Teddy Mars, Book #2: Almost a Winner. By Molly B. Burnham. Illustrated by Trevor Spencer. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown. By Crystal Allen. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Not all adventure books for preteens are of the grand sort; not all are heroic quests or delvings into far-flung fantasy worlds. Some are far more modest in scope, far more tied to real-world personal, school and family matters, and far more interested in connecting with readers through characters with recognizable personalities than they are in creating larger-than-life protagonists. Even in books of this sort, though, there is plenty of room for offbeat and unusual characters and/or situations. Leslie Connor’s All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, for instance, goes out of its way to show the characters as just ordinary, regular, recognizable people – because Connor’s setting is so off-the-beaten-path. It is a prison, where 11-year-old Perry has always lived. His mother is serving time in the Blue River Co-Ed Correctional Facility in Surprise, Nebraska, and this is the only home Perry has ever known. A sympathetic warden has made all this possible, believing that it would be good for Perry’s mom’s rehabilitation to have her son with her – and good for Perry to be with his mother rather than in a series of foster homes. The other prisoners accept the arrangement, and Perry has learned about the good underlying them despite the crimes they have committed; and he has been something of a civilizing influence on everyone. Into this rather idyllic and decidedly unrealistic situation steps an ambitious and hard-edged new district attorney named Thomas VanLeer, and suddenly everything changes: Perry is forced to stay with the VanLeer family as a foster child, and cannot be there for his mother in the weeks leading up to her upcoming parole hearing – and her parole itself may be jeopardized because Perry has been staying with her all his life. Connor here takes the fact that some prisons do make special provisions for women who are pregnant or have recently given birth, and imagines what might happen if one such facility allowed mothers to raise their children throughout the kids’ early years. The whole book whitewashes criminals and makes prisons seem a great deal more pleasant and welcoming than they in fact are; and of course, as a worried Perry investigates the never-before-explained reasons for his mom being in jail in the first place, he discovers that she is not really guilty of anything but went to prison to protect someone else. Everybody on the inside is so warm, so good and so misunderstood here that it seems obvious that society should imprison people on the outside – starting with VanLeer – rather than keep the jail cells locked. This is an unusual book and certainly a well-meaning one, but it will be upsetting for sensitive readers in the 8-12 target age range, who are likely to wonder why all the genuinely good people are in jail while the bad ones are their jailers. Cynics would suggest that the real world is indeed a bit like that, but Connor takes the notion to an extreme without any cynicism at all. The eventual happy ending here is inevitable, but young readers and their families should not be misled into thinking it is anywhere within the realm of real-world possibility.
There is somewhat more real-world feeling to the first two Teddy Mars series books by Molly B. Burnham: Almost a World Record Breaker, originally released last year and now available in paperback, and the new Almost a Winner. The illustrations by Trevor Spencer are a big part of the attraction of these books, in which the title character is desperate to stand out in his large, sprawling family by breaking some sort of record. Any sort of record. Teddy’s family is the Mars Menagerie (his dad actually calls it that). Teddy, who is 10, has five older sisters and a younger brother, Jake, whom he calls The Destructor. He has two best friends, as is usual in family-oriented preteen novels; they are Lonnie and Viva. The Teddy Mars books are exceptionally easy to read, not only because of the numerous illustrations but also because every chapter is amply subdivided. A two-page spread may contain as many as four subheads plus an illustration, or perhaps three illustrations, or something along those lines. The books’ characters are standard silly-suburbia types, notably including Grumpy Pigeon Man, whose real name is Mr. Marney and who lives next door to the Mars family. Teddy is preoccupied with getting into the Guinness Book of Records, because that way he will be distinguished and known to all and not merely the sixth of seven children and the repeated victim of a five-year-old monster of a little brother. The point of these books is to see and hear all the silly things Teddy does to draw attention to himself, and all the ways he fails. Numerous short failed-record-attempt sections alternate with little family-problem sections. For instance, in the first book, The Destructor breaks up Maggie’s soccer game by running onto the field and stealing the ball. Later, Teddy tells Lonnie and Viva what happened: “You mean after the referee yelled at my parents? Maggie ran home and isn’t speaking to anyone. Sharon declared no one is invited to see her musical and isn’t speaking to anyone but is still singing. The twins aren’t speaking to anyone because they’re still mad about picking up trash. Grace isn’t speaking to anyone (no one knows why) but it doesn’t seem so bad to me. And The Destructor is living in his cat box, talking all the time.” This is supposed to be madcap humor, and some readers may find it to be; others may have a hard time keeping track of the many characters’ comings and goings, or understanding why they should. The world-record attempts and pigeon-care episodes are pretty repetitious, although young readers should find them enjoyable for a while. The climax of the first book comes when Teddy actually does break a world record – thanks to the amount of time he spends trying to get away from The Destructor – and the second book revolves around the decision by Teddy’s entire class to go into record-breaking-attempt mode, leading to rivalries and hurt feelings and Teddy’s discovery that maybe, for a change, he ought to try not to break a record because maybe there are more important things in life than that. Even the most-basic plot overview of the Teddy Mars books shows that they are supposed to be heartwarming, and to some extent they are, but the constant “My To-Do List” entries and other lists (“It’s hard to dye eggs when,” followed by nine items) tend to become repetitive; the antics of The Destructor wear thin quickly (and the Mars parents’ lack of interest in controlling him is actually troubling); and Teddy’s “record” focus keeps veering in the direction of obsession and sometimes seems to arrive there. Ultimately, the various characters in these books simply are not interesting enough in themselves to sustain the events – they are defined by what they do (Teddy tries to break records, The Destructor messes things up), not by anything they are or have inside. Burnham is scarcely the only author of books for ages 8-12 to create superficial characters, and the ones here do have occasional glimmers of personality. But the Teddy Mars books seem designed mostly for young readers who do not want anything with even the slightest hint of meaning or genuine thoughtfulness.
Crystal Allen’s The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown is the start of its own series and is aimed at a narrower age range than the books by Connor and Burnham: 8-10 rather than 8-12. The eponymous protagonist is a nine-year-old who is stereotypically well-meaning but prone to making mistakes. She is obsessed with cowgirls and inclined to tell tall tales. Her predilections get her in trouble and result in her being nicknamed “Mya Tibbs Fibs” and ostracized by the whole school. She also ends up being paired for Spirit Week with the school bully, Connie Tate. Initially desperate to get her friends back – at least the girls she thinks are her friends – Mya keeps getting more deeply into minor but, for a fourth-grader, emotionally significant trouble. All this occurs against the background of the upcoming Spirit Week, which means Mya has no choice but to deal with Connie, whom she discovers to be different from what everyone thinks and maybe not so bad at all. In fact, Mya herself is not what everyone thinks she is, so there is a bond developing between the two girls – but Allen makes sure to put bumps in the road to understanding, happiness and success. They are not very big ones, but they loom large for the exuberant Mya. This is really a book for girls in a narrow age range, featuring Mya herself as narrator of her trials and tribulations. For any boys who may consider reading the book, Mya does have an older brother in fifth grade. His name is Micah, but as Mya notes, she calls him Nugget “because his skin is brown and his head is shaped like a chunk of chicken. He thinks I named him after a piece of gold." Mya is inclined to critique Nugget for making essentially the same socially-focused relationship mistakes that Mya herself makes; but of course Mya is not sufficiently self-aware to see the parallels. This element of the book is rather strained, and Nugget is not much of a character, although he could emerge in later series entries. The best part of this particular novel is its awareness of the ways in which bullying can take many forms other than the physical: the manipulative, controlling insensitivity of Mya’s classmates is more subtle than any physical attack, but can leave scars just as deep. Allen does not explore this theme in depth, however; indeed, there is little depth to this story, which hints at issues but – because of the age range at which it is aimed – does not delve too deeply into them. The readers who will enjoy this book and its sequels will be those who consider themselves “spunky,” an old-fashioned word that seems just right to describe the spirited Mya’s mixture of enthusiasm and shallow but pleasant charm.