March 30, 2017
(+++) ONE FOR BOYS, ONE FOR GIRLS
Teddy Mars, Book #2: Almost a Winner. By Molly B. Burnham. Illustrated by Trevor Spencer. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $6.99.
Teddy Mars, Book #3: Almost an Outlaw. By Molly B. Burnham. Illustrated by Trevor Spencer. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Pages Between Us. By Lindsey Leavitt and Robin Mellom. Harper. $6.99.
Although many attempts are now being made – some of them sincerely – to write book series that will appeal equally to preteen boys and girls, it still usually seems that the sequences’ target audiences are one gender or the other. The Teddy Mars books are clearly boy-oriented. Teddy is 10, the sixth of seven children in the “Mars Menagerie” (his dad actually calls it that), and desperate to stand out among his siblings: five older sisters and a five-year-old brother, Jake, whom Teddy calls The Destructor. The books are very 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 two, or three. The books’ characters are standard silly-suburbia and family-oriented preteen-novel types, such as Teddy’s two best friends, Lonnie and Viva, and Grumpy Pigeon Man, whose real name is Mr. Marney and who lives next door to the Mars family. The intent here is clearly to create a series of heartwarming scenes of suburban life in a large, sort-of-madcap family, but Molly B. Burnham’s approach is less than wholly successful: 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.
The illustrations by Trevor Spencer are a big part of the attraction of the Teddy Mars books, including Almost a Winner, originally published last year and now available in paperback, and the new and final book in the sequence, Almost an Outlaw. Like the first book, Almost a World Record Breaker, the second has a strong “records” focus. Almost a Winner revolves around the decision by Teddy’s entire class to go into record-breaking-attempt mode, leading to rivalries and hurt feelings – and to 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. In Almost an Outlaw, the focus is a little different from that of the previous two books: here Teddy is not trying to break records (although there are plenty of references to them) – instead, he needs to cope with a record-breaking number of rules imposed on him and The Destructor by Great-Aunt Ursula, who moves in with the Mars family to help out after Teddy’s mom gets a job. Ursula has lots of rules, about everything from record-breaking to being a good big brother. The rules may be a way to control The Destructor at last, Teddy thinks, but then Ursula comes up with a rule that says pigeons are not pets – and that quickly resets Teddy’s thinking and makes him consider becoming a rule-breaker and maybe even teaming up with The Destructor. The Teddy Mars books seem to be aimed at “reluctant readers,” especially boys, who will find Teddy’s antics and basically well-meaning attitude toward life and family to be engaging. In fact, despite the overbearing nature of Great-Aunt Ursula, Teddy eventually realizes that “even though I’m mad at Aunt Ursula, I also feel really bad for her, too.” The whole record-breaking thing becomes part of the eventual happy ending of the book and the series (happy for the pigeons, too); and if the Teddy Mars books are ultimately inconsequential, they are inconsequential in a warm-hearted way that preteen boys – at least ones who identify with Teddy – will find satisfying.
The Pages Between Us, originally published last year and now available in paperback, starts a series rather than ending one. But its target is girls as clearly as the target of the Teddy Mars books is boys. This is a middle-school-girls story in every way. The focus is on Olivia and Piper, longtime best friends who are distressed to find they have only one class together in sixth grade. To stay in touch through the school day, they write back and forth to each other in a sort of diary/chronicle. The setup of the premise is awkward, with odd nicknames and initial pages reminiscent of Jim Benton’s Dear Dumb Diary series, warning readers not to read the book – but without any of Benton’s offbeat humor. Readers who endure the start will encounter some accurate descriptions of middle-school life, including the difficulties of fitting in and making new friends, plus everyday dramas involving the cafeteria and boys. The book really comes into its own, though, when the girls’ longtime friendship is challenged as they start making decisions that keep them apart when they could be spending time together. This comes about because they start joining clubs. The spelling club is boring, and things do not work out in the Lego club even though Olivia’s crush is in it. Olivia finally makes a connection with the chess club – leaving Piper feeling left out and still unable to find her own niche and her own friends. To make matters well-nigh unbearable, Olivia cannot go to a big event at Piper’s church, and then a chess tournament is scheduled on the same day as Piper’s birthday party, forcing difficult choices into the girls’ lives and leading to a rift between them. The ill will cannot last, though – after all, this is the start of a series, and besides, the girls have years of close friendship behind them. The low point of the book is cleverly shown through two blank pages, representing the silence between the girls after they have their falling-out. Then Olivia returns to the notebook with an unsurprising “I know you won’t read this” comment, but of course Piper does read it, and gradually the girls rebuild their friendship on a changed and even stronger foundation. The Pages Between Us is slight in content and straightforward in writing style, but its presentation is appealing, including notes and occasional pictures and online communications (blog and E-mail) and homework assignments – the book’s plot is less interesting than the way Lindsey Leavitt and Robin Mellom show the events unfolding. Olivia and Piper are not especially interesting characters, but because the things they go through are similar to those that other middle-school girls experience, The Pages Between Us and later series entries will likely appeal to the very audience for which the sequence has been carefully designed.