November 25, 2009


The Blue Shoe. By Roderick Townley. Pictures by Mary GrandPré. Knopf. $16.99.

The Indigo Notebook. By Laura Resau. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Looking for Marco Polo. By Alan Armstrong. Random House. $16.99.

DWEEB: Burgers, Beasts, and Brainwashed Bullies. By Aaron Starmer. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

     Preteens and young teenagers can travel long distances for adventure in these books -- or find excitement close to home. The Blue Shoe, whose text is nicely printed in blue on attractive cream paper, is subtitled “A Tale of Thievery, Villainy, Sorcery, and Shoes,” and that pretty well sums it up, except that the last word of the subtitle should be singular. For there is only one blue shoe in the town of Aplanap, and it was never meant to be worn: it was ordered by a mysterious man and created as a jewel-covered piece of finery – jewels of every shade of blue bedecked the shoe. The shoe is damaged because of an attempted good deed; the would-be do-gooder is the shoemaker’s apprentice and hero of the tale. In Aplanap, no good deed (at least of this type) goes unpunished, so 13-year-old Hap Barlo is sentenced to banishment to the far side of Mount Xexnax, a place from which no one ever returns. This may not be all bad, though, since it gives Hap the chance to find out what happened to his father, who was banished there a year earlier. In short, there are all the ingredients of a moderately compelling mystery-fantasy here. What raises The Blue Shoe above the ordinary is Roderick Townley’s narrative style, which is full of asides and questions to the reader: “Even the town’s mayor (whose name is far too important to write out here) was tempted by” the shoe. “Everyone called [the shoemaker] Grel, which was his name, or as much of it as anyone bothered to remember. …He was poor, but not poor enough to be arrested. Did I mention that the poor were arrested in Aplanap?” Now, this style can wear thin pretty quickly – all the foregoing examples come in the first two pages – but Townley sprinkles it pretty evenly throughout the book, and dials it back when some of the complications (all that thievery, villainy and sorcery) come forward. Furthermore, the book features illustrations by Mary GrandPré, who did the pictures for the U.S. versions of the Harry Potter books, and her gentle curves of black and white (okay, blue and white) and clever portrayals of not-quite-human characters add a great deal to the story. In addition, there are enough twists and turns in the tale to raise it several notches above the traditional boy-solves-mysteries-and-grows-up mode, even though, at bottom, that is the mode in which it operates.

     Another blue-ish object is the focus of The Indigo Notebook, but this is a work of our world, not one out of fantasy. Laura Resau here focuses – for the first time in what may become an ongoing series – on 15-year-old Zeeta and her wanderlust-driven mother, Layla, who teaches English and moves to a different country every year. Layla is a real character: “a cute, disheveled hippie chick in a slightly see-through cotton wraparound skirt tucked over her knees, with her bare toes peeking out,” as Zeeta describes her. “I used to wish for a Handsome Magazine Dad,” adds Zeeta, “but I’ve pretty much given up at this point. Every year in a different country. Fifteen years, fifteen countries, well over fifteen boyfriends for Layla. Fifteen dozen maybe, one for each month.” Layla is, in fact, a more interesting character than her note-taking daughter, and tends to steal the scene whenever she appears. But The Indigo Notebook focuses on Zeeta most of the time, and specifically on her adventures in Ecuador, where she meets a boy named Wendell, adopted by Americans, who has come to Ecuador to search for his birth parents. Zeeta agrees to help him, but Wendell is concealing a secret – and, it soon turns out, so is just about everyone with whom the two teens interact. The main lesson here, as Wendell articulates it in response to a story Zeeta tells him, is “that sometimes what you thought was bad is good after all.” Not a profound lesson, perhaps, but one that both Wendell and Zeeta learn, to their mutual benefit.

     Exotic settings are integral to Looking for Marco Polo as well. Alan Armstrong’s protagonist, 11-year-old Mark Hearn, has an anthropologist father who goes to the Gobi Desert to trace Marco Polo’s route from Venice to China – and disappears. Mark’s mother takes Mark overseas to try to get together a search party to look for him; this is crucial to the plot but not entirely believable in our age of instant communication. In any case, Mark and his mother arrive in Venice, Mark suffers a serious asthma attack, and an old friend of Mark’s father – a doctor known as Doc Hornaday – shows up to help Mark recover. Doc, seeking to distract the boy from his wheezing, starts telling him the story of Marco Polo’s adventures, and once-timid Mark (the similarity of whose name to Marco is of course no coincidence) becomes so involved in the tale that his own taste for adventure rapidly develops. The best part of this book is the tale-within-the-tale of Marco Polo, as Doc tells it, because Armstrong focuses not on the grandeur of Marco Polo’s ambitions or the glories of ancient China but on small, everyday things that thoroughly humanize a major figure in European history. For example, the story of how Marco Polo almost dies on his journey, only to be saved by a shaman who brings with him a big black dog that eventually ends up staying with the traveler, is wonderfully told and crucial to the book’s climax. In letters to his absent father, Mark makes comments on the tales he hears: “Doc told me some Marco Polo stories that aren’t in the book. I think he’s guessing and making up a lot, but I don’t care.” By the time it turns out that Mark’s dad is alive and the family will be reunited, the novel turns heartwarming to the point of being overdone – but the happy ending is inevitable and is not, really, the point of the book.

     If all this gadding about seems a bit much, there are also adventures to be found close to home, for instance at Ho-Ho-Kus Junior High, where five eighth-graders and non-friends named Denton, Wendell, Eddie, Elijah and Bijay end up as a group called DWEEB (from the first letters of their names) when they are all falsely accused of theft and find themselves face-to-face (or faces-to-faces) with a mystery. Aaron Starmer’s first novel is narrated by each of the five protagonists in alternating chapters – although, in truth, their voices are not especially distinctive. Each boy is encapsulated in a couple of words and then operates according to his type: Denton the negotiator, Wendell the computer whiz, Eddie the athlete, Elijah the writer and Bijay the performer. Of course, each has to use his special abilities to solve the mystery that involves them all, and each of them learns that teamwork beats going it alone, and all that expected stuff. What is amusing here is not what the boys find out but what they go through on the way. They are imprisoned in a secret room beneath their school; they are ordered to ace the standardized Idaho Tests to prevent the school (in the person of nasty Vice Principal Snodgrass) from calling their parents; and they have to use their individual skills, and even body types, to figure out what is really going on. Yes, body types, as in: “Eddie had to do this alone. No one else could fit through the hole. And even if they could, they probably weren’t athletic enough to climb the pipes.” And yes, individual skills: “For Bijay, it was the performance of a lifetime, because he was doing something he had never been able to do: he was fitting in.” The plot that the five uncover is ridiculous, but DWEEB makes no pretense to be anything more than a silly romp with a bit of a message. And Starmer carefully leaves open the possibility of a sequel if the book does well. Nothing dweeby, or DWEEBy, about that.

No comments:

Post a Comment