November 18, 2010


The Memory Bank. By Carolyn Coman & Rob Shepperson. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

The Danger Box. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $16.99.

Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls #6: Blast from the Past. By Meg Cabot. Scholastic. $15.99.

     Sometimes the way a story is told adds a great deal to its effectiveness. It can be a matter of verbal style, of course – but increasingly, especially in books for younger readers, what sets some works above others is their creativity in using illustrations. Thus, The Memory Bank starts with a wonderful premise: what if a memory bank were like a physical bank, complete with vaults and storage areas and security and people enforcing the banking rules? Then Carolyn Coman and Rob Shepperson work that idea through in an exceptionally well-done combination of words and art. Coman is the wordsmith and Shepperson the artist, but this is a true collaboration of equals, because some chapters of the book have no words at all and some have minimal illustrations. And the changing pattern of what is verbal and what is pictorial is an integral part of the story. The tale itself is an elaborate fantasy that focuses on Hope Scroggins and her adored little sister, Honey, who at the book’s start is abandoned on the roadside by the kids’ truly horrible parents – who then command Hope to forget Honey. The aptly named Hope refuses, but withdraws into herself until she is doing nothing but sleeping and dreaming of Honey (and we see the dreams very vividly – and soon realize that Honey is quite all right, with a group of other children in some strange land). Hope’s constant dreaming creates an imbalance between her “deposits” of dreams and waking memories in the Memory Bank, and that results in her being brought to the bank itself – at which point she goes through a remarkable series of adventures. The bank, officially called WWMB (World Wide Memory Bank), is under siege by an anarchistic group called the Clean Slate Gang (CSG), which opposes memory preservation. And it soon turns out that, while the WWMB is entirely peopled by adults, the CSG contains only children – including Hope’s sister. The way the various arcs of the story intersect is quite wonderful: initially, the CSG pages are all visual and the WWMB ones are verbal, but eventually, pictures become more important in WWMB scenes and words creep in to describe CSG activities. This could have been a science-fiction story, and a scary one at that (in the hands of, say, Philip K. Dick), but most characters’ expressions here are so jovial and the threats and arguments have such a dreamlike quality that there is never anything in the book to frighten young readers – except Hope’s and Honey’s real-world parents, who are unremittingly awful. It is eventually through a stored memory belonging to Honey that the sisters re-connect, and the feel-good climax in which CSG and WWMB realize they can and must get along (just as children and adults need to coexist) is handled with joy and subtlety. The Memory Bank is worth reading – and remembering.

     The Danger Box, the fourth more-esoteric-than-comparable-books novel by Blue Balliett, wraps its mystery in Balliett’s typically effective and unusual stylistic presentation, which here includes use of multiple typefaces, plenty of lists (one of which gives all 22 trees after which the streets of the town of Three Oaks are named), multiple perspectives (with some chapters presented in italics to set them off from others), excerpts from newspaper articles and journal entries, and chapter titles (for the very short chapters) that become part of the progress of the story (“A Teapot and a Pail,” “Featherbone,” “I Spy,” “A Palindrome with a Stutter,” “Old Sauerkraut,” and on and on). The story involves antiques, the mysterious box that gives the book its title, Charles Darwin, a burning building whose destruction feels like a death in the family, and – at the center – 12-year-old narrator Zoomy Chamberlain, who calls himself “the Secret from a Secret from a Secret” because of his family circumstances…and who sees things in ways that other people don’t. Commenting on the actions of his friend, Lorrol, Zoomy says, “she’d just started something helpful that was sprouting dangerous leaves. That sure sounded familiar.” Indeed, that is what Zoomy does as a matter of course: try to help, then follow the consequences of his helpfulness in unanticipated directions. Balliett knits together the threads of the mystery – and of her characters’ personality quirks – with her usual skill, and the fact that there is a very definite real-world element to this story (which Balliett hints at before the tale starts and explains in more detail after it ends) makes the novel all the more effective. It is certainly a worthy successor to Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, and The Calder Game.

     Meg Cabot’s stories of Allie Finkle do not inhabit quite as rarefied a plane as the books by Coman & Shepperson and Balliett, but they too use unusual visual elements to set them apart from other amusing novels about preteen girls. Cabot does give the impression of trying a little too hard to be different, and much of what happens to Allie really is not that distinctive, so the sixth book in the series, Blast from the Past, gets a (+++) rating. But fans will surely not be disappointed. As usual, the book’s wraparound jacket, when removed and turned sideways, offers some of Allie’s rules and invites readers to write their own. Also as usual, the book itself contains rules to open each chapter, although calling some of them “rules” is a bit of a stretch: “Living History Museums Are Just Awful,” “Cheyenne O’Malley Is the Most Popular Girl in Room 209, and Probably in the Whole World…at Least in Her Own Mind.” Other rules fit the fairly frothy plot better and are more reflective of Allie’s usually bubbly personality: “It’s Very Rude to Call Someone a Troglodyte,” “Tattling on People Is Kind of Mean Unless It’s for a Good Reason.” As for the story, it involves Allie being paired for a field trip with her former best friend, Mary Kay, and how the two do (or don’t) get along when forced to be together again. Also here are some rules written by George Washington – so Allie’s book of rules isn’t as weird as some people think – and some bad blood between Pine Height and Walnut Knolls schools, and a bee sting that reveals something about friendship and interpersonal problems to Allie (who is not the one who gets stung). Allie eventually picks up some maturity and is repeatedly praised for being “such a good influence on others,” and is a better person at the end of the book than at its beginning – as in all the books in this series. Allie is basically a nice kid, but her stories are nothing special, except for the “rules” gimmick and other unusual ways in which Cabot presents the tales.

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