October 15, 2009


Andrew North Blows Up the World. By Adam Selzer. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Calvin Coconut: The Zippy Fix. By Graham Salisbury. Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

Roland Wright: Future Knight. By Tony Davis. Illustrated by Gregory Rogers. Delacorte Press. $12.99.

The Georges and the Jewels. By Jane Smiley. Illustrations by Elaine Clayton. Knopf. $16.99.

Nick of Time: The Adventure Through Time. By Ted Bell. Square Fish. $7.99.

     There are lighthearted tales aplenty out there for readers from first through sixth or seventh grade – pick your type of protagonist and you can find something entertaining from just that character’s angle. Andrew North Blows Up the World is for fans of the Spy Kids films and other offbeat, amusing adventures. Andrew is a third-grader who is sure his father and brother are spies – a suspicion confirmed, Andrew thinks, when he finds that his brother’s graphing calculator says SIN and COS on it. Never stopping to look up the abbreviations for sine and cosine, Andrew starts punching entries into the calculator – and happens to enter one that will blow up the world. Well. Then the calculator is confiscated (Andrew has been playing with it in school) and taken to a mysterious place called Storage Room B that no one has ever entered or been able to look into. And then things get complicated. Yes, Adam Selzer’s book is vastly overdone, especially in the “Agent North” chapter openings, in which Selzer writes in bad spy-novel prose to show how Andrew thinks of himself – as “Thaddeus Arthur III, heir to the Arthur Badminton Equipment fortune” and sworn enemy of the evil Dr. Cringe. And of course, everything that Andrew thinks is nefarious turns out to have a perfectly ordinary explanation – although Selzer deliberately hints at the end that something just may be afoot after all, opening the way for a sequel. This novel is 100% froth – fun in a thoroughly mindless way.

     Calvin Coconut: The Zippy Fix at least has an exotic setting going for it: the island of Oahu, Hawaii. This is Calvin’s second appearance – the first, Calvin Coconut: Trouble Magnet, came out last year – and focuses on nine-year-old Calvin’s relationship with his 15-year-old babysitter, Stella. She is bossy and teases Calvin, so he gets even by taking advantage of her allergy to cats: he puts the neighbor’s cat, Zippy, in Stella’s bed, and Stella breaks out in hives and cannot go on the first big date on which she has been invited since moving to Oahu from Texas. Realizing that he overdid things, Calvin decides to fix the mess by getting Stella a nice birthday present. But he doesn’t have any money. So he has to earn some. How? Well, it takes some help from Calvin’s friends and his little sister, Darci – collecting cans, pulling weeds, even finding loose change around the house – but eventually Calvin is able to buy something special for Stella and help make her 16th birthday a real celebration. This is a family-focused, heartwarming story, thin on plot and characterization but pleasant enough to pass the time, with illustrations by Jacqueline Rogers that nicely reflect the events.

     The time in which Roland Wright lives is the age of knights (specifically, the year 1409), but the 10-year-old hero of Roland Wright: Future Knight is not the son of a nobleman – his father is a blacksmith – and therefore can never become a knight. Not under normal circumstances, anyway. But there would be no story in this first book of a planned series if matters ended there. So it turns out that Roland’s father’s armor saves the king’s life, and the king decrees that one of the blacksmith’s sons may be trained as a page and eventually, if he proves worthy, be knighted. Roland’s problem is that his older brother, Shelby, decides that he wants to become a page. So their father has to devise a series of competitions to determine which of them will go to the king’s castle and which one will be trained as an armorer. Roland has one unfailing supporter, but he is merely a pet mouse named Nudge, who sleeps in a box by Roland’s bed. Nudge functions as a sort of conscience: Roland looks at him and repeatedly responds to setbacks in a noble and forgiving way instead of taking advantage of situations, as Shelby does. The outcome of the contests is a foregone conclusion – otherwise, why the book’s title? And that robs Tony Davis’ work of some of its potential drama. But the book is written more in a lighthearted vein than a dramatic one – including illustrations by Gregory Rogers that are mostly on the amusing side – and becomes an enjoyable ride into a not-quite-realistic past, a pleasant fantasy of times long gone.

     The time in which Abby Lovitt’s adventure occurs is the 1960s – not so long ago for adults, but the far distant past for today’s young readers. Abby is a seventh grader, and although she is the only protagonist in these five books whose name does not appear in the title, she is very much the focus of Jane Smiley’s novel. As befits a book aimed at a slightly older audience than the other three, The Georges and the Jewels is a bit more serious and a bit more grounded in the everyday real world – or at least the world of a California horse ranch of half a century ago. The novel’s title refers to the horses: Abby’s father wants to prevent Abby from becoming attached to any particular horse, so he names all the geldings George and all the mares Jewel. But there would be no story without some form of attachment – especially in light of the fact that Amy is feeling isolated both at school (where a four-girl group of former friends is bullying her) and at home (where she no longer can spend time with her older brother, Danny, who left after a big fight with their father). The attachment comes in the form of a horse that Abby calls Ornery George – an individualized name after all! – that bucks Abby off whenever he can. So of course Abby’s father insists that Abby get back on and take responsibility for training Ornery George. And that leads, not unexpectedly, to concurrent lessons in relationships with horses and human beings, and with Abby growing stronger and surer of herself than she had ever thought possible. Except for its equine focus, this is not a very original plot, and some aspects, such as the school bullying, seem formulaic. But young horse lovers will enjoy the many details that Smiley provides about raising horses; and the book’s message about growing up, if scarcely a new one, will resonate with girls today despite the novel’s setting in a different time. Readers will also enjoy Elaine Clayton’s illustrations of horse-and-ranch equipment, which are finely rendered and highly realistic.

     And speaking of earlier times, Nick of Time is set not in one but in several of them. Ted Bell’s debut novel for young readers – Bell has written several books for adults – is for the same age range as The Georges and the Jewels but is more of an old-style adventure for boys. It starts out in 1939 – again, not so long ago from an adult perspective, but as distant a time as the Middle Ages for today’s young readers – and then zips back in time in a wonder-filled (if thoroughly unbelievable) adventure that involves bad guys from Nazis to pirates. Nicholas McIver and Kate, his younger sister, live with their father in a lighthouse on the smallest Channel Island; they help their dad provide information to the British government about the circling U-boats that portend an invasion of England. Then Nick discovers a hidden sea chest, which contains not the gold doubloons of a tale by Robert Louis Stevenson (which Nick of Time somewhat resembles) but a time machine – which is used by a pirate named Captain Billy Blood to travel through time to capture children and hold them for ransom. This is utter nonsense, as is the help that Nick and Kate receive through an alliance with Lord Hawke – a nobleman whose children Blood has abducted. But it is highly enjoyable nonsense. There is a brief, experimental trip to April 1, 2079, but the years that really matter here are 1939 and 1805, the latter being the date of an earlier McIver’s encounter with the pirate Blood. Bell must have had great fun writing some of the 1805 dialogue: “Damn it all, Ben! Half-dead sailors drownin’ here on me floor and wild porkers terrorizing the sickbay! Stowaways in the pig locker!” And young readers who are fond of swashbuckling verbal style and a see-saw narrative filled with cliffhanging temporal changes will enjoy the back-and-forth action here, even if Bell does lay things on a bit too thickly at times. The book is a lot of fun in an old-fashioned sort of way – and the new paperback edition includes an interview with Bell (not a very informative one, though), plus an excerpt from the upcoming second Nick McIver adventure, The Time Pirate.

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