February 15, 2007


Bone, Book Five: Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $18.99.

Dear Dumb Diary #5: Can Adults Become Human? By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $4.99.

      You get the feeling that many series authors simply coast from one book to the next. But not all do. Some make a strong effort to produce book after book of the same quality as their first – and even to open new vistas to readers to keep them coming back, volume after volume.

      Jeff Smith’s nine-volume Bone series is a prime example of outstanding consistency – one of the many ways in which this tale of three cousins cast into a land not their own, a land on the verge on a devastating war, is remarkable. Originally published as a comic-book sequence, the Bone tales are in the midst of receiving outstanding presentation, including top-quality production and beautiful reproduction of Steve Hamaker’s coloring, from Scholastic’s Graphix line. In fact, with Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border, the series is right smack in its midst – this is the fifth of the nine books. And it goes in a different direction from all the others, but a direction that is absolutely typical in the sort of epic story that Bone has by this time become. In an epic of fellowship – yes, it is all right to think of Tolkien here – some members of the group inevitably become separated from others and have their own adventures, with everyone eventually reuniting. This fifth book is the first one in which major characters are missing: Gran’ma Ben and Thorn, who have been revealed as the last of the Valley’s old nobility; Phoney Bone, the avaricious and always-scheming cousin whose misdeeds brought the Bones to the Valley in the first place; and Lucius, innkeeper of Barrelhaven and stalwart defender of the old Harvestar royal line. This is also a book in which Smiley Bone’s ever-cheerful ways and rather silly grin take a dramatic turn in a serious direction. And it is one in which numerous new characters emerge – principally the title character (a huge mountain lion of ambiguous loyalties whose name, when correctly spelled, is Roque Ja) and a large group of orphaned baby animals, loosely led by three little possums who have shown up in far less important roles in earlier books. This fifth book is filled with unexpected discoveries, revelations of deep and surprising information, highly unlikely (if temporary) alliances, and sudden bouts of violence and intensity. There is no way to enter the Bone saga with this book – it leans too heavily on what has gone before – but for those who have followed Bone from the start, this fifth volume starts to answer some crucial questions while opening up whole new lines of inquiry and uncertainty. The Bones still have far to go on their increasingly richly detailed journey.

      Aside from its high level of consistency, the Dear Dumb Diary series by Jim Benton has little in common with Bone. Yes, both are told through pictures and narrative together, and yes, both have plenty of humor, but Benton’s books are funny throughout, and make no attempt to be anything but amusing. Like the four previous books, the fifth starts with Jamie Kelly warning people not to read it and promising that “everything in this diary is true, or at least as true as I think it needs to be.” Then Jamie details yet another round of her trials and tribulations at Mackerel Middle School, including her feelings about gorgeous and otherwise perfect Angeline – whom Jamie came reluctantly to respect in Book Four, but of whom she now says, “when she stands next to something, she has a way of making it look less pretty by comparison. Which, when you think about it, is a form of vandalism that sadly, our legal system has no penalty for yet.” A lot of this book, though, is about adults rather than fellow students, with Jamie speculating on their bodily functions, the reasons they lose their fashion sense, the ridiculousness of the diets they go on, what the Mean Office Ladies do when they’re not in the office (“out pricing a new cauldron or something”), and why – to get to the heart of it – “adults are not fully formed human beings.” There is a delightful twist here, in which Jamie is forced to speculate that she and Angeline may end up being related to each other – and that’s the sort of thing that keeps fans of this series coming back for more. Can Adults Become Human? is fun and funny and worth a (+++) rating. There is – consistently – nothing deep in it.

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