December 10, 2009


Katman. By Kevin C. Pyle. Henry Holt. $12.99.

The Time Travelers’ Handbook. By Lottie Stride. Illustrated by Dusan Pavlic. Feiwel and Friends. $9.99.

The 39 Clues, Book 6: In Too Deep. By Jude Watson. Scholastic. $12.99.

     The adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” became a cliché precisely because it was so often true. And it still is. The cover of Kevin C. Pyle’s Katman makes it look like yet another graphic novel filled with superheroic (or supervillainous) types: a gigantic orange catlike being, snarling and reaching toward the reader, looms over a rundown part of town through which a solitary figure is walking. But Katman is more than its cover, and better, and will likely be a disappointment to anyone who buys it expecting traditional graphic-novel fare. It turns out that the title character is the creation of a punk girl named Jess, who defines herself and the headbangers she hangs out with by saying one is sadistic, one is autistic and she is artistic. Katman, the powerful manga shapeshifter, has no place in Jess’s real life – but 15-year-old Kit does, and this story is really about quiet real-world heroism and how it contrasts with the comic-book sort. The real and imaginary worlds are connected through cats, as Kit (whose name is obviously appropriate) finds himself dragged, almost against his will, into the lives of the stray cats that abound in his less-than-well-to-do neighborhood – eventually stealing to get food for some of them, then going to work and being paid in cat food to continue helping them, and still later becoming involved in the life of a prototypical “cat lady” who has little use for people but dotes on the felines that roam at will throughout her house. The story of Kit and Jess is gritty and sometimes unpleasant, with solutions to problems occurring at best in piecemeal fashion – unlike the solutions in superhero comics and many graphic novels. Katman is darker and less pleasant to read than you might expect from the cover – but it also has more depth than you might think it would have.

     The cover of The Time Travelers’ Handbook makes it look as if this is a book about – well, about traveling through time. A young boy clutching an odd-looking instrument is seen in the middle of one of those clichéd “time swirls” that traditionally indicate time travel, while the cover’s margins bear such statements as “Tackle a T. Rex” and “Operate a Guillotine.” In fact, though, this is a book of history disguised as fiction. The subtitle even uses the word “history,” but still does not make it clear just what the book is about: “A Wild, Wacky, and Wooly Adventure through History!” Inside, though, there is plenty of historically accurate information. Each entry starts with the “time travel handset” showing a different date: 700 BC for silk making in ancient China, 1588 for the defeat of the Spanish Armada, 40,000 BC for mammoth hunting, and so on. Then, in two to six pages, Lottie Stride’s text and Dusan Pavlic’s clear and rather old-fashioned illustrations come together to explain where (or rather when) you are and what you need to do. Dangers of the past are described but not dwelled on: the risks faced by London chimney sweeps (1847), what happens during an attack on a medieval castle (1282), even the chance of being hit by rotten produce while acting in one of Shakespeare’s plays (1599). The historical information is presented in once-over-lightly fashion: fighting with the samurai (1287), building a Viking longship (832), making an Egyptian mummy (1550 BC), and much more. And there are projects for 21st-century kids to try, such as writing in hieroglyphs (based on the way they were written in 1450 BC) and making your own cave paintings (along the lines of those from 17,000 BC). The Time Travelers’ Handbook is not exactly history and not exactly crafts, but a bit of a melding of the two – think of it as a kind of “history lite” with activities.

     And speaking of marches through history: they continue for Amy and Dan Cahill in the sixth volume of The 39 Clues, which centers on a family whose various competing branches seem to be related to just about everyone famous who ever lived. In this case, you can judge the book by its cover, since the layout of all the books in this multimedia series is the same – including six game cards bound into the inside front cover each time. The by-now-familiar plot of The 39 Clues has to do with a race to get information that will make the one who eventually finds and assembles the clues the most powerful person in the world. Fourteen-year-old Amy and 11-year-old Dan travel the world (money is no object here, or not much of one) in their search, tossing out informational tidbits to readers along the way: “Did you know that Australia has more deadly creatures than anywhere else in the world? Look at this snake – it’s called a taipan. Its venom can kill, like, two thousand sheep. Or maybe it was two hundred. Anyway, if you get bit by one of these babies, you have to, like, get airlifted to a hospital for antivenom or else die a horrifying death right there.” The problem with Jude Watson’s writing in Book Six (the books are written by different authors) is that he is lazy. Is it 200 or 2,000? It’s unfair to offer a fact and then muddle it on the basis that an 11-year-old is explaining it. An author can get away with “get bit” instead of “get bitten,” but not with writing “antivenom” when the correct word is “antivenin.” Still, fans of The 39 Clues are unlikely to care about such niceties at this point – and anyone who has stayed with the series (including its online component) until now will have to read this book in order to keep up with the sequence of frights, discoveries and near-misses. This book includes a confrontation between Amy and Dan about their parents’ fate, the young protagonists’ loss of an enemy-turned-ally, and a promise that the next book, The Viper’s Nest, will finally reveal just which branch of the far-flung Cahill clan Amy and Dan belong to. That should be enough to keep fans of The 39 Clues coming back for more – which at this stage of the 10-book series, is the whole point.

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