July 05, 2018
Zach King #1: My Magical Life. By Zach King. Illustrated by Beverly Arce. Harper. $18.99.
Zach King #2: The Magical Mix-Up. By Zach King. Illustrated by Beverly Arce. Harper. $18.99.
Twintuition #4: Double Cross. By Tia & Tamera Mowry. Harper. $16.99.
Canadian politician Charlotte Whitton came up with an absolutely classic comment that turns out to have currency far beyond the context in which she made it: “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” The applicability goes far beyond gender, because it is all about expectations and the way in which perceivers – which would mean readers in the case of books – respond differently based on the reputation of the books’ authors. Celebrities (or their ghostwriters) turn this expectation to their advantage all the time: readers feel they “know” the authors (whom they have never met and to whom they will never have the slightest shred of importance) and therefore have a built-in tendency to enjoy material that they might not like so much if it came from an “unknown” individual. And this in turn lets celebrities (or their ghostwriters) get away with producing some mighty thin offerings that readers would likely find dull and/or formulaic if they came from “ordinary” writers. Thus, the reason readers ages 8-12 are supposed to be attracted to the first two books in the Zach King series is that there really is a Zach King, who is a twentysomething video maker with a following on various social-media platforms. And the books not only bear his name as author and use his name for their central character, but also come with an invitation to download a free app to go with them. The likelihood that anyone who does not know Zach King will want to read the Zach King books is minimal: they are aimed at fans, and their underlying assumption is that fans will put up with pretty much anything that is celebrified by its association with the real-world Zach King simply because he is a celebrity. Should a non-fan happen upon these books, he or she will likely be most attracted not by the writing but by Beverly Arce’s illustrations, which are full of vigor and use their anime inspiration in a variety of clever ways. But these are not graphic novels: the illustrations, although sometimes used to advance the story, are mostly not the primary reason for the books’ existence. What preteen Zach King fans are supposed to enjoy here is the narrative setup: 11-year-old Zach (the character) comes from an entire family that has magical powers. Why? Who knows? But these are not powers that can simply be used by their possessors – they must be mediated, channeled, through specific objects. Why? Who knows? So Zach’s father has a watch that he can use to turn back time, Zach’s younger sister has eyeglasses that she can use to become invisible, and so on through all sorts of cousins who have objects such as a magical thumb drive and magical deck of cards. Why? Who knows? But Zack has not found his specific magical object yet, and his parents worry that maybe he has been “skipped” and has no magical powers at all; and this worry makes them decide to stop home-schooling him and send him to Horace Greeley Middle School with ordinary kids. Why? Who knows? And the school setting brings Zack a best friend; a crush; a series of encounters with the school’s resident “mean girl” and her posse; repeated run-ins with the school’s stern principal; and some ambiguous evidence that he does have magical powers after all – the funniest example being the first one, in which Zach ends up inside a vending machine without most of his clothes. The real-world Zach King tosses in more and more challenges and sillinesses for the in-book Zach King to handle: in the first book, frogs and an alligator; in the second, a rival student from Australia and a herd of wild horses. Real-world Zach King does not appear to care, or need to care, that very little in the books’ plots hangs together. Thus, a major point in the first book is that the magic-doers’ magical objects work only for them, not for anybody else, except that in the second book, the whole plot revolves around the way it turns out that Zack can use other family members’ magical objects – although only in ways that make matters worse. After two books, the mystery of Zack’s particular magical powers remains unsolved, but presumably real-world Zack can spin out this issue for quite a while yet, since, after all, the fans for whom these books were clearly written will presumably continue to stick with them as long as real-world Zack remains a celebrity.
The fact that the Twintuition books are strictly for celebrity-obsessed preteens is even more explicit, since the cover specifically gives the authors’ names as “TV Stars Tia & Tamera Mowry.” The final book in the tetralogy, Double Cross, simply carries on where matters were led by the first three: Double Vision, Double Trouble and Double Dare. Caitlyn and Cassie Lockwood, identical twins, are super-close sisters who share even more than sisters typically do in books of this kind: they share intermittent visions, specifically visions of the future – a future that, however, they are sometimes able to change, especially if it means helping people who would otherwise be hurt and making sure that potential bad events do not occur. It is hard to imagine many eight-to-12-year-olds being taken in by so transparent a “do good all the time but you can’t change just anything” plot; but, again, the target audience here is not an age group but a celebrity-watching group that happens to lie within a specific age range. The fourth book of the series brings the twins back to San Antonio, their home town, on a class field trip, but of course this is not a simple, happy homecoming: one of their friends, Lavender Adams, soon disappears, apparently kidnapped, and the twins’ capital-S Sight not only shows them bits of what will or may happen to Lavender but also reveals things they never expected – notably scenes of a man who is being held captive and who just might be their father, who is supposedly dead. People in these books are amazingly accepting of Caitlyn’s and Cassie’s Sight almost all the time, as when a character named Steve asks, “Y’all can change the future?” and the girls simply respond, “Sometimes. But usually it’s to stop something bad from happening – like Mom losing her job, or Lavender’s dog getting hit by a car, or Emily getting hurt…” And everyone just kind of goes with all this because, well, why not? There turns out to be a mystery here involving a key chain that may be the, umm, key to – well, lots of things. And Granny L (Grandmother Lockwood) is a key to using the girls’ visions as well. In fact, Granny L knows how this whole thing works: “The idea is that energy is stored in these talismans. Objects he [the twins’ father] and other Lockwoods were touching during the visions.” Well, that certainly explains everything. By the time one of the twins tells the other, “It still sounds a little crazy,” it actually sounds a lot crazy, but consistency and believability are scarcely the point here, as the other twin knows: “Oh, it’s totally wackadoodle. …That doesn’t mean it’s not true, though.” Of course not. And of course everything eventually works out just fine for the twins and their mom and, yes, their long-lost dad, whose multi-year disappearance turns out to have been caused by a plot element so silly and laughably hole-filled (although supposed to be taken very seriously) that the only possible reason to believe it would be because the book was written by celebrities whose writings a reader desperately wants to believe, as if doing so will somehow bring the reader closer to the celebrities. And anyone who believes that is, of course, precisely the right audience for Twintuition #4: Double Cross.