December 27, 2012


America the Beautiful: Together We Stand. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

Hideout. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.

The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers—Book Five: Trust No One. By Linda Sue Park. Scholastic. $12.99.

      A simple book communicating the basic values of the United States of America through the well-known poem by Katharine Lee Bates and illustrations by 10 different artists, America the Beautiful: Together We Stand is an easy book to critique as simplistic – and one that it would be a serious mistake to demean on that basis. With all the mundane disagreements and arguments that pervade the political sphere and many people’s everyday lives, there are fundamental precepts underlying the United States as a nation that this book offers as a focus. There are things that unite the country’s citizens more fundamentally than the others – and there are many of them – that divide them. Without in any way downplaying the legitimate concerns of any particular group, political or otherwise, the book gives young readers, and hopefully their parents as well, a chance to pause for a moment in the clamor of everyday life and consider the context in which all our arguments and disagreements occur. This is a book that speaks to the fundamentals of why the United States is special – not necessarily unique, but certainly among a very few countries with a rich, diverse population that has far more freedoms than people in most of the world can even dream about. Not a perfect nation, not a nation without challenges, not a nation that has fully faced up to its responsibilities or managed to avoid fault lines that threaten each day to produce new fissures among people and groups – but a nation that fundamentally wants to do the right thing, not in obedience to a religious edict or a particular tribal requirement but in a secular environment in which all citizens (and those who aspire to become citizens) share individual hopes, wishes and dreams that they believe can be fulfilled within the United States.  The book simply gives the words of the famous first verse of America the Beautiful, illustrating each line and attaching to each a quotation from a president. The quotes are carefully chosen to span political abysses, inevitably including Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln while also offering words from Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George H.W. Bush. Illustrators Bryan Collier, Raúl Colón, Diane Goode, Mary Grandpré, John Hendrix, Yuyi Morales, Jon J. Muth, LeUyen Pham, Sonia Lynn Sadler and Chris Soentpiet themselves reflect the racial, ethnic and gender diversity to which the United States is perceived as being dedicated – not perfectly, not all the time, not by everyone, but to a far greater extent than our everyday divisions sometimes seem to indicate. The book also includes the three other verses of Bates’ 1893 poem, plus a brief description of 10 national symbols and landmarks. It is a primer on American patriotism – and also a poster: the book jacket, when removed, reveals itself as suitable for framing, portraying all the presidents from Washington to Obama.

      Of course, the grand American adventure tends to be buried in everyday life by smaller ones, with everybody running around busily trying to pursue his or her particular brand of happiness. The Declaration of Independence, after all, talks about the pursuit of happiness, not the attainment of it, and plenty of people, real and fictional, spend plenty of time running hither and thither in search of a way to be or stay happy. A much more typical book for young readers than America the Beautiful is Gordon Korman’s Hideout, in which the happiness pursuit occurs at a frenzied pace and for the fifth time – the four previous books being Swindle, Zoobreak, Framed and Showoff. All the books revolve around a very large dog and a boy named Griffin Bing, known as The Man With The Plan – actually multiple plans, all of them over-complicated and most of them of somewhat less than sterling character. The dog is a character: Luthor, an oversize (150-pound) Doberman originally trained as an attack dog and now living happily (and sloppily) with Savannah Drysdale. Hideout takes Luthor, Griffin and the gang back to the series’ roots with the return of Luthor’s original owner, the slimy S. Wendell Palomino, known as Swindle. Palomino (an animal abuser and “a mean, sleazy con man”) is determined to get Luthor back, and has the law on his side, since he convinces a court that he remains Luthor’s rightful owner and that Savannah’s adoption of the dog should not stand. So the latest plan is to hide Luthor somewhere – or rather in a series of somewheres – until Palomino can somehow be defeated once and for all.  Palomino eventually grabs and tranquilizes Luthor, getting help from a hired man named Dominic Hiller, who insists that Palomino “promise me we’re the good guys.”  Eventually, of course, Hiller finds out that that is not true, and the kids – with timely help from their parents – get rid of Palomino once and for all (well, maybe). So Luthor is reunited with Savannah, and The Man With The Plan gets to chalk up another improbable victory in a highly improbable saga – in which improbability, if nothing else, the story of the United States as a nation is (somewhat faintly) reflected.

      And speaking of improbability as reflected in fifth adventures, the latest part of the ongoing The 39 Clues series, Cahills vs. Vespers, has now reached its fifth volume. This one is written by Linda Sue Park, who previously (in 2010) produced Storm Warning, the ninth book in the original series of The 39 Clues. And if that seems confusing – well, this whole multimedia series (with its online and trading-card components) is supposed to be confusing, at least for the characters involved in the wholly implausible plots.  Park’s take in Trust No One (a pretty good umbrella title for the series, if it didn’t already have one) involves the identity of Vesper 3; finding it out turns out to involve lizards and photos and other rather silly plot devices. But the whole underpinning of Cahills vs. Vespers, in which the diabolically clever Vespers are able to kidnap a slew of Cahills in order to get Dan and Amy Cahill to steal things – but are not able to steal the things themselves – is silly.  Even the reasonable questions in this book partake of silliness: “The Vespers had to know already that Folio 74 was no longer part of the manuscript. Then why do they still want us to steal it? Unanswerable, at least for the moment.”  Actually, there’s a pretty good answer late in the book, or at least about as good an answer as readers will get at this point, with one further book in this sequence still to come: “Unbalanced – not exactly the word Dan would have used to describe the Vespers. More like loony to the nth degree.” But of course the whole point of this series is that the Vespers are not loony but diabolically clever, especially Vesper 1, who is clearly up to some grand scheme whose full deviltry will not be revealed until the next book.  And Vesper 2, also unknown, is up to some traitorous-to-the-Vespers deviltry as well. And there is a traitor within Dan and Amy’s inner circle, too. And – well, the world keeps spinning, The 39 Clues keeps its characters spinning around from place to place, and fans of the series will find the latest entry in the series an enjoyable element of their own pursuit of happiness, if not necessarily Dan’s and Amy’s.

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