August 19, 2010


Sports Camp. By Rich Wallace. Knopf. $15.99.

Kickers, Book 1: The Ball Hogs. By Rich Wallace. Illustrated by Jimmy Holder. Knopf. $12.99.

Lunch Lady No. 4: Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $6.99.

The Amazing World of Stuart. By Sara Pennypacker. Illustrations by Martin Matje. Scholastic. $5.99.

My Weird School Daze #10: Miss Mary Is Scary! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $3.99.

     Late summer is transition time for school-age children. Some are still in camp; some are already starting school; the ones not yet starting are looking forward to the new school year, not necessarily happily. At this time of year, parents have plenty of camp-oriented and school-oriented books to choose from for kids, and can pick ones that speak to their children’s interests or help them overcome worries or fears. Two new Rich Wallace books, for example, are strictly sports-oriented and have a strong camp orientation. The idea behind Sports Camp is obvious from the title. Intended for ages 9-13, the book focuses on someone right in the middle of that age range: 11-year-old Riley Liston, the smallest kid at Camp Olympia. Riley has to find his own focus by honing his athletic abilities, which do not lie in games requiring strength or accuracy (such as softball and basketball) but in ones requiring speed and endurance (such as running and swimming). The book tracks the competition for the Camp Olympia Trophy, and includes the legend of Big Joe, a huge snapping turtle that may have eaten the victims of a canoe accident many decades in the past – or may not exist at all. Everything comes together in a final swimming race in which, predictably, Riley spots (or thinks he spots) Big Joe, and Riley’s efforts help his cabin eke out a victory in the trophy competition – a standard feel-good sports-book ending.

     Wallace’s Kickers series, for ages 7-10, is standard stuff, too. Each of the four planned novels is about the fourth-grade Bobcats soccer team, with The Ball Hogs focusing on nine-year-old Ben, a good player whose problems have to do with teammate Mark, a ball hog. Mark isn’t a team player – but, it turns out, neither is Ben, and he has to learn something from his teammates and Coach Patty before he can reach his own potential. He also has to admit that “Mark was a pretty good athlete [who] could be a big plus, if he’d show some teamwork.” In time Ben is able to develop his abilities, do a better job of team play, and move ahead to the series’ later books, Fake Out, Benched and Game-Day Jitters. There is nothing at all surprising in the book, but young soccer players will likely enjoy it.

     Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady series sits on the border between camp and school in its fourth entry. Although Lunch Lady and her faithful and inventive assistant, Betty (think James Bond and “Q”), are a school-based duo, they are out of their usual element in Summer Camp Shakedown. And they don’t mind at all – they are looking forward to relaxation and to doing their usual thing (food preparation) in a new environment and with different kids. But not all the kids are different: Dee, Hector and Terrence, the same three young people who help Lunch Lady solve crimes at school when they are not getting in her way and misinterpreting things, turn up at the camp where Lunch Lady and Betty are working. And sure enough, there’s dirty work afoot. Or wet work, anyway. There are stories at camp of an evil swamp monster with “fangs as sharp as knives” – a wholly unbelievable creature that seems not to know it is imaginary, because it keeps showing up and causing trouble. At the same time, there is counselor rivalry going on, involving the female counselors’ attraction to the new guy, Ben, rather than the returning lifeguard, Scott. That’s a hint of what the whole monster thing will turn out to involve – there is really very little mystery in this Lunch Lady entry – but the fun remains in watching Lunch Lady and Betty on the hunt with such gadgets as the Hot Sauce Laser and the S’more Star (throwing star, that is). Light and not very nutritious, the book is nevertheless fun – sort of like mental fast food.

     Sara Pennypacker’s The Amazing World of Stuart is all about school and is a cut above the other books mentioned here, gaining a (++++) rating. This paperback contains two Stuart adventures: Stuart’s Cape (originally published in 2002) and Stuart Goes to School (2003). The delightful lightness of Pennypacker’s writing and the wonderfully offbeat illustrations by Martin Matje combine to help kids overcome real-world school-starting jitters. Stuart’s Cape is about the magical device that Stuart makes out of 100 old neckties to help him adjust after his family moves to a new town. Armed (or rather covered) with the cape, Stuart (who has been playing a game about animals) at one point meets a dinosaur, a gorilla and a horse, who get together to “play Stuart.” Stuart also wakes up on the ceiling one morning, grows toast from secret seeds he finds in his cape on another day, and deals with a trashman who turns into a cat – all of which happens as Stuart nervously anticipates the first day of school. Stuart Goes to School carries the story ahead, as that first day dawns and Stuart fails to make the ugly outfit his parents have laid out for him disappear, then heads to school with a huge black cloud labeled “Big Worry” above him. Stuart is a Grade A worrier: “If worrying were a sport, he would have a neck full of gold medals by now.” And that is exactly why The Amazing World of Stuart is such a great book for families whose own kids approach the school year with trepidation. Everything goes wrong with Stuart for a while – in hilarious ways that involve hole-digging by giant earthworms and the discovery of a room where teachers watch cartoons and stuff multiple doughnuts into their mouths – and Stuart’s cape seems to have failed him completely, until a series of twists (all of them delightful) makes Stuart a very happy student after all. His adventures will make lots of kids happy.

     Dan Gutman’s My Weird School Daze series is more forced and isn’t as amusing as Stuart’s adventures. The latest entry, which gets a (+++) rating, is all about a student teacher who just may live in a cave, sleep upside down hanging from the ceiling, and perhaps be a vampire. Gutman does try to put some actual information into Miss Mary Is Scary! For example, the kids are spooked by new bathroom appliances that flush and turn on automatically, thinking there must be ghosts in the bathroom. So their teacher, math-loving Mr. Granite, tells them about water-saving toilets: “Every time you flush a toilet…you use up to 5 gallons of water. So five flushes in a day would be…25 gallons of water a day [which] adds up to 175 gallons a week…and 9,100 gallons a year.” But the facts are soon finished, and the kids meet Miss Mary, their principal’s daughter, who lives in England, sports a bat tattoo, dresses all in black and wants to tour with her boyfriend’s band rather than teach. All kinds of rather forced hilarity ensue, from a song about dirt to a viral video to a failure to understand what “blood pudding” and other British terms mean. Everything ends amusingly and happily, and Mary and her boyfriend get married after the guy earns two million dollars for a song he spontaneously wrote. Yeah, right. My Weird School Daze doesn’t get any weirder than that.

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