June 07, 2007


Jack Plank Tells Tales. By Natalie Babbitt. Michael di Capua/Scholastic. $15.95.

The Midnight Library: Liar. By Damien Graves. Scholastic. $5.99.

      Stories about stories can be self-referential as anything, but when well done, they can be thoroughly delightful. Jack Plank Tells Tales is very well done indeed. Natalie Babbitt, best known for Tuck Everlasting, here constructs a story whose motto might be, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, tell stories.” For Jack Plank can’t do much of anything. At the start of the book, he’s an out-of-work pirate in Jamaica, circa 1720. He’s out of work because he’s just not very good at plundering – all that yelling and making faces and such. Jack’s a nice guy, and his shipmates like him, but he’s just not a big contributor to profits. So he goes ashore at a town called Saltwash, determined to find something landlubberly to do. Unfortunately, he’s not good at any of the things he attempts, a state of affairs that leads to such chapter titles as “Not a Farmer,” “Not a Baker,” “Not a Barber,” “Not a Goldsmith,” and so on. Every night, at the boardinghouse where he is staying, Jack Plank tells tales of his failures to the other guests – a good way to get things off his chest and to keep the conversation going. The stories are mighty amusing – the music-loving crocodile and the man who turns into an octopus are highlights – but after a while, Jack runs out of professions to attempt, and decides he has no choice but to go back to sea. But then his fellow boarders come up with a very clever idea…which readers may guess before Babbitt reveals it, but which is nevertheless a delightful solution to a very lighthearted and amusing puzzle.

      There’s nothing lighthearted or amusing about the stories from The Midnight Library, which in a sense is too bad: some black humor might make the tales seem less formulaic. Liar, the fifth volume of these stories – this time, the pseudonym “Damien Graves” is assumed by Tina Barrett – continues to chug along at the same (+++) rating as the rest, presenting three slightly shivery stories in which bad things happen to basically good kids. In the title tale, a girl named Lauren creates an alter ego who is all the things she wants to be but isn’t – popular, well-liked, and so on…and who then turns out to be just a little too real. In “Tickets, Please,” Brian tells about his Great-Uncle Ray, who once boarded a train and was never seen again; and then Brian and his friends Craig and Emily board a train without buying tickets; and then…it’s easy to see where this is going, and that’s just where it goes. In the third story, “Killing Time,” Alexis goes to an acting class where people play at death – until the playing becomes all too serious. There is no attempt at characterization anywhere, with all the stories fast-paced so they can be read quickly, provide a shudder or two, and then be forgotten – effective enough for readers who are satisfied with this sort of thing.

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