November 11, 2010


Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Knopf. $16.99.

Animal Rescue Team #3: Hide and Seek. By Sue Stauffacher. Illustrated by Priscilla Lamont. Knopf. $12.99.

Calvin Coconut #4: Zoo Breath. By Graham Salisbury. Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

Roland Wright #2: Brand-New Page. By Tony Davis. Illustrated by Gregory Rogers. Delacorte Press. $12.99.

     There is something comforting for preteens and young teenagers in picking up a book with known characters and a plot that is sure to follow familiar twists and turns – even though its specifics will of course differ from those in previous books in the same series. Wendelin Van Draanen always delivers mysteries and mischief in her Sammy Keyes books, which have been around since 1998’s Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief. The latest Sammy story, Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher, is the 13th in the series, and it retains the characters and style that fans of the books have long since come to expect. What is new here is that Van Draanen has allowed Sammy to move on from seventh grade, all the way to eighth -- not that that makes Sammy’s life any easier. The plot has two basic baddies: Mr. Vince, Sammy’s new history teacher, whom everyone wants gone but someone apparently wants dead; and Heather Acosta, whose presence in Sammy’s classes is a constant irritant. Complicating matters is that Heather’s older brother, Casey, is Sammy’s crush, but seems to want to cool things down, if not turn them off altogether. And Sammy is due to be a bridesmaid when Officer Borsch gets married, which means Sammy will have to wear a purple dress and three-inch heels – decidedly not her favored sort of attire. When Mr. Vince starts receiving death threats, Sammy herself is one of the prime suspects, so she has to juggle her dislike of the teacher, her need to prove her innocence, her issues with Heather, her concerns about Casey, and her planning for Officer Borsch’s nuptials – plus a few family issues of her own. “It’s like there’s a whole world of turmoil going on inside the universe of William Rose Junior High,” says Sammy at one point, and while the comment is not intended to describe her own life, it pretty well does. Sammy and Officer Borsch end up with a lot of “random facts that don’t seem to want to work together,” but Sammy eventually ties them up (as usual), puts herself in grave danger (as usual), and comes through everything just fine (as usual). Sammy’s fans will enjoy this novel as much as they usually enjoy her adventures – and the slight tinge of romance adds extra fun.

     The third Animal Rescue Team book continues the adventures of Keisha Carter and her family, who run Carter’s Urban Rescue (CUR). The two main animals here are a deer and a puppy – but not just any puppy. This one is “the cutest little baby [Keisha] had ever seen.” He is some sort of mixture of coyote and collie, and soon picks up a name – Racket – and nuzzles his way into Keisha’s heart. And while sorting that out, she and her family have to look for a deer that got into a pumpkin that had birdseed inside – and now has the pumpkin stuck on its head. This means tracking down the deer – no simple task – and then figuring out how to remove the pumpkin. The eventual solution involves canola oil, cleverly applied; and everything works out just fine with Racket as well, except that the pup turns out to be more Rocket than Racket…which is just fine with everybody.

     A dog plays a central role in the fourth Calvin Coconut book as well. This is Streak, who came into Calvin’s life in the last book, Dog Heaven. Now, in Zoo Breath, Streak’s bad mouth odor becomes the focus of Calvin’s worries (his mom really dislikes it) and of a fourth-grade discovery project (Calvin and a friend get together to try to discover bad smells and what to do about them – including, Calvin hopes, how to handle Streak’s bad-smelling mouth). Calvin here revisits some memories of his father and previous dog: “Now I was starting to miss Dad and Chewy. Usually I didn’t think about them. They’d been gone a long time; I was almost six when they left. At the time, I just thought that was how it was. Dads moved on. No big deal. But it was a big deal. I just kept it to myself. Easier that way.” But this introspection – atypical for the outgoing, trouble-prone Calvin – does not last long; it becomes a bridge to wondering whether there is any dog toothpaste left from the days of Dad and Chewy. A series of misadventures ensues, involving various foul smells, dog baths and toothbrushings, and Calvin’s eventual realization that, even if his mom doesn’t like Streak’s odor, she would never make him give the dog back to the shelter from which Calvin adopted her. Graham Salisbury’s use of Hawaiian settings continues to give the Calvin Coconut books a slightly exotic flavor, and the mildly amusing and well-paced adventures are as enjoyable as ever.

     Brand-New Page is only the second book about Roland Wright, after Future Knight, so Tony Davis has not had much time to establish patterns for what will clearly be an ongoing series. But the basics were pretty well established in the first book, and Davis carries most of them through effectively in the second. Roland, who is not quite 10, goes with his pet mouse, Nudge, to King John’s castle. The king’s life was saved by armor made by Roland’s father, which is why Roland has been given the opportunity to become a page even though he does not come from a noble or wealthy family. But Hector, a bigger boy at the castle, is determined to get Roland thrown out because of Roland’s common background; and it turns out that the queen hates mice, which does not make things any easier for Roland and Nudge. It is the humor of the situations, the writing, and the illustrations by Gregory Rogers that sets this series apart from others aimed at preteen boys. For example, Roland here meets Lord Urbunkum, who teaches the knights how to fight but has never fought himself – and Roland does not understand how someone who has not been in battles can teach those who will be. “‘It is very important, Master Wright,’” Lord Urbunkum explains, “‘that an expert like myself has no practical experience of any kind. That way he can look at a problem from a fair and neutral point of view, and come up with a series of easy-to-remember slogans about the best way to solve it.’” Lord Urbunkum, it turns out, is the famed author of You Can Be a Winner: The Seven Secrets of Sword Fighting, and Damsel in Distress: A Rescuer’s Guide, both being books about whose topics the author has no personal experience whatsoever. Lord Urbunkum proves out to be quite useless when an elephant, of all things, gets loose from its pen, but Roland – trusting in the effect of Nudge in his pocket, since he knows that elephants are afraid of mice – faces the huge animal down. Then he learns that elephants aren’t afraid of mice – it was Roland’s own bravery that saved everyone. But that almost comes to nothing when Hector denounces Roland to the king, and Roland (in a scene that, unfortunately, does not work particularly well) suddenly completely loses his ability to speak, even when the king directly commands him to – so Hector’s lies about him are believed until someone else tells King John the truth. Everything does work out fine in the end for both Roland and Nudge, but the confrontation with Hector is not up to the quality of the rest of the book and not in keeping with the message of being true to oneself that is a foundation of both this book and the previous one. Hopefully Davis will manage future conflicts between Roland and Hector better, since there are sure to be more as Roland’s story continues in the series’ third entry, which will be called At the Joust.

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