September 27, 2012
(++++) SERIES, SEQUELS AND COMPANIONS
Junie B., First Grader: Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten (and Other Thankful Stuff). By Barbara Park. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. Random House. $11.99.
Capital Mysteries 14: Turkey Trouble on the National Mall. By Ron Roy. Illustrated by Timothy Bush. Random House. $4.99.
Zigzag Kids No. 6: Super Surprise. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Illustrated by Alasdair Bright. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.
The Ring of Five No. 3: The Ghost Roads. By Eoin McNamee. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.
Emily and Jackson Hiding Out. By Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Delacorte Press. $14.99.
The Mourning Emporium. By Michelle Lovric. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
Ongoing sequences of books for young readers that feature the same characters tend to be reliable for publishers and families alike: everyone knows pretty much what to expect and everyone gets pretty much that, neither more nor less. This almost invariably leads to formulaic writing and formulaic plots – fine for readers who want even more of what they are already familiar with, but not particularly interesting for anyone looking for something new. There are exceptions, though, and one of them is the long-running Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park, with illustrations by Denise Brunkus. Junie B. is such an endearing character, her foibles so nicely expressed in a wide variety of settings (and, now that she has made it from kindergarten to first grade, in a somewhat more advanced academic environment), that each new book about her offers new enjoyment. And readers can pick up and enjoy each of them individually – yes, it helps to have some background on Junie B. and her family and friends, but no, it is not absolutely necessary. So Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten (and Other Thankful Stuff) is yet another delight in a long line of them. This first new Junie B. book in five years has all the hallmarks that continue to make the series so much fun. The plot involves a Thankful Contest at Junie B.’s school, where the class decides it is thankful for such items as exploding biscuits and toilet paper – and where Junie B. discovers that a pilgrim costume is uncomfortable and pumpkin pie is yucky. Among other things, Junie B. names foods, but when she encounters some she does not like, she remarks that “deep breathing does not work that good when you are smelling stink” – a typical Junie B. comment that shows how Park and Brunkus keep the series consistent but fresh. Eventually and inevitably, everything works out fine and everyone is happy and celebratory; and of course it is clear from the start that this will happen; and of course it does not matter, because the way Park and Brunkus make it happen is the joy of the Junie B. books.
Other series books, such as Turkey Trouble on the National Mall and Super Surprise, get (+++) ratings for existing series fans. There is not much to these books, which are short and easy to read, featuring recurring characters without very distinctive personalities and events that are mildly amusing and slightly interesting – enough to encourage early readers to stay with the series, and not much more. In Turkey Trouble on the National Mall, friends KC and Marshall gather 117 turkeys before Thanksgiving to get them all pardoned by the President, who traditionally pardons only one. But the turkeys disappear the night before the pardoning is scheduled, leaving the fourth-grade friends to solve the mystery, with a little help from two FBI agents and, at the end, some personal time with the President. In Super Surprise, the perfectly ethnically and physically balanced Zigzag Kids (who are all grouped in the Zigzag Afternoon Center) engage in a plan to save Destiny Washington’s favorite teacher, Ms. Katz, after they hear that she may have to leave the school. Destiny – this book’s leader; the various kids all get turns in this series – turns out to be mistaken, but when she finds out what is really going on, she comes to the rescue again and, of course, everything ends happily. There is not much to the Capital Mysteries and Zigzag Kids series, but the new ones are easy-to-follow, easy-to-read, pleasant diversions for kids who already enjoy the sequences.
For slightly older readers, series tend not to be open-ended but to come in specific groups, the most common being trilogies – such as The Ring of Five, which began with the eponymous novel, continued with The Unknown Spy and now concludes with The Ghost Roads. Eoin McNamee has wound things up to fever pitch with a large number of uncertainties and worries for protagonist Danny Caulfield, and now he needs to unwind them, reveal true identities, make sure that Danny not only succeeds but also grows, reconcile the Upper and Lower Worlds, and finally dispose of the Ring of Five and its evil leader, Ambrose Longford. McNamee, who has written thrillers for adults, knows how to handle suspense for younger readers as well. Longford convinces authorities that Danny is a threat to both Upper and Lower Worlds; Danny has to travel the roads of the book’s title to get back to Wilson’s Academy of the Devious Arts, the spy school; he finds a resistance group founded by his parents; and he sails on a strange river that passes through both worlds. McNamee brings in new characters while also having old ones reappear, some of them surprisingly; and there are, not surprisingly at all, betrayals and double-crosses galore, through all of which Danny remains steadfast and as pure a “good guy” as readers of the series would wish. The ending effectively knits all the threads together and will certainly please readers who have stayed with the books from the start. As a standalone novel, the book gets a (+++) rating: it is hard to follow without having read the previous parts of the trilogy, although McNamee does make some effort to explain elements of what is going on. And the plot twists, while surprising in themselves, are simply what anyone would expect in a story about spies, counterspies, plots, counterplots, and the usual youth-grows-up underpinning of the adventure.
Some authors of books for preteens, instead of creating multi-book series, produce “companion” books, second volumes that go with and expand on earlier ones without actually growing into full-fledged sequels or inviting extended sequences of novels. Emily and Jackson Hiding Out and The Mourning Emporium, both of them focused on orphans in peril, are books of this type. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Emily’s Fortune was about Emily, Jackson, and the nefarious Catchum Child Catchers, who did not catch the two protagonists but came mighty close. Eventually Emily and Jackson made it to safety at Redbud, and Emily got her inheritance, and everything seemed just fine, except that tiger-tattooed Uncle Victor was still out there somewhere, as determined as ever to steal Emily’s fortune. In the new book, Aunt Hilda becomes Emily’s legal guardian and offers to become Jackson’s, too, and the child catchers reappear (of course), and so does Uncle Victor (of course), and the perils-of-Pauline language continues to make the book enjoyable to read and impossible to take completely seriously: how seriously can one take a bad guy who calls the children “musty maggots”? Emily and Jackson Hiding Out really is fun, especially its end-of-chapter cliffhangers: “What in the dabble dooby did Jackson have in mind?” “And what in a duck’s dimple do you think happened next?” “But how in flyin’ fishes could anybody know for sure?” All ends happily, of course, and apparently conclusively this time; and the book, which gets (++++) for readers of the first volume and (+++) for anyone coming to it without knowing what occurred before, is certainly a cut above traditional sequels, whether they are called “companions” or something else.
The Mourning Emporium is a more-straightforward example of a companion novel, in this case to Michelle Lovric’s debut book for young readers, The Undrowned Child. But the development of the story is anything but straightforward. The new novel is, like its predecessor, an alternative-history book, set in 1900, as Queen Victoria is dying and a pretender to the throne is threatening the entire British monarchy. Characters from the earlier book reappear – it is really necessary to know the earlier novel to get the full flavor of this one – with the traitorous Bajamonte Tiepolo now spreading his evil magic beyond Venice, which he tried to destroy in the earlier book. Set two years later than the previous novel, The Mourning Emporium requires Teo and Renzo to save not one city but two this time – Venice and London – and to contend with ruthless predators both human (Miss Uish, who runs a floating orphanage for boys, as well as Tiepolo) and animal (a giant squid). The atmospherics are a big part of Lovric’s writing: “deep, liquid-seeming misery,” a prison that is “brooding, malignant and windowless,” created words such as “rhapsodomancy,” concepts such as “between-the-Linings,” characters such as Ghost-Convicts and Incogniti, the Half-Dead disease, exclamations such as “starve the lizards” and “pigs’ ribs” – all these descriptions and bits of dialogue successfully, if in a somewhat overdone way, create the alternative world of magic and history laid atop a typical good-vs.-evil plot. It is hard not to enjoy lines such as, “She pulled a fishskin out of her pinafore and launched it into the thick of the thrashing heap of Ghost-Convicts, who were still struggling to rise to their feet but were perpetually tripped up by the fat animals.” Still, the setting will seem over-elaborate to anyone not already enamored of Lovric’s world-creation in The Undrowned Child, and the (+++) companion book on its own is a touch too complex and clever for its own good – although undeniably out of the ordinary. A concluding section called “What is true, and what’s made up?” is more than an appendix: it is genuinely fascinating to find out how Lovric picked and chose bits of history and patched them together with entirely fictional elements to create the world of The Mourning Emporium and its predecessor. How many authors would find a way to use a recipe for Antispasmodic Tea from a cookbook published in 1852? Lovric is very clever, perhaps even overly so. Her two books about Teo and Renzo will appeal to preteen readers looking for something with offbeat settings and language that is built on a reasonably straightforward good-guys-against-bad-guys foundation.