November 10, 2011


Guys Read, Volume 2: Thriller. Edited by Jon Scieszka. Walden Pond Press. $16.99.

Scary School. By “Derek the Ghost” (Derek Taylor Kent). Illustrated by Scott M. Fischer. Harper. $15.99.

Poison Apple Book: At First Bite. By Ruth Ames. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Mild chills are in store for young readers who pick these books up – and there is some amusement, too, from time to time. The second Guys Read anthology is actually on the serious (if melodramatically overdone) side, having left the humor largely to the first volume, Funny Business. This time, Jon Scieszka edits and introduces a collection in which the word “weird” makes very frequent appearances. The 10 authors here are all solid craftsmen (and craftswomen), some of the standouts being M.T. Anderson, Walter Dean Myers, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Bruce Hale and Patrick Carman. Oh, heck – they are all standouts, one way or another: the others are Matt de la Peňa, Anthony Horowitz, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Gennifer Choldenko and James Patterson. Myers’ “Pirate” is perhaps the scariest story here, because it is the closest to real-world reality, being about a Somali boy involved in piracy. At the opposite end of things is Horowitz’s “The Double Eagle Has Landed,” which features “the world’s worst detective” and such lines as “is it a safe safe?” and, in response to a comment that a man spent three years in prison, “He was a guard?” It’s the kind of story in which someone urges someone else not to open the doors, and he opens them anyway, and “at once about a hundred bells all around the building began a deafening clang.” A little of this goes a long way. There’s amusement too in Hale’s “Nate Macavoy, Monster Hunter,” in which Nate, to get information on Pukwudgies, must talk to “the toughest kid in sixth grade. Brandon Frye. …He’s built like a big brown refrigerator, with a shock of thick black hair, eyes like black lasers, and the sweet disposition of a hungry wolverine.” Then there is Anderson’s “The Old, Dead Nuisance,” about fights between psychics and a treasure hidden in plain sight. As usual in an anthology, and as these examples show, the stories vary widely and come with all sorts of moods, with even the “thriller” description fitting some only loosely. The Guys Read series is supposed to be especially for boys, and boys are indeed the main protagonists in these stories, but beyond that, the book is just another short-story collection whose contents will have varying levels of appeal, depending on each individual reader’s taste.

     Young readers whose taste runs entirely to humor, or rather what Mad magazine used to call “humor in a jugular vein,” are the target audience for Scary School, first in a new series about a school where the teachers have a bad habit of eating the students and the students are mostly ghosts, ghouls or goblins anyway, so it doesn’t much matter. Charles Nukid is the new kid at school in this installment, told by 11-year-old Derek the Ghost – or, well, 11-years-old-when-he-died-in-a-science-experiment-gone-wrong Derek the Ghost. A fair sample of the narrative here: “Principal Headcrusher was familiar with Dr. Dragonbreath’s unusual teaching method, which tended not to support the more common notion that students should stay alive during class.” Or: “Here’s the thing about Scary School: sometimes the students could be just as scary as the teachers. You might be a regular kid, but the kid sitting next to you might be a zombie, a vampire, or a werewolf. That’s what made Scary School extra scary and was a big reason why Principal Headcrusher could charge so much for tuition.” One more: “When you’re doing Monster Math with a monster, the monster is always right.” The book is full of weird teachers, odd students, and such places as Scary Garden, “at the end of the school yard behind a tall white fence that prevented the dangerous plants from attacking the students. There were holes in the fence that kids had to watch out for, because sometimes a hungry plant would reach through the hole to snatch a good meal. But that didn’t happen too often.” There really isn’t much plot here – just a lot of vaguely connected scenes filled with amusing weirdness – but readers looking for something offbeat and at least as funny as it is frightening (actually a lot more so) will enjoy it.

     There is some amusement in the latest Poison Apple entry as well. These books, aimed at preteen girls, are quick reads whose not-too-frightening plots are easily understood and speedily forgotten after each book ends. At First Bite is a little unusual, though, because instead of a plot in which there may or may not be something supernatural going on, Ruth Ames’ book features something definitely supernatural from the very beginning. The reason is that the protagonist, 12-year-old Ashlee Lambert, is a vampire. And the plot hinges on whether there is another vampire in town – “town” being Los Angeles, to which Ashlee has moved from New York City. This is not a simple relocation for a vampire kid, since L.A. has all that sunshine and Ashlee has got to learn to deal with some really bad sunburns. Besides, she must contend with the usual mean-girls clique at her school; and in addition to learning about the need for SPF 75 sunscreen at all times, she must handle the possibility that Dark Ones are about, and also make sure she always has a good supply of Sanga! (a drink that comes with its own exclamation point and “was invented by a genius vampire who was as grossed out by hunting as I am”). And then there are her involuntary shifts into a bat. Soon Ashlee is suspecting that there may be more than one other vampire in town. She’s right, too, but not in the way she initially thinks. Anyone who knows Bram Stoker’s Dracula will realize quickly that a key to what is going on lies in a character named Mr. Harker; but even young readers unfamiliar with Stoker will likely pick up clues well before Ashlee and her friends do. At First Bite is better written and somewhat lighter in tone than most of the Poison Apple books, and if it is still, ultimately, forgettable, at least it offers a fair amount of fun while being read.

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