June 20, 2013


Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two, #4: What I Don’t Know Might Hurt Me. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

The Silver Six. By A.J. Lieberman. Illustrations by Darren Rawlings. Graphix/Scholastic. $22.99.

Mia and the Girl with a Twirl. By Robin Farley. Pictures by Aleksey and Olga Ivanov. Harper. $16.99.

Dixie and the Good Deeds. By Grace Gilman. Pictures by Sarah McConnell. Harper. $16.99.

     There are some books whose illustrations, intentionally or not, become their main attraction, even if their stories are well done. Jim Benton’s “Tales from Mackerel Middle School,” in the form of the ongoing diary of Jamie Kelly, always mix the visual with the written, but sometimes one of the books just insists on being mostly a) read or b) looked at. Choose (b) for What I Don’t Know Might Hurt Me, which actually tackles a significant problem in the text – and does so surprisingly well – but ends up being even more fun to see than to read. The primary subject of the book is bullying, which Jamie and friends and frenemies get involved in combating as part of the club-joining scene that they got into in the previous book, Nobody’s Perfect. I’m as Close as It Gets. The blond, super-sweet and generally perfect Angeline is of course a total anti-bully, except for what she surprisingly reveals about herself here when Jamie compares her to Isabella. For her part, Isabella has all the makings of a bully, and here we find out how she hones some of her questionable skills through her interactions with her brothers – and how she eventually puts those skills to exceptionally good use by stopping a major school bully named Butch and then making things OK with him by, err, threatening to rip the outside mirror off Butch’s dad’s car….well, you have to be there to see why this works and why it’s funny. But long before that climactic event, we are treated, for example, to an absolutely perfect “Jamie drawing” of herself with eyes half-closed and tongue sticking out, holding a definitely deceased varmint in both hands, to go with the text, “I’m always positive even when I would rather lick fungus off a dead rat’s eyeball that I dredged out of a garbage disposal in an abandoned insane asylum because I am sweet and I am classy.” Again, you sort of have to be there, but it’s not hard to arrive – just turn to page 11. Then there are the parallel pictures, on facing pages, of a chimpanzee eating cupcakes and a “girlpanzee” doing the same. There is Jamie’s visual impression of “The Attractive Olympics,” which includes, among other things, “The 50-Yard Saunter.” There are the “Beagle Sharks,” Jamie’s ever-hungry Stinker and Stinkette. There are some of the absurd things that Jamie’s dad is determined to do to prevent the house from getting messy while Jamie’s mom is helping care for Jamie’s grandma – and the pictures showing why Grandma needs help are hilarious, too. And then there is Dicky Flartsnutt, first introduced in a picture that includes everything from “ear lubricant” to shoes that “smell like [an] inflatable baby pool,” a boy who is absolutely born to be bullied and who, at some level, doesn’t mind, because the bullies are the only ones who talk to him at all – and besides, he has “bizarre optimism.” The way Benton pulls all these threads together into a really weird garment that somehow fits Jamie and readers exceptionally well is quite remarkable and very, very funny from start to finish. Just catch the pictures of Jamie’s dad demonstrating non-messy eating over a dustpan and non-sloppy shaving over the toilet and you will be hard-pressed to stop laughing even though, amazingly, the book really does handle the issue of bullying with a certain degree of sensitivity.

     The Silver Six is for older readers and, being a graphic novel, is intended to communicate more with pictures than with words. Good thing, too, because the words are pretty formulaic, although A.J. Lieberman strings them together skillfully in this all-too-typical tale of a dystopian future in which an evil corporation (is there ever any other kind?) is despoiling the planet to produce a crucial energy source, and the thoroughly rotten head of the company (again, is there ever any other kind?) is not above killing people to protect his profits. But he picks the wrong people to pick off when he goes after the parents of a plucky group of now-orphans – who wear silver uniforms in the horrible government-run orphanage (is there any other kind?) and therefore call themselves the Silver Six when they realize they are united by tragedy and should stick together. One good thing here is that the preteen kids don’t take their name too seriously – especially Oliver, the cynic of the group (every group has one, right?). It is Phoebe, the primary protagonist, who has chosen the name, but at an awful orphanage meal (is there any other kind?), Oliver says, “Give the Silver Six thing a rest, OK? …We’re not some bogus superhero team, OK? Look around. This is real.” But of course the kids do get plenty of chances to perform heroics, including a breakout from the orphanage and a journey through space to a moon once discovered by their parents, who had hoped that a better energy source might be found there but had been disappointed. The kids’ adventures on the moon, and their involvement with Phoebe’s hand-built robot, Max, are the core of the book, which also involves the usual evil henchman of the corporate bad guy – who, unsurprisingly, is not really evil, but has a bond to the bad guy that results in evil behavior. Anyway, the story is on the thin and unsurprising side, but the pictures by Darren Rawlings are so well-integrated with the words that they carry the book along strongly and intensely from beginning to end, complete with colors that vary from nighttime brown-and-purple to bright daylight blues and greens and match the action very effectively. For everything expected in an adventure of this kind – the bad guy’s name is, um, Craven, which is also the name of his evil company – there is something in the illustrations that lifts The Silver Six out of the ordinary and keeps it moving briskly, if not always particularly innovatively, from event to event. It is a fast-paced, thoroughly exciting book filled with likable central characters, suitably overstated adventures and a thoroughly satisfying save-the-world conclusion – all brought to vivid visual life throughout.

     Pictures are crucial in the “I Can Read!” series and similar early-reading books, too, since they tell much of the story and help early readers see the relationship between narrative and illustration. Mia and the Girl with a Twirl is at the “My First” level for “emergent readers,” and Dixie and the Good Deeds is at Level 1 (“simple sentences for eager new readers”), but the two books are quite similar both in text and in their use of pictures. The latest story of ballet-loving Mia involves a new girl in ballet class who does moves differently from the way the other girls and the teacher, Miss Bird, do them; of course everyone decides that doing things differently is just fine, and the whole class ends up experimenting with various kinds of dance. In the new book about Emma and her dog, Dixie, Emma has over-volunteered around the community because she is so excited at all the good deeds she can do – but she soon realizes that she is trying to do too much, and matters get worse (and then, eventually, better) as Dixie tries to help out. There is nothing profound in either book, but both are pleasant and teach nicely soft-pedaled lessons while helping young readers learn how words and pictures go together. Mia’s multi-animal ballet class is always fun to see: giraffe, hippo, elephant, porcupine and others in tutus are pleasantly amusing. And the well-meaning mischief-making of Dixie is fun in a different way, as she manages to cover herself in flour and juice, step in paint, get washed off only because she interferes with Emma’s car-washing duties – and then make everything all right by actually helping Emma out at the end of the long, tiring day. The stories in these two books are thin, but that makes sense in works created primarily to present attractive characters who will pique young readers’ interest. And the illustrations support the words very well indeed – pulling kids into the stories and hopefully into the whole reading-on-their-own experience.

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