December 19, 2013


Superworm. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

Fly Guy Presents: Dinosaurs. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.

Jackpot. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Heroes in kids’ books turn up in the unlikeliest places – even underground. That is where Superworm makes his home, emerging as needed to become a lasso, skipping rope, fishing line or anything else his shape allows. In Julia Donaldson’s simply and neatly told rhyming story, Superworm – long and pink and with two googly eyes perched atop his head (and a definite tail at the other end, thanks to Axel Scheffler’s highly amusing illustrations) – is “super-long” and “super-strong,” and the bugs and other creatures in the tale repeatedly say, “Watch him wiggle! See him squirm!/ Hip, hip, hooray for SUPERWORM!” This is about as unlikely a hero as kids are likely to find, and of course he gets into an unlikely predicament: Wizard Lizard has his “servant crow” capture Superworm so the lizard can force the hero to “tunnel, writhe and coil/ To find me treasure in the soil.” There isn’t much there, though – only “two small buttons, half a cork,/ A toffee, and a plastic fork.” Oh no! Will Superworm’s failure lead Wizard Lizard to feed him to the crow? Not to worry: the creatures that Superworm has helped band together to help him this time, and a rescue ensues that involves a honeycomb, petal-eating caterpillars, leaves and a spiderweb. All ends happily for everyone (except Wizard Lizard, who finds himself in the rubbish dump), and the book concludes with Superworm transforming himself into everything from a hula hoop to a belt – anything to help out the “toads and beetles, bees and bugs,/ Brother snails and sister slugs,” and anyone else who needs some utterly absurd and thoroughly delightful super-assistance.

     One thing Superworm does not do is speak. Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy does, though – more or less. Pretty much anything with a “zzzz” sound is fair game for Fly Guy’s narrative abilities, including dinosaur-related items that Fly Guy and his boy, Buzz, see during a field trip to the Natural History Museum in Fly Guy Presents: Dinosaurs. Rather than an adventure featuring a boy and his fly at home or school, the Fly Guy Presents books (or, as Fly Guy calls them, “bookzzz”) use the characters as teaching aids for readers from kindergarten through second grade. In this dinosaur exploration, Buzz and Fly Guy learn about “bonezzz,” dinosaur “vegetarianzzz,” “nutzzz”(because Stegosaurus’ brain was the size of a walnut), and more. Photos of dinosaur skeletons and artists’ representations of how the animals might have looked in life appear throughout the pages, and there are plenty of basic facts for young readers just getting interested in these extinct creatures: Tyrannosaurus rex was as long as a school bus, some dinosaur eggs were as big as footballs, and so on. There is some good science here, including an explanation of how we know that dinosaurs were closely related to modern birds. Pronunciations are helpfully given for many long words (although, oddly, not for “paleontologist”), and there is even a brief discussion of scientific mistakes involving dinosaurs – such as the error that led to the naming of Brontosaurus, which turns out not to have existed. This is a very good little introduction to the world of dinosaurs – Fly Guy fans (fanzzz?) will enjoy it and likely find themselves buzzing with interest to learn more elsewhere.

     Insects are not the featured creatures in Gordon Korman’s books about Griffin Bing (“The Man With The Plan” – actually multiple plans, all of them over-complicated and most of them of somewhat less than sterling character). But there is one animal that looms large – really large – in all these novels: Luthor, an oversize (150-pound) Doberman originally trained as an attack dog and now living happily (and sloppily) with Griffin’s friend, Savannah Drysdale. Jackpot is the sixth book in this ongoing series, and as usual features a mystery and some mild derring-do in the town of Cedarville. The doings here involve an unclaimed, soon-to-expire lottery ticket worth $30,000,000, which Griffin – like everyone else in town – is eager to find. Among the “everyone else” people are Darren Vader, Griffin’s arch-enemy (probably no relation to Darth Vader, but who knows?), and a new kid named Victor Phoenix – who, for some reason, Griffin’s friends are helping in the hunt. So the mystery of the missing ticket contains a second mystery of what Griffin’s friends are up to. Griffin’s plans to figure everything out are as complex as usual and about as effective, or ineffective. For his part, Luthor gets into about as much trouble as usual, as when he knocks over Griffin’s bike while Griffin is indoors, and Griffin asks Darren for help tracking the dog down, leading to this exchange: “‘Don’t look at me,’ said Darren. ‘That dog hates me.’ ‘He hates everybody! Don’t take it personally.’” Eventually the lottery-ticket searchers realize that they need Griffin’s abilities to bring the hunt to a successful conclusion: “Griffin had come up with some harebrained schemes before, but never once had he let a plan crash and burn.” And then Griffin realizes something he has not been aware of before, in this book or the earlier ones – that he has been monopolizing the whole planning thing, thereby being unfair to his friends and causing more problems than he solves. So he becomes more cooperative than usual. And that, of course, leads to Griffin figuring out where the missing ticket must be – with almost no time left before the ticket will become invalid because it has not been claimed for a year. But the answer turns out to have one last wrinkle in it, leading (predictably) to despair, leading (equally predictably) to the comment that “Griffin was unwilling to admit defeat,” leading (yes, predictably) to some last-last-last-last minute chases and problems and the deployment of Griffin’s dad’s latest peculiar invention against Darren, resulting (yes, yes, predictably) in success for “the eight kids who had moved heaven and earth to track down” the missing lottery ticket. Oh – Luthor helps, too. Predictably. But one of the delightful things about the Griffin Bing books is that readers can guess pretty much everything that will happen, but not how things will happen, and Korman pulls the strings of the over-complex plots together so neatly that the books, definitely including Jackpot, provide a great deal of entirely meaningless, completely escapist enjoyment.

No comments:

Post a Comment