May 31, 2018
(++++) TALK TO THE ANIMALS
Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Sea Monsters. By Jackson Pearce. Illustrations by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. $9.99.
Following Baxter. By Barbara Kerley. Harper. $16.99.
The third Pip Bartlett adventure follows quite directly in the footsteps of the first two, but Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Sea Monsters has enough fun and mild mystery so it will not seem repetitious to readers of Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures and Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training. The underlying premise of all the books is that Pip can talk to animals, and if that seems like a magical ability, it should, since she talks to magical animals. Indeed, a lot of the fun of these books is reading about the magical animals that Jackson Pearce imagines and that Maggie Stiefvater neatly illustrates as if they are being discussed in a magical-creatures guidebook – whose existence more or less ties all the Pip adventures together. Pearce and Stiefvater make the magical critters just a step or two beyond real-world ones, helping kids relate to the imaginary animals and their behavior. In Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Sea Monsters, the title character is a “slimekraken,” a highly intelligent deep-sea creature more or less resembling real-world deep-sea krakens (probably giant squid). It is the keeping of a slimekraken in a tank for display and educational purposes, and its eventual release, that provide the mystery and drama of the book. But it is Pip’s ability to speak to the slimekraken and many other magical creatures that keeps matters entertaining and enjoyable. Other critters here are the “spinnerseal,” an adorable-looking, furry and very definitely seal-like creature that, among other things, helps Tomas – Pip’s timid, highly allergic, easily frightened and hypochondriacal best friend – learn a bit about swimming, which he has always been too frightened to try; eel-like “tubeknots” that live tangled together; hermit-crab-like “crabbels” that turn out to be able to put on theatrical productions; “Eastern sandmarchers,” birds resembling real-world sandpipers except that they “always march in lock-step”; “vanderbirds,” which look like pelicans with under-wing pouches in which they collect snacks; and more. Pip’s ability to communicate with all these creatures gives her and Tomas clues to the reasons for apparent vandalism in the town of Port Candor, where Pip, Tomas, Pip’s cousin Callie, and Tomas’ family are on vacation: the vandalism turns out to be connected to the well-meaning but misguided captivity of the slimekraken, who turns out to be not so much monstrous as she is lonely. Really, the mystery here is on the mild side and the upbeat ending a foregone conclusion. But the parade of just-unusual-enough animals and Pip’s special communicative abilities (in which, of course, the rather dim adults do not believe) combine to make this series entry attractively amusing.
Barbara Kerley’s Following Baxter is fun and amusing, too, although this standalone book (aimed at the same age range as the Pip Bartlett novels: 8-12) is a little too thin and a touch too obvious to gain more than a (+++) rating. Baxter is a dog with whom 11-year-old Jordie Marie Wallace seems able to communicate: he seems to understand everything she says, although he does not reply in kind as the magical creatures do to Pip. Baxter lives with Professor Reese, who has just moved in next door to Jordie’s family and who is working on the usual important and secret experiments that preoccupy scientists in fantasies for this age range. Specifically, what Professor Reese is in the process of discovering and exploring is teleportation – instantaneous transmission of objects and people from one place to another. Jordie and her younger brother, TJ, spend a lot of time with Professor Reese, and Jordie, who narrates the book, soon discovers, “There was this secret layer of science that had always been there, when I made hot chocolate in Dad’s microwave or turned on the lights. The secret layer of science was everywhere. I’d just never noticed it before.” And now that Jordie does notice the ubiquity of science, she becomes involved when Professor Reese’s teleportation experiments, predictably, go awry. How does Baxter fit into all this? Baxter is declared “king of the bounce” for his ability to catch balls no matter the direction in which they bounce – even superbouncy ones that “superbounced superfast.” And this ability turns out to be crucial in getting the teleportation device working properly and then figuring out exactly where things are going on the other end when they do not go just where they are supposed to go. This becomes a significant issue when Professor Reese herself is teleported to – well, somewhere – and Jordie and TJ need to do some detective work to figure out where “somewhere” is. This gets them involved with a series of numbers that in turn relate to Baxter’s microchip while corresponding to latitude designations, and – well, Kerley complicates the mystery enough to keep things interesting, and even overdoes it a bit, especially by introducing a rather surly detective who is using silly and feckless adult reasoning to search for the professor when it is obvious that dog communication and microchip manipulation are called for. The use of the detective is not the only slightly off-kilter element here: there is also the relationship of Jordie’s parents. They “are separated, but we all still live together. Sort of. Dad’s part of the house is a studio apartment built right on top of the garage.” Umm, well, OK. Anyway, there is nothing genuinely scientific in Following Baxter, and Kerley knows it, explaining at the back of the book just how complicated genuine teleportation would be, if it could be done at all. Following Baxter is all in fun, and if Baxter turns out to be a livelier and more fully realized character than any of the humans, that is unlikely to trouble preteen readers very much, if at all.