May 17, 2012


Riley Mack and the Other Known Troublemakers. By Chris Grabenstein. Harper. $16.99.

I Don’t Believe It, Archie! By Andrew Norris. Illustrated by Hannatt Shaw. David Fickling Books. $12.99.

Bessica Lefter Bites Back. By Kristen Tracy. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen. By Donna Gephart. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny – Detectives Extraordinaire! By Polly Horvath. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

      There is considerable predictability in personality-oriented books for preteen boys and girls – although the predictability for boys differs somewhat from that for girls.  For either gender, there are sure to be humor, mixups, social interaction of some sort, friendship, family issues of some kind, and an ultimately happy resolution that may tie up all loose ends or leave some dangling for the sake of sequels.  The boys’ formula is fully in play in both Riley Mack and the Other Known Troublemakers and I Don’t Believe It, Archie!  Chris Grabenstein’s book is a somewhat cinematic romp about the 12-year-old title character and the plots he hatches to bring evildoers to justice or prevent crimes or just have a great time with his friends, or some combination of those motivations.  The friends are, predictably, a mixed bunch characterized more by what they do than by who they are: Briana is an aspiring actress, Jake is a skilled technical type (that is, a geek, but a cool one), Jamal is great both at picking locks and at picking up vocabulary words, and Mongo is…well, his name is Hubert Montgomery, “but since he was so humongous (freakishly larger than any twelve-year-old in the known universe), Riley, and, therefore, everybody else, called him Humongo – Mongo for short.”  The friends first deal with school bully Gavin Brown, who accurately explains to readers about Riley: “‘You’re the punk who’s always looking out for the losers,’” one of those intended-as-an-insult comments that endear a hero to readers.  Then they get involved with a planned bank robbery (which they prevent) and 57 puppies (which they rescue), and a good time is had by all from start to finish.  The book is scarcely original, but it is certainly enjoyable, with all the ingredients needed to turn it into the start of a series.

      Andrew Norris also writes primarily for preteen boys, although there are girls here as characters, too.  In fact, when a piano rolls down a hill, it traps Archie’s new friend, Cyd, in her mother’s car.  Archie and Cyd make an entertaining team, with Cyd initially disbelieving the idea that odd things happen to Archie every single day, until she is convinced by such events as Archie ending up with a dead dog in his pocket – a dog that miraculously comes back to life; and Archie getting glued to library doors by an elderly woman who is staging a protest, during which she is determined to take her clothes off to attract the media; and Archie finding a bag of money in the park and being mistaken for a kidnap victim; and Archie and Cyd finding themselves in a house with a leopard; and – well, this book too is a romp, an amusing and very short (128-page) journey through some improbable events, with the eventual destination of mild amusement that will have younger preteens hoping for a sequel.

      Aimed at girls rather than boys, Bessica Lefter Bites Back is a sequel already – or, rather, a companion to The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter, the first journey to this particular middle-school life – while Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen is a standalone book that could easily enough become a series starter.  As usual in books for preteen girls, there are larger and slightly deeper issues in these novels than in boy-oriented ones, with a greater emphasis on relationships both with peers and with family.  Bessica has in fact made new friends at middle school and is even doing reasonably well with homework, but her main helping of angst comes from mascot duty: she is her school’s half-mascot bear, and under pressure to be better than the other half-mascot, Alice, who hates her. Bessica is afraid that her former best friend, Sylvie, hates her, too, after the two have a text-message war.  At home, Bessica is dealing with an adult having a boyfriend – not her mother, as more typically happens in preteen novels, but her grandmother.  Bessica comes up with “Ways to Make Things Way Worse in Middle School” and “Things That Will Destroy All Happiness in Middle School” and other lists to worry about, but by the end of the book, a biting incident has turned out all right, friendships have been made and remade, and Jessica is, not surprisingly at all, feeling happy.

      What makes Olivia Bean happy is trivia, at which she is very good except in one category: geography.  She wants to try out for the kids’ version of Jeopardy! so she can win money and, more important, tape the program in California, where her father lives with his new family after leaving Olivia and her mom two years earlier.  The main unusual element of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen is the inclusion of real questions and answers from the TV show, with some behind-the-scenes information on how the program is made.  Young Jeopardy! fans will enjoy those parts of the book; but the rest is essentially formulaic, from the yearning to repair broken family ties to the uncertainty over whether Olivia’s dad will show up to support her after she, not surprisingly at all, gets the big chance that she wants so much.  The supporting characters are typical: stressed-out mother, genius younger brother, sort-of-friend who helps Olivia out with geography questions, and so on.  Of course, Olivia wins, and of course she wins on a geography question, and of course she does hear from her father – but finds out that he is not worthy of being idolized.  The bittersweet elements and life lessons are not at all unusual here, although the TV tie-in is at least a bit outside the norm.

      Farther outside is Mr. and Mrs. Bunny – Detectives Extraordinaire!  The cover notes that the book is “By Mrs. Bunny, translated from the Rabbit by Polly Horvath.”  Really, the plot is a fairly familiar one: child’s parents are kidnapped by nefarious evildoers, with a note is left on the refrigerator from “The Enemy”; child seeks help from detectives and joins forces with them; detectives and a variety of supporting characters seek to solve the mystery.  What makes the book unusual, obviously, is the fact that the detectives working with the child are rabbits.  Fedora-wearing rabbits.  The kidnappers are foxes, and they give Madeline a recipe to decode, and that leads to her hypnotizing a marmot (named The Marmot).  The bunnies have become detectives because…well, apparently because Mrs. Bunny needs something to do now that their 12 children have moved away.  Madeline’s parents, mom Mildred and dad Flo, are stereotypical unworldly hippies, whom Madeline has always had to care for (rather than the other way around).  Today’s young readers may have some trouble understanding the hippie references (purple platform disco shoes, anyone?), and finicky parents may dislike the use of the word “crap” a couple of times, but by and large, the book is silly enough to make up for any plot and language shortcomings.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit aren’t very good detectives – in fact, by the end, Mrs. Rabbit has decided to become a writer instead, although it seems likely that the book will spawn a sequel, if not more than one.  Horvath makes a few attempts to give the characters depth, for example by making Madeline’s favorite book Pride and Prejudice and by having her parents use French and German phrases in a very funny scene in which they are trying to speak the foxes’ language.  Some of the book’s humor seems rather forced (exploding industrial rubber? rabbit byproducts?), but the way Madeline goes along with Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit – if only because, for a change, someone is taking care of her – is amusingly endearing, and Sophie Blackall’s attractive black-and-white paintings add to the atmosphere while being fun to look at in their own right.  The book as a whole is offbeat enough to be enjoyable for preteens looking for something that does not have quite the typical approach of other light-adventure books.

1 comment:

  1. So pleased you enjoyed I Don't believe It, Archie! which does indeed have a sequel - Archie's Unbelievably Freaky Week. It is out in the UK now and will reach the US in March. There are some excellent teaching ideas for the Archie books and you'll find links to them on my website.
    Jane Norriss