March 27, 2014


It’s One Thing After Another! “For Better or For Worse” 4th Treasury. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $22.99.

Say It Ain’t So. By Josh Berk. Knopf. $16.99.

Don’t Even Think about It. By Sarah Mlynowski. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

Rio 2: The Junior Novel. By Christa Roberts. HarperFestival. $5.99.

Rio 2: Vacation in the Wild; One Big Blue Family. By Catherine Hapka. Harper. $3.99 each.

Rio 2: Off and Flying; Untamed Talent. By Cari Meister. HarperFestival. $3.99 each.

     You might think that a sequel is simply a followup, perhaps a continuation of a story already written or a new story featuring characters already introduced. And so a sequel can be – but nowadays it can be many other things. The fourth oversize, hardbound “Treasury” volume reprinting early For Better or For Worse strips by Lynn Johnston, for example, is not only a sequel to the third “Treasury,” Making Ends Meet, but a part of it. Johnston explains at the start of the new book that it is half of what Making Ends Meet was supposed to be – that the cost of producing larger hardcover books has become so prohibitive, their readership so uncertain in an age of the Internet and among a population so focused on video and other decidedly non-bookish forms of communication, that only thinner (but still costly) “Treasury” volumes can now be produced. This is deeply unfortunate, and Johnston bemoans it in terms that will be familiar to anyone who loves newspaper (newspaper?) comic strips and printed (printed?) books. Thank goodness, though, that these treasurable “Treasury” volumes continue to appear, even in thinner form, because each remains a treasure trove of For Better or For Worse panels and, of equal interest to fans of the long-running strip, explanations of ways in which the story does and does not reflect Johnston’s real life. In addition to information on specific comic-strip stories inspired by specific real-world events, Johnston includes newspaper clippings – stories about her and her adventures – and biographical information, such as the fact that she was offered a job working for Jay Ward of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but turned it down for family reasons and later decided it had all been for the best. (Maybe so, but imagining Johnston re-creating Natasha Fatale is great fun!) The ways in which Johnston absorbs everyday events common to so many families – music lessons, dog issues, post-party messes, sibling rivalry – and turns them into the stuff of humor and warmhearted panel-based communication continue to fascinate and amaze. And although For Better or For Worse, which continues to run (or re-run) in many newspapers, was never a particularly “edgy” strip – a fact that puts it at a distinct disadvantage nowadays – it does handle enough difficult themes so that it comes across as something other than a paean to pure sweetness and light. Yet it is sweet at its core, and the chance to absorb that sweetness through a hardcover volume filled with explanatory material is not to be missed, at least in these days before old-fashioned books vanish into the interconnected ether.

     Josh Berk’s Say It Ain’t So is a far more traditional sequel, a “Lenny & the Mikes Mystery” following up on Strike Three, You’re Dead. Intended for ages 8-12, this is a seventh-grade fantasy featuring Lenny, Mike and Other Mike (hence the overall series title). Sports-focused like its predecessor, Say It Ain’t So has Mike managing, through hard work and persistence, to become catcher on his middle-school team, with Lenny becoming the team’s unofficial announcer. The dastardly doings here revolve around the team’s star pitcher, Hunter Ashwell, whose relationship with Mike on the field makes for top-flight play even though Hunter is, as a personality, more than a little unpleasant. What happens is that Hunter, after pitching with tremendous success, starts to have problems, and Lenny suspects that means someone is stealing Mike’s catcher signals. But who? And why? That is the plot, and most of the way it is worked out in this (+++) book is scarcely surprising. Personality descriptions here are at middle-school level: “He was fun, he was nice, and he was a good friend. Right from the beginning. He was Other Mike, but he was always himself. Can’t beat that.” The brief character introductions, or reintroductions, go along with the notion of this book as a sequel – one requiring readers to have read the previous book to get the full effect. For example, Lenny narrates, “Maria Bonzer was, yes, the niece of Mr. Bonzer the librarian. And yes, she is the Maria Bonzer me and the Mikes briefly thought was a murderer. But she ended up helping us solve the case last summer.” To solve this case, Lenny has to become suspicious of all sorts of people, even including Mike, and has to solve the related case of a stolen cell phone, and then has to find himself under suspicion before he discovers the entirely improbable solution to what is really going on, and why. Indeed, the answer is so improbable that it is hard to see the book as more than a sendup of middle-school mysteries, complete with a final championship game whose outcome depends on – who else? – Lenny and Mike (although not Other Mike, who neither likes nor understands baseball). Certainly this series is ripe for other sequels now that this one is out of the way.

     As conventional a sequel as Say It Ain’t So is, Sarah Mlynowski’s (+++) Don’t Even Think about It, with its oddly similar title but a targeting of older readers (ages 12 and up), is something very different: a first book that is clearly written with a sequel in mind. Indeed, said sequel is already in the works. Writing a book that begs for a sequel and seems incomplete without one is, to say the least, unusual, but that is just what Mlynowski has done here. Fast-forward from seventh grade to high school and switch from a boy focus to a girl focus, then throw in a case of manifest absurdity in the form of flu shots that give an entire class telepathic powers, and you have the plot of Mlynowski’s book. It is enormously silly and not to be taken even the slightest bit seriously, but it is also a great deal of fun, despite the fact that it moves in entirely unsurprising directions. The girls with ESP learn the usual high-school secrets: who is crushing on whom, who is about to break up with whom, who cheated on whom, and so on. There is a revelation or two about the adults, thrown in for a bit of spice (the school nurse used to be a stripper), and there are all the possibilities inherent in having a sixth sense that nobody knows about – such as initiating breakups just before boyfriends are going to dump you. There are explorations of how the ESP works and how to deal with the volume of thoughts – “volume” as in “large number” and also as in “loudness.” And as the thought-reading continues, there are predictable complications, including the fact that “we were getting increasingly annoyed with each other.” And there is a mystery involving a woman who appears to know about the ESP and the “Espies.” And it turns out that certain authorities knew about the possibility of ESP accompanying the flu shots, and those authorities have a way to reverse the effect, but do the Espies really want it reversed? Would they want it reversed if it might have a really dire side effect – such as killing them prematurely? Oh, the drama!  But the whole point of the book is that the Espies decide not to accept the antidote, so they can bond further and move into senior year with their powers intact; and that is why Don’t Even Think about It reads like a setup for its own sequel, which will be called, not surprisingly, Think Twice.

     There are sequels and then there are original works based on sequels – yet another way the “sequel machine” keeps churning them out. The animated movie Rio has spawned a sequel called, with stunning lack of originality, Rio 2, and that sequel has in turn spawned a whole group of (+++) books derived from the new film. The first film ended with blue macaws Blu and Jewel as a couple – the last blue Spix’s Macaws in the world – so of course Rio 2 involves the discovery that Blu and Jewel (and their kids) are not the last of their kind, there being more in the Amazon jungle. The wild macaws turn out to be Jewel’s family, which is great for her but not so great for the wild-averse Blu. But eventually everyone is happy with everyone else and all ends happily with happiness. It’s a family film, after all. Rio 2: The Junior Novel, for ages 8-12, tells the whole story of the movie and will be fun for preteens who see and enjoy it and want to relive the experience afterwards – although this is a pretty thin story to live through repeatedly, especially without constant visual reinforcement (the book contains only eight pages of scenes from the film). Vacation in the Wild and One Big Blue Family are Stage 2 books (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) in the series called I Can Read! They are for ages 4-8 and feature movie scenes on every page; both tell the story of the film in bare-bones form, from slightly different angles and showing slightly different visuals. As for Off and Flying and Untamed Talent, also for ages 4-8, the first of these short picture books focuses on Blu’s attempt to fit in with the wild macaws and the way the macaws join sympathetic humans to prevent logging of the jungle; the second focuses on the avian villain Nigel, who has sworn revenge on Blu and Jewel and almost gets it (but of course not quite). These are simple, easy-to-read, easy-to-like souvenir books that give fans of this movie sequel a way to re-enjoy the plot, characters and scenes of the animated film. Like Rio 2 itself, they have no independent existence – the movie sequel would not exist without its predecessor, nor the books without the sequel on which they are based. They are nevertheless enjoyable, in a small and limited way, for young readers who just cannot get enough of Blu, Jewel and their cohorts.

No comments:

Post a Comment