September 24, 2009


Babymouse #11: Dragonslayer. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.99.

Piper Reed Gets a Job. By Kimberly Willis Holt. Illustrated by Christine Davenier. Christy Ottaviano Books. $14.99.

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Practicing the Piano (but she does love being in recitals). By Peggy Gifford. Photographs by Valorie Fisher. Schwartz & Wade. $12.99.

     Girls ages 7-11 have plenty of literary role models to emulate – or choose not to emulate – these days, whether a reader’s tastes run more to comics and graphic novels or to old-fashioned tales told primarily in prose. The Babymouse series is now at its 11th volume, if these small books can be called “volumes,” and Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (who are sister and brother) have settled into a pleasant familiarity with the title character and her world. It is a world in which fantasy and reality repeatedly intersect, usually in amusingly unsettling ways. And it is a world in which the narrative voice, typical in comics and graphic novels, takes part in the story, as when Babymouse proclaims that her latest adventure is destined “for glory! For everlasting greatness!” – and a line beneath the panel says, “Yeah, good luck with that, Babymouse.” The story in Dragonslayer is a little weaker than most in this series: Babymouse is doing so badly in math that her teacher assigns her to join the “Mathletes,” math whizzes who are about to compete in a tournament. In the real world, that just doesn’t happen – math teams and math competitors are always drawn from top students in the subject, not ones who get an F-. Even in Babymouse’s “real” world, this is a stretch. Of course, fans know Babymouse will eventually come out on top, and that is exactly what happens, with the usual forays into fantasy – here, skewed versions of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Lord of the Rings. The eventual Math Olympics – where the prize is, of all things, the “Golden Slide Rule,” or “regula calculanda aurea,” as its pedestal says (which is poor Latin but suitably impressive to Babymouse) – is only moderately amusing, but Babymouse lovers will no doubt be delighted as she once again saves the day (and her math team).

     Piper Reed’s “team,” so to speak, is the Gypsy Club, and in the third Piper Reed novel, the sweet-but-saucy fifth-grader starts a party-planning business to raise money so the Gypsy Club can get its own clubhouse. This sounds like a plot out of 1950s television, which it pretty much is. Kimberly Willis Holt’s stories are nothing if not wholesome, with the biggest issues for Piper and her two sisters involving whether a neighbor should pay double or triple if Tori babysits her triplets, and whether Samantha (Sam) can call herself an author if she is writing but has not had anything published. In addition to trying to raise money for her club, Piper has to do a research paper on Cyrus McCormick, who invented the reaper to cut grain: “Maybe Cyrus McCormick was like spinach. Maybe knowing about him was good for you.” Piper, as usual, soon finds herself overwhelmed, between doing illustrations for Sam’s book and the need to do her own homework – plus babysitting, party planning and more. Everything becomes a big mess, and Piper learns the inevitable lesson, “It’s better to do one job well than three jobs poorly.” Piper will bounce back, of course, and she and the other Gypsy Club members are already looking forward to more adventures at the book’s end. Piper seems a bit like an updated Eleanor Estes character – although Christine Davenier’s illustrations, old-fashioned though they are, don’t look much like those of the Moffats. Piper has a certain not-quite-up-to-date charm that comes through even when she uses Post-It notes and does research on the Internet.

     Moxy Maxwell has charm, too, and also has a little more inherent mischievousness than does Piper. Moxy does not love writing thank-you notes and does not love Stuart Little, as we know from titles of Peggy Gifford’s previous Moxy books. The neat thing about the Moxy books is that you can figure out almost everything that happens by just reading the chapter titles: “What Mrs. Maxwell Really Said Next or The Amazing Mind of a Tired Mother Who Is Not Too Tired to Focus.” “In Which Moxy Tries to Remember Where She Put the Note.” “In Which the Word ‘Intermission’ Is Explained.” “In Which ‘Heart and Soul’ Begins and Ends.” And so on – and on and on. It’s a good thing the chapter titles are so useful, because they are often nearly as long as the chapters themselves (86 chapters in 175 pages – wow!). The plot here focuses on Moxy’s upcoming piano recital, during which she plans to wear a crown and for which she is making fake ermine trim for her cape (one of many matters shown in Valorie Fisher’s photo illustrations). Moxy has also practiced her bow – a lot. What she hasn’t practiced is the piece she is supposed to play. The typesetting can be as much fun here as the narrative. Chapter 49, “The Part of the Story in Which Mrs. Maxwell Begins to Climb Slooooowly Up the Stairs to Find Out Why Moxy Hasn’t Started the Big Dress Rehearsal,” for example, offers the word “slowly” with a nearly uncountable number of “o’s” (all right, there are 129 of them) and then has the words “by step” repeated, stepwise, up the next page. Eventually, after a bout of stage fright and the timely intercession of Aunt Susan Standish, a self-proclaimed Mistake Expert, everything works out just fine – of course. Moxy’s adventures are a little too frantic and a touch too contrived for all tastes, but she is certainly spunky enough – and amusingly self-involved enough – to build an ever-growing fan base.

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