November 27, 2019
The Last Kids on Earth No. 5: The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.
Creature Campers #1: The Secret of Shadow Lake. By Joe McGee. Illustrated by Bea Tormo. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.
Undersea Mystery Club #1: Problem at the Playground. By Courtney Carbone. Illustrated by Melanie Demmer. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.
Everybody has gotten into the act of trying to attract so-called “reluctant readers,” young people who have little interest in picking up a book because it is a book and who have to be tempted to engage with those old-fashioned forms of communication by being shown that books are cool-by-association. That means “by association with something with which they do like to engage,” such as video games. And that is the underlying premise behind The Last Kids on Earth, which Max Brallier and Douglas Holgate have successfully maneuvered through four volumes and, now, into a fifth, The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade. This particular entry is, in fact, quite good, better than the previous couple, in which the inventiveness of Brallier (if not Holgate) seemed to flag and the story began to veer off the tracks. The whole series started as an end-of-the-world dystopia, with monsters taking over everything and four kids being the only survivors and needing to find a way to fight off the zombies that had appeared everywhere – after first developing ways to unite themselves into a cohesive zombie-fighting unit and a real post-apocalyptic team. That is not a bad setup for a sequence aimed at preteen reluctant readers, and Holgate’s usually bizarre and often clever illustrations have been a highlight of the series all along. The problems that developed in the last couple of entries had to do with the ever-widening scope of the sequence. It turned out that the last kids on Earth were not the last kids on Earth, for one thing. And it turned out that even though Earth was now overrun by zombies and other monsters, there were also good monsters out there, ones that just happened to get together with the four not-really-last kids to help them out. And then the fourth book turned into a grotesque sort of It’s a Wonderful Life thing, with a focus on the real meaning of Christmas. That was odd even by the standards of a series such as this. But The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade takes the ill-fitting elements of the most-recent series entries and does a pretty good job of pulling them together in exciting, if not particularly rational, ways. The focus remains on the foursome. The books’ narrator, Jack Sullivan, sees the world as a vast video game for him to play and win, and one he had better win since it is also, like, real life: “You fail and the controller melts in your hand – hits the ground, bursts into flames, burns a hole in the floor, and falls through to the netherworld. And while that’s happening, lest you thought, Oh, I’ll just go get another controller! your console spontaneously combusts and then the TV crashes to the floor and explodes in a raging inferno.” Accompanying Jack in his usually overwrought quests are Quint Baker, his best friend, a brainy inventor type; June Del Toro, Jack’s crush and the token savvy, as-good-as-any-boy female in the novels; and Dirk Savage, hulking brute and onetime bully who has abandoned his former dark side to bring the foursome some muscle. Dirk was bitten by a zombie and had to be unzombified in the previous book, and this one follows up that plot thread. Also, the previous book introduced another human survivor of the same age as the fearless foursome – but she is evil (as readers could immediately tell from her name, Evie Snark) and wants to help the transdimensional bad guys overcome the transdimensional good guys. That plot element gets considerable followup in the latest book as well. What is new here is the mysteriously increased importance of the broken Louisville Slicer bat that Jack wields as a weapon and that turns out to have mysterious power over the grotesque Ghazt, a super-evil creature brought to Earth by Evie at the previous book’s climax. It also turns out, very conveniently for a plot packed with coincidence and narrow escapes, that Jack’s weapon can now exercise control over zombies. Remember the zombies? They were the original maxi-threat in this series, now relegated to mini-minion status. In any case, as Jack envisions himself as a Star Wars kind of hero-in-training and his compatriots try to pick up on other threads scattered about from the earlier books, Brallier – neatly abetted, once again, by Holgate – knits a plot whose utter absurdities and incoherences never prevent it from being exciting or silly (or, often, both at the same time). It is easy to see The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade being appealing to video-game fanciers – and streaming-TV fanciers, as well, since the whole thing is being turned into a Netflix series that ought to intermingle with the books as effectively as they intermingle with the world of video games.
Video games are scarcely the only place from which reluctant-reader series can be extracted. The Internet is an even-more-fertile source of material that can be adapted into traditional-book form. A digital library of books, videos and audiobooks called “Epic!” (complete with exclamation point) is the source for two new book sequences aimed at the youngest group of kids likely to be reading on their own, roughly ages 5-8. Both of these (+++) series are formulaic in characters, events and outcomes, and the initial novels in both are in large print, quite easy to read, and amply illustrated (although they are not graphic novels, and the pictures do not move the plots along in the way Holgate’s do in The Last Kids on Earth). In the Creature Campers series, a single human, Oliver, goes to a thoroughly ordinary camp that just happens to be peopled (if that is the right word) by a grumpy gnome named Grumplestick, a bigfoot, a boy fairy whose uneven wings make it hard for him to fly, a jackalope who talks pretty much nonstop, and so forth. Unlikely friendships invariably result, since of course the book is all about accepting others no matter what they look like and how they behave – up to a point. Adults deserve no such acceptance, the bad guy in the book being a rare-creature collector named Barnaby Snoop, who wants to add a bigfoot to his holdings and spends most of his time talking to and about himself in the third person while failing to do anything even mildly nefarious. There is also a lake monster at the camp – making an appearance just at the right time. There is nothing serious or particularly meaningful here; the idea is simply that a good time is had by all – by the characters in the book and the kids reading about them.
There is some attempt to include a bit of educational material in the Undersea Mystery Club series, whose first volume has a “More to Explore” section at the back of the book, with bits of information on some real-world items that the story itself makes no attempt to look at realistically. A mermaid named Violet and her best friend, a narwhal named Wally, are the central characters here, looking into the reasons a brand-new undersea playground seems to be falling apart. This turns out to be not much of a mystery: rocklike decorator crabs have been taking pieces of the playground equipment away to decorate and camouflage themselves. Of course, as soon as they realize they should not do that, they help put everything back together, and all ends happily. Since decorator crabs really exist, this book has a tiny bit of reality attached to it. Narwhals really exist, too, for that matter, although they neither look nor behave like Wally. Mermaids – well, they exist in plenty of children’s stories and even some for adults, so having a mermaid protagonist here is scarcely a surprise. The big question surrounding extra-simple, amply illustrated series such as Creature Campers and Undersea Mystery Club is whether kids who go on to look for other types of reading – for example, by actually doing more exploration along the lines suggested in the first Undersea Mystery Club book – will have been captivated enough by reading to stick with books that are not specifically designed to grab and hold their interest on every page. The same question applies to reluctant-reader series for older groups, such as The Last Kids on Earth: will readers decide reading is just as good as video games or Internet interactivity? The answer, for now at least, remains unknown.