May 02, 2013


Alvin Ho #5: Allergic to Babies, Burglars, and Other Bumps in the Night. By Lenore Look. Pictures by LeUyen Pham. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Calvin Coconut #9: Extra Famous. By Graham Salisbury. Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

Zigzag Kids No. 8: Zigzag Zoom. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Illustrated by Alasdair Bright. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

     Once young readers get to know the characters in certain books, they are likely to come back to those characters and their adventures again and again – and so, series for readers in the 6-10 age range can be very popular. Lenore Look and LeUyen Pham are certainly on to something with their Alvin Ho books, in which the always-frightened protagonist has previously confronted school, birthday parties, camping and other everyday events that have been almost overwhelming for him – but not quite. And of course Alvin has learned, again and again, that things are not really as scary as he thought they would be. In the latest book, though, something really scary is going on: Alvin’s mom is pregnant, which is upsetting enough, and there is a 50-50 chance that the baby will be a girl, which compounds Alvin’s worries. In fact, it compounds them to such a degree that he develops a sympathetic pregnancy, which is just one complication here – and one that Alvin hopes will take care of things when it turns out, inevitably, that his new sibling is a girl. (“The problem with girls, as everyone knows, is that they’re not boys.”) In between the pregnancy discovery at the start and the baby’s birth at the end, Alvin goes through a typical-for-him set of issues. For example, his PDK, Personal Disaster Kit, “which was filled with all sorts of emergency equipment like floss, a bandana, a mirror, a scary mask, [and] disaster plans and escape routes to help me survive school,” gets turned into a Personal Donations Kit for victims of the earthquake in Haiti. And Alvin is as acronymic as usual, with comments on the WICCC (World Ice Cream Cone Challenge) and being TFOIC (Too Full of Ice Cream) and so on. There is also hockey here, and snow, and Alvin’s brave determination to prevent a thief from getting to his mom’s “birthing nest,” and there are plenty of misunderstandings and amusements and typical Alvin worries about nothing-at-all (or not much, anyway). This fifth Alvin book will certainly please fans of the first four.

     And the ninth book about Calvin Coconut will be fine for those who liked the first eight. Graham Salisbury and Jacqueline Rogers use their latest tale of Calvin and friends to poke gentle fun at the current fascination with zombie movies: one of the kids’ buddies, the strange and not-always-truthful but always interesting Benny Obi, invites them to be extras in his uncle’s latest movie, Zombie Zumba. His uncle has previously made The People They Ate and My Cousin Is a Teenage Vambie. (That is not a misprint: it is a cross between a zombie and a vampire, which means, as Calvin explains, “Suck the blood, then eat the brain. Cool.”) Tryouts go well, not only for Calvin but also for Stella, the high-school girl who lives with Calvin and his mom, and soon Stella is helping Calvin by “calling up my inner zombie” so Calvin – who has never seen a zombie movie – can understand how to shamble. Soon the kids are getting further zombie instructions from local policemen, and eventually even Calvin’s little sister, Darci, gets into the act. And Calvin says that “if I live to be a thousand years old I don’t think anything will ever be as fun and exciting and weird and awesome as that one long day and night on the beach.” Calvin’s personality, fully formed by this point in the series, shines through all the activity, and the Hawaiian settings, which are also integral to the books, fit right in as well.  Extra Famous is thin in plot, more so than some other Calvin Coconut books, but is as gently amusing and goodhearted as all the books are. Calvin’s fans will look forward to the series’ next entry.

     There will be no next entry in the Zigzag Kids sequence by Patricia Reilly Giff and Alasdair Bright: the eighth book is the last. But the books will surely be around for a while: each is self-contained, and the perfectly racially, ethnically and gender-balanced kids will entertain new readers after their current fans have moved on. Each book focuses on one of the kids in particular, and in Zigzag Zoom it is Gina, a not-very-fast runner who is worried about taking part in a big race between the Zigzag Zebras and the Timpanzi Tigers because she does not want to let her group down. Gina’s problem is that one of the other kids, her friend Beebe, sees Gina running to help someone and declares that Gina is a super-fast runner and that everyone can count on her. But that only worries Gina. “She didn’t want to be counted on. She was slow as a turtle.” Gina would rather sing than run, and finds out from the music teacher, Mr. Sarsaparilla, that “a peppy song makes you feel peppy,” so she pumps herself up even though she knows she is simply not a speedy runner. It turns out not to matter: “She still ran like a turtle. But she was a fast turtle.” And the race is a very low-key one anyway, so everyone gets blue ribbons and gets to go to a party afterwards – a fitting end to a series that is so good-natured as to be thoroughly unbelievable but that, for that very reason, will be enjoyable for young readers and for families trying to help kids deal with the not-always-good-natured elements of school and after-school activities.

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