July 10, 2008


Smiles to Go. By Jerry Spinelli. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Crossroads. By Chris Grabenstein. Random House. $16.99.

      The proton dies. Then what? This is the unlikely premise of Jerry Spinelli’s latest book for ages 10 and up, Smiles to Go. Protons do not decay – but what if they did? The cosmic significance would be vast, but Spinelli is more interested in the impact of the event on the life of Will Tuppence. Will is a science geek and skateboarder, two interests that Spinelli manages to merge in his usual clever style of super-short chapters detailing Will’s worries that “matter is mortal. Everything is going to go. Disappear. Vanish. Rock. Water. The planets. The stars. Everything. And of course, Will’s body will eventually go, too, and his life seems to be going now, since all his plans to become an astronomer, have a solid working life and eventually be a top senior chess player after retirement seem irrelevant in a universe in which protons die. Will’s 12-step plan for himself actually ends with “Heaven (angel) (forever),” but the proton news provokes such questions as, “Are angels made of protons? Is Heaven? If so, does this mean they won’t last forever?” And then there are the mundane realities of a ninth-grader, such as taking his friend Mi-Su Kelly to a movie (just the two of them, Will hopes), and figuring out how to tell BT that he is still Will’s best friend but that Mi-Su is a friend in a different kind of way, and so on. Among all his worries about his life, Will has time to fill in some of his family background, and to find out how much his current family means to him when a medical crisis hits his little sister, whom he has always (he thinks) hated. Smiles to Go has a few too many themes and tries to do too much with them, and Spinelli’s short-chapter format seems rather contrived here; but as usual, there are more high points than low in Spinelli’s latest look at the problems of preteen life.

      Chris Grabenstein’s The Crossroads is his first book for preteens (ages 9-12), but the problems in it are far from mundane. This is a story of ghosts and crazy old ladies and family ties that not only bind but also can strangle. At the center of everything is 11-year-old Zack Jennings, who has just moved from New York City to a better life in Connecticut, complete with a new stepmother, new dog and new neighbors. One part of the problem here is Zack’s dead mother – she is still haunting him. Another problem is the tree in the back yard of Zack’s new home – a malevolent spirit, linked to a past tragedy at the crossroads, lives in it. And the 50th anniversary of that tragedy is coming up very, very soon. The Crossroads becomes the story of a supernatural mystery, into which it turns out someone was looking 25 years earlier. There are generational revenge elements here, and ghostly possession, and a suicide, and “long-buried secrets” that are revealed at last. The book devolves into a series of melodramatic disappearances and returns, with one key being a soul that lives again and again if it can “crawl inside a body that carries his royal blood.” This is creepy stuff, but it is piled on so thickly that even some preteen readers may find it over-the-top, as one part of the story seems to end, but then there’s another twist, and that is concluded, but another twist arrives, and so on and so forth. There are certainly clever things in Grabenstein’s book – including some people, or rather things, that you wouldn’t believe could be ghosts, but are. But even though parts of The Crossroads are done very well, the book as a whole is overdone.

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