October 22, 2009

(++++) MAGICS

Thanks a LOT, Emily Post! By Jennifer LaRue Huget. Illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

The Magical Ms. Plum. By Bonny Becker. Illustrated by Amy Portnoy. Knopf. $12.99.

The Fairy Godmother Academy #1: Birdie’s Book. By Jan Bozarth. Random House. $7.99.

     An exceptionally inventive etiquette-related book for ages 4-8, Jennifer LaRue Huget’s Thanks a LOT, Emily Post! is about what type of etiquette still works – and what does not quite work – in the modern age. Huget’s wonderful idea here is to introduce a touch of magic into the whole etiquette issue. She takes fictional characters created by Emily Post for her original book of etiquette (published in 1922), and has them take up residence in a thoroughly modern household that is run by a mother who is trying to get her four kids to behave (there is no sign or mention of a father). These ghostly figures hover over the kids as their mom tries to enforce etiquette lessons – sometimes taking a direct hand in modern life (by lifting elbows off the table, for instance) and sometimes simply watching with appropriate reactive expressions (usually ones of dismay, given the way these kids behave). As clever as Huget’s approach is, what really makes the book work so well are the excellent illustrations by Alexandra Boiger, who shows the Post-created characters as blue-tinted adults in old-fashioned clothing, moving silently through the bustling household. But they do not stay silent forever. After the girl who narrates the book throws a two-page tantrum about the word “couldn’t” (that is, all the things Emily Post said the kids couldn’t do), the Post-created characters start interacting with her, explaining that Emily Post herself did not always have perfect manners when she was little – and, later, giving the narrator an idea about how to un-Post the house. How that works out – and whether or not it is all for the best – is the subject of the rest of the book, which is not only delightful in itself but also an excellent jumping-off point for discussing the value of a common-sense approach to manners and etiquette.

     The magic tends to be of a different – and, it must be said, more commonplace – sort in books for preteens. This is not to say that magic itself is commonplace, but it does tend to operate in more-or-less-expected ways in works for slightly older readers. The Magical Ms. Plum uses it for humor, The Fairy Godmother Academy for adventure. Bonny Becker’s work is a sort-of-chapter book, centered on one of those strangely wonderful adult figures around whom magical events just seems to cluster (think of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, for example). Ms. Plum runs a classroom in which teachable moments come in the form of things that cannot possibly be: a tiny horse that poops a lot and patches up the relationship between two girls; a head-perching parrot that gives a boy a lesson about talking too much; squirrels that teach neatness and organization to a girl with a messiness problem; and so on. The magical creatures come out of Ms. Plum’s supply closet (think of Mary Poppins’ carpet bag) and return there after accomplishing whatever they set out to do. Bonnie Becker’s book is loosely knit (each chapter is essentially independent of the others) and clearly very derivative, but it is certainly fun to read and deserves a (+++) rating because – well, just because.

     The Fairy Godmother Academy #1: Birdie’s Book gets a (+++) rating, too, but kids should be forewarned that not everyone will care for the premise. This book is part of a multimedia approach designed for preteen girls, in which the printed volume itself carries over to what is intended as an online community plus a series of real-life challenges. The basic idea of The Fairy Godmother Academy series – in which three books are due to be released per year – is that fairy godmothers are really humans with magical abilities that are to be used to make the world a better place. Each book will focus on a girl of a different “lineage,” who will discover her true calling and decide how to use her newfound powers. Twelve-year-old Birdie Bright, the first protagonist, is of the Arbor Lineage (birds go with trees, see?). Birdie’s Book focuses on Birdie’s quest for the Singing Stone, her family’s talisman, which has been broken. She picks up a helper named Kerka (who will be featured in the next book) in the search for the missing half of the stone; eventually, Birdie must repair not only the stone itself but also the relationship between her mother and grandmother. The themes here are highly familiar and the magical incidents mostly expected (there are mermaids, of course); the bound-in Wisdom Card, which is used at the Web site associated with this series, is a typical enhancement of a printed book for this age group. In short, there is nothing especially creative about the approach or story here; but girls with a taste for magic and for a mixture of printed and computer-based mild adventure will find The Fairy Godmother Academy a pleasant enough diversion.

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