March 08, 2012


Little Wings: #1—Cloud Dreams; #2—Be Brave, Willa Bean! By Cecilia Galante. Illustrated by Kristi Valiant. Random House. $4.99 each.

The Fairy Godmother Academy #5: Sumi’s Book. By Jan Bozarth. Yearling. $6.99.

Horse Diaries #8: Black Cloud. By Patricia Hermes. Illustrated by Astrid Sheckels. Random House. $6.99.

Mason Dixon: #2—Fourth-Grade Disasters; #3—Basketball Disasters. By Claudia Mills. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Knopf. $12.99 each.

     Some series for middle-grade readers have modest aims and fulfill them well: they are fairly interesting, mildly entertaining, and reasonably easy to read. Little Wings, for example, is not very original or particularly challenging for its intended audience of girls ages 6-9. But its very familiarity is its strength. Nominally set in a kind of fairyland, where Willa Bean is a cupid living on a cloud, Kristi Valiant’s series is simply a slice of suburbia with minimal fantasy trappings. Willa Bean has a mother and father and a big sister and little brother; she goes to school, where she gets into trouble because of a nasty classmate and her own temper; she is different from the other students, with hair that is huge and unruly rather than neat and with wings that are purple rather than white; she has endearing habits (identifying all sorts of things as treasures and carrying them around in her hair); and she has some speech habits intended to be endearing, too: “Nope, nope, nope-ity, nope.” Remove the slight fairy-tale elements and you have some standard girl-who-doesn’t-fit-in stories; but of course the unreal portions of the books are exactly the ones that are supposed to draw young readers in. The first book introduces Willa Bean and her family and presents the home and school issues – and a specific problem in the form of Willa Bean’s inability to fly, for a reason that she eventually discovers on her own and overcomes. The second book has Willa Bean’s best friend, Harper, come for a sleepover with a desire to take a night flight – a prospect that frightens Willa Bean, who is also scared of flying really, really high. Of course, she has to do just that – to help her sister, Ariel, who has done something wrong and needs Willa Bean to bail her out. Pleasant illustrations by Kristi Valiant (who seems particularly to enjoy drawing Willa Bean’s many freckles) nicely complement these family-focused, mildly amusing books whose veneer of otherworldliness conceals a down-to-earth good heart.

     The Fairy Godmother Academy series is set elsewhere in unreality and intended for slightly older girls, ages 8-12. But it too is basically an everyday sequence with some fantasy touches. Sumi’s Book, fifth in the series, is about fashion and its excesses. Sumi Hara is a junior fashionista who loves to dress up just so and always looks just right. In the magical land of these books, Aventurine, she learns that she is a shape-shifter, and she starts to imagine all sorts of wonderful clothes that she will create for herself. But things are not so simple. Sumi’s mission in Aventurine requires her to find five shards of a magic mirror, and because she is not very good at shape-shifting, she is given a guide named Kano, to whom she is attracted. But the feeling is decidedly not mutual. This leads to some amusing scenes, such as an underwater one in which Sumi, in fish form – after Kano observes her almost being eaten by a carnivorous sea sponge – is actually swallowed by a gigantic fish and has to think of how to escape. Turning herself into an octopus so she can use her suckers to hold on inside the fish’s mouth and avoid being pulled into its stomach, she thinks things through: “Growing too big to fit in the fish’s mouth might work, except the fish would probably explode. Being covered in blown-up fish innards was grosser than soaking in mushwort but better than death. I filed the idea away as an option of last resort.” It doesn’t come to that, as things turn out, but Sumi still has a lot to learn, not only about shape-shifting but also about what true beauty really is. She gets into trouble when she dresses up her various forms in ways that make them more conspicuous, and it is only when she learns humility (after being turned into something “hideous”) that she is able to get the final mirror shard away from the evil Queen Mitsu. And then, when Suki looks into the full Yugen mirror, she sees herself glowing, at which point the good Queen Patchouli tells her, “‘The Yugen mirror sees who we really are. …The aura is the reflection of the warm, caring, and courageous person you are within.’” No surprise there, and few surprises in Sumi’s Book as a whole; but the adventure is fun, and preteen girls will find it enjoyable if not especially memorable.

     A different sort of adventure for girls in the same age range is Black Cloud, eighth in the Horse Diaries series – books told with horses as narrators. This one is set in Nevada in 1951, where the title character, a black-and-white mustang colt, has a happy, wild, wandering life until human beings show up. Then everything changes, and not for the better: the herd is rounded up and killed, with Black Cloud rescued by a girl named Annie – who takes the horse to a new, comfortable life that is nevertheless unsatisfying to him because he is deprived of the freedom he used to know. Annie is loosely based on Velma Bronn Johnston, nicknamed “Wild Horse Annie,” who spent years seeking protection and humane treatment for wild mustangs, culminating in a congressional protective act signed into law in 1971. The story of the real Annie is given in brief at the back of the book. Within Black Cloud, though, Wild Horse Annie is a brave young girl who prevents ranchers from killing Black Cloud as they have killed so many other mustangs. The ranchers are presented as evil and heartless, with the explanation they give for the killings (“they’re eating up our range lands”) being a vast oversimplification of a real problem. But as Black Cloud discovers, Annie, unlike other people, knows “horse talk. By her posture, by her down-turned eyes, she was saying that she wasn’t a threat. She was telling me that she wasn’t a predator.” Black Cloud learns that not all humans are bad, finding this out not only from Annie but also from Big Clay, a horse that Annie’s father rides. Black Cloud eventually learns to trust Annie, but constantly yearns for freedom – even as he becomes more comfortable with the girl. Patricia Hermes leaves the ending of the book open: will Black Cloud leave Annie if given the chance, or will he stay with her? And Hermes weaves bits of history into the story even while keeping the focus on what she imagines a horse such as Black Cloud might have thought about the roundups of wild mustangs. Astrid Sheckels’ illustrations enhance the narrative – they are realistically drawn – without intruding into it. Like the earlier books in the Horse Diaries series, Black Cloud will be interesting and involving for readers who already have a strong attachment to horses, both real and fictional.

     Some preteen series primarily target boys rather than girls – such as Mason Dixon, which features the fourth-grader of the series title and his best friend, Brody Baxter. The first book was Pet Disasters, which ended happily with Mason bonding with “Dog of Greatness,” referred to simply as Dog. Mason’s “disastrous” life continues with Fourth-Grade Disasters, in which he is excited about a new grade and new teacher – and being in the same class as Brody – but less than delighted about having to deal with Dunk Davis, the class bully, and, even worse, with the school choir. The problem with choir is that all fourth-graders are expected to join – and to perform in front of an audience. That combines two things that Mason dreads: singing and being on display in front of lots of people. So he decides to come up with a way to avoid singing in the group, and his plan is actually on the verge of succeeding when Brody gets a huge case of stage fright, and Mason has to choose between giving in to his own fears and helping his friend. Guess which he chooses? There is never any doubt that Mason will do the right thing, but the camaraderie, uncomplicated friendship message, and simple plot will be fun for some readers of or near Mason’s age.

Basketball Disasters, the third book about Mason and his friends, is focused, of course, on basketball: a team coached by Mason’s father, on which Mason does not want to play even though Brody does. So Mason gets roped into the sport by Brody. Like Fourth-Grade Disasters, this is scarcely an all-boys book – Mason’s friend Nora Alpers has an important role in both works – but the orientation is more toward boys than girls. The subplot here is in some ways more interesting than the main one: it involves Mason’s dog-hating next-door neighbor, an elderly woman who turns out not to be so bad after all – and to have a good reason for being suspicious and afraid of dogs. That is the only significant characterization in the book, which otherwise goes through its paces predictably, including having Mason try to learn how to “win with grace, lose with dignity.” But his team does not have to apply the “losing” lesson in the climactic game, which it wins by – no surprise – one point. As in Fourth-Grade Disasters, everything here is very affirmative and positive, told with good-times-for-everyone feeling and illustrated pleasantly by Guy Francis. There are the usual lessons: Nora, who never makes mistakes, makes a big one; Dunk overdoes his sassing of teachers and has to sit on the dunce stool during a school colonial day; Mason’s team’s most inept player, Dylan, saves the big game; and so on. One of the attractions of the Mason Dixon series is its predictability: there are no real “disasters” here except in the books’ titles – everything turns out just fine after some fairly minor problems and irritations. This mildness certainly does not reflect real life in or near fourth grade, but for that very reason, many fourth-graders will enjoy these books’ forthright simplicity.

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