January 27, 2011


B Magical #1: The Missing Magic; #2: The Trouble with Secrets. By Lexi Connor. Scholastic. $5.99 each.

Dear Dumb Diary #11: Okay, So Maybe I Do Have Superpowers. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Simple but clever stories for middle-school girls, both the B Magical and Dear Dumb Diary series are quick reads that are fun without being too complex, their problems at the surface and their solutions enjoyable. The B Magical series was originally published as Spelling B, a cleverer title on several levels, since 11-year-old Beatrix is a witch (from a whole family of witches), and her particular skill lies in casting spells by spelling words (a rarity among witches, who must usually create rhymes in order to make magic). The Missing Magic starts the series with B determined to develop her powers – she is a late bloomer, magically speaking – and includes her discovery of her abilities, which Lexi Connor handles amusingly: B is practicing for a school spelling bee when she notices that words she spells have repercussions in real life (words such as “chaos” and “desert”). By the time B actually has to participate in the spelling bee, she discovers that she needs to lose on purpose, because the alternative is to spell the word “explosion.” B does not really have much of a personality, but one of the other characters does: a hamster named Mozart, who is able to speak under B’s spells and who turns out to talk nonstop – complaining about pretty much everything and everybody. The second book, The Trouble with Secrets, rings some magical changes on a typical middle-school plot, with B’s friend George willing, he says, to tell B anything, while B knows she must not reveal that she is a witch, so she cannot make the same promise to him. There is also a run-in with a typical middle-school bully, Jason (who also plays a villainous role in the first book), and there is a well-done scene in which a carnival witch curses George for not believing that her powers are real, which they clearly are not (clearly to B, that is). This woman, who calls herself Enchantress Le Fay, is the real villain of the book, disappointing even Jason, who thought he would learn magic from her but learns only how to fleece the public. It turns out to be up to B to expose the phony witch, which B does very neatly – but at the book’s very end, she makes a well-intentioned error that will change her relationship with George just in time for the next book, The Runaway Spell.

     There is no wayward magic at Mackerel Middle School, but there are always plenty of antics for Jamie Kelly to describe in her inimitable style. The 11th entry in the Dear Dumb Diary series is not quite at the level of Jim Benton’s best entries: its threads are woven together rather loosely, and the underlying idea (that Jamie received the superpower of understanding how boys think when she was bitten by a baby) seems too far out for even the sometimes-flighty Jamie to believe. As a result, the best elements of this story – which are often the best elements even when the story is better than it is this time – are the drawings that Jamie (well, Benton) sprinkles throughout the text. There is one hilarious one of Jamie and her attractive Aunt Carol running away from a slobbering monster, with Jamie’s caption explaining that it is important to “be the fastest person in your crowd AND be able to not look delicious whenever necessary.” There is one of Jamie imagining she is among the “tremendously talented people that make great commercials for awful movies,” with posters for “The Day They Invented Prunes” and “The Story Nobody Understood.” There is one in which dying ants act out a play in mock-Shakespearian language (the whole dying-ants plot, though, isn’t very good until its climax, which is hilarious). And there is a truly hysterical drawing to illustrate the funniest part of the book, which is about Jamie’s dog and unfortunately is irrelevant to the plot: “Once, there was a huge wart. Either it ate something terrible, or it contracted some kind of horrible illness, and a beagle broke out on its skin and began to grow. When it achieved maximum grossness, the beagle ate the wart and lived on by itself.” Unfortunately, Benton cannot keep everything in the book at this level of absurdity, but at least he finally has Jamie admit that she kind of likes the too-perfect Angeline, who has been her imagined nemesis through the first 10 books for no good reason at all (and Jamie still dislikes her a little bit, but now she knows it is for no good reason). Fans of Dear Dumb Diary will enjoy Okay, So Maybe I Do Have Superpowers, even though Benton is not at the top of his game here – but anyone unfamiliar with the series will do better starting with some of the earlier titles.

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