August 30, 2012


Cheesie Mack #2: Cheesie Mack Is Cool in a Duel. By Steve Cotler. Illustrated by Adam McCawley. Random House. $15.99.

Ballpark Mysteries 5: The All-Star Joker. By David A Kelly. Illustrated by Mark Meyers. Random House. $4.99.

Calendar Mysteries: #7—July Jitters; #8—August Acrobat. By Ron Roy. Illustrated by John Steven Gurney. Random House. $4.99 each.

Horse Diaries #9: Tennessee Rose. By Jane Kendall. Illustrated by Astrid Sheckels. Random House. $6.99.

      Once characters and/or plot lines become popular in kids’ books, it is a fair bet that they will come back again and again.  And again.  Series that appeal to young readers give kids the experience of familiarity and parents the confidence that they can buy works that their children are likely to enjoy, having had fun with them before.  The second Cheesie Mack book fits right into this pattern, with 11-year-old Ronald “Cheesie” Mack and his friend, Georgie Sinkoff, returning for an adventure at a summer camp in Maine.  Expecting to be the oldest Little Guy campers, the two friends are dismayed when they are put with the Big Guys instead – meaning they are on the bottom of the ladder in their cabin.  Cheesie’s arch enemy, Kevin Welch, is in the same cabin, and without being able to fight Kevin physically, Cheesie hatches the idea of beating him with brain power – through a “cool duel” in which each will do cool things, with other campers voting who is cooler.  It’s a pretty preposterous premise, and gets sillier as the “duel” progresses, with frequent asides in which Cheesie reminds readers to check him out on the Web.  For example: “Most snakes lay eggs, but garter snakes are born alive because the mother’s eggs hatch inside her body. (I learned a lot about garter snakes from [counselor Ronald] Lindermann later in the summer. If you like or hate snakes, there’s more about them on my website.)”  The snakes become part of the duel, as does a wall-mounted toilet, as do several other exceptionally odd things, none of which is as strange (or unbelievable) as the duel’s outcome itself.  The book is lighthearted (and rather lightheaded) from start to finish, but readers who enjoyed its predecessor, Cheesie Mack Is Not a Genius or Anything, will certainly like it – which is the whole point.

      The point of the Ballpark Mysteries series is to reach out to both boy and girl baseball lovers through mild mysteries involving a boy-and-girl detective team, Mike and Kate.  The All-Star Joker involves a new friend, Sandy, whose father, Josh Robinson, is an all-star catcher – and is being accused of playing practical jokes on other players.  Mike and Kate are sure Josh is being framed, as Andy says he is.  A little snooping and some false leads later, and it turns out that the practical jokes can be traced to someone trying to make sure that Josh gets pulled from the game so a different player can get more time on the field and a better contract.  It is all ludicrous, and the actual amount of baseball involved is minimal, but baseball fans ages 6-9 who already enjoy the simple plots and easy sentences of the Ballpark Mysteries will find this one as good as the others.

      Kids in the same age group who prefer suburban mysteries to ones with a baseball orientation are the target readers of Calendar Mysteries, in which four friends – Bradley, Brian, Nate and Lucy – have mild adventures and bonding experiences.  July Is for Jitters is about an Independence Day parade in which pets are dressed in costumes, and the person whose pet is considered best-dressed becomes mayor of the town for a day.  But the kids’ pony and dog mysteriously disappear just before the parade.  The disappearance turns out not to be a petnapping but a simple misunderstanding, and everything, of course, ends happily, even though Brian, who really wanted to be mayor for a day, doesn’t get his wish.  And so readers move on to August Is for Acrobat, in which the kids help a traveling circus get cleaned up and set up to perform in their town, Green Lawn.  The circus is looking for new acts, and particularly wants an acrobat – and finds one, in the person of a masked trapeze artist whose identity is this book’s small mystery.  The solution here has to do with the family that runs the circus, the desire of that family’s two kids (who become friends with Bradley, Brian, Nate and Lucy) to do something other than keep going town to town in the family business, and a performance that miraculously convinces the circus parents to go along with what their children have in mind.  As in all these books, family values trump plot coherence, and the mysteries are not terribly mysterious – but everything is so wholesome and good-humored that the books have a certain apple-cheeked small-town appeal.

      The subjects of the Horse Diaries books, which are told from the horses’ point of view and intended for readers ages 8-12, are considerably more serious.  Each of these books takes place in a different historical period and features a different type of horse.  Tennessee Rose, ninth in the series, is “told” by a Tennessee Walking Horse living in Alabama – in 1856 when the book starts.  The location and date make it clear from the beginning that this will be a story about slavery, the Civil War, and the notion of freedom for horses and humans alike.  And that is exactly what the book is, focusing both on the horse and on Levi, the slave boy who is her groom.  Jane Kendall, who also wrote the fourth book in this series, Maestoso Petra, takes Rose into the early days of the war as a horse ridden by a Confederate captain, then has the captain die in battle so Rose can go off on her own, find Levi and eventually get to the Union lines with him – so they can both fight for the North.  The story is a simple one, told (as always) from a triumphalist Union perspective – the winners do write the history books, even fictional ones connected only loosely to historical events.  But Tennessee Rose is a solid entry in the Horse Diaries series because of its focus on the horse’s perspective and because of its appendix about the distinctive characteristics of the Tennessee Walking Horse.  This series is aimed mainly at horse-loving preteen girls, and that readership will be pleased to add Tennessee Rose to the eight earlier volumes.

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