July 21, 2011


Scholastic Guide to Grammar. By Marvin Terban. Scholastic. $9.99.

Fly Guy #10: Fly Guy vs. the Flyswatter! By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

     Scholastic is a publisher that takes itself very seriously – some of the time. Best known to most young readers as the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter books, Scholastic has long been, as its name implies, a learning-oriented publishing company as well. But its entertainment titles are at least as popular as its more traditional reference works for young students. Still, those reference works continue to be published, and many of them are very fine indeed – such as Scholastic Guide to Grammar, which only slightly overstates the case with its subtitle, “A Compendium of Every Rule You Could Ever Possibly Need.” Leaving aside the question of what student would deliberately buy a book chock-full of rules (parents, teachers and tutors, and well-meaning gift-giving relatives, are more likely purchasers), Marvin Terban’s book is well and (mostly) clearly written, filled with examples of what the various rules are and how they work, and packed with enough humor to (one hopes) prevent young readers’ eyes from glazing over. Okay, they may glaze over anyway, but at least Terban is trying to make things interesting as well as clear. For example, he explains that you should “use a comma at the end of the first part of a direct quotation that is broken up in a sentence” – which is correct but rather dry. Then he offers this example: “‘Come to my house for lunch,’ Lorraine told Rozzie, ‘but please leave your gorilla at home, because it scares my goldfish.’” English grammar is so confusing that even Terban, who here styles himself “Professor Grammar, The Expert” and is portrayed as a cartoon character, slips up from time to time. For instance, he says, “Always capitalize organizations and institutions,” giving as one example “Library of Congress,” but then writes, “Do not capitalize words like library, institute and society without the specific names in front.” So is “Library of Congress” correct, given that it lacks specificity before the word “Library”? Yes, it is, but the explanation is not entirely clear. Of course, some parts of the language itself are not entirely clear: “Hundreds of words in English end with the letters –able or –ible, and there’s no good rule that will help you decide which ending to put on which word.” But Terban’s sense of humor helps even here, as he produces an entire paragraph crammed with –able and –ible words and finally recommends checking a dictionary or spell-checker. Scholastic Guide to Grammar covers quite a bit of territory: parts of speech, sentences, paragraphs, spelling, capitalization and punctuation. The chapter called “Getting Your Message Across” helps pull everything together nicely, and includes such helpful (and, as elsewhere, frequently amusing) examples as sentences containing two homonyms apiece: “Flee, oh tiny flea, before you get squished.” In fact, one of these sentences neatly sums up the book’s approach: “To lessen the difficulty of the lesson, add humor to it.”

     Still, Scholastic’s humor in a reference book like Terban’s is nothing like the humor in a purely-for-entertainment book like the 10th in Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy series. These short and highly amusing books are all about a very smart fly that is the pet of a boy and can say the boy’s name: Buzz. The plots tend to be very simple, but Fly Guy vs. the Flyswatter! is, for this series, more complicated. Fly Guy accidentally goes to school with Buzz (the fly has been eating the messy remains of food in Buzz’s backpack) – and it happens to be the day of a field trip to a flyswatter factory. And the factory just happens to feature a man dressed up as a huge fly – and a robotic flyswatter that goes berserk when Fly Guy rescues the swatter’s next would-be victim and flies all around the factory. The plot is predictable, sure, but its working-out is hilarious, and young readers will surely agree with the class’s end-of-book proclamation, “Best Field Trip Ever!” Oh – and the book is grammatically correct, too. As if anyone will notice.

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