February 12, 2015


Lego Chain Reactions: Design and Build Amazing Moving Machines. By Pat Murphy and the scientists of Klutz Labs. Klutz. $21.99.

The 39 Clues: Doublecross—Book One: Mission Titanic. By Jude Watson. Scholastic. $12.99.

     Continuity and consistency are important for encouraging young readers to stay with a book series – or with the “books-plus” concept of crafts projects from Klutz. Parents and kids alike know what they can expect from Klutz productions: simple-to-follow instructions, projects that are often offbeat and unusual, and packages containing the pieces needed to do the things explained in the “books” parts of the “books-plus” setup. Klutz has shown kids ways to modify Lego constructions before, in Lego Crazy Action Contraptions. Now there is a follow-up, or companion piece, to that earlier offering, in the form of Lego Chain Reactions. It contains 33 Lego elements, ranging from simple bricks to bearing elements, cross axles, bushings, axle pegs and more. The names of these non-brick elements show what this crafts project is all about: turning static Lego constructions into dynamic machines. In fact, these are machines of the Rube Goldberg type – ones that go through complex contortions and multiple steps to accomplish things that are inherently simple. The fun of these machines, as of the original Rube Goldberg cartoons that gave this type of setup its name, comes from realizing just how complicated and multi-stepped it is possible to make a very simple action. The first and easiest machine in Lego Chain Reactions, for example, is called the “Quintopple.” Buildable entirely with items provided by Klutz (some of the more-complicated projects require additional elements from an existing Lego set), the Quintopple uses a string attached to a tire and wound around a pole to start a multi-part chain reaction. Releasing the tire unwinds the string, so the tire swings and hits an upright brick that falls onto a seesaw lever, which tilts and makes a sign pop up. The brick simultaneously hits a ball that rolls down a ramp – and the ball triggers a reaction in another machine, which is built separately. As with ordinary, everyday Legos, which can be joined in a variety of ways, the machines in Lego Chain Reactions can be tied together and made to work in sequence. This makes things even more ridiculously complex and even more ridiculously amusing. As usual, Klutz even provides some genuine educational information along the way, for example when discussing use of a pulley: “A pulley changes the direction of a force. …This type of machine was invented by George Atwood in 1784.” True, the educational material is so soft-pedaled as to be nearly invisible, but it is there for kids (and parents) who want to seek it out. Lego Chain Reactions contains real physics, even if nothing in it is described that way, and it is also just plain fun – a chance for kids who already enjoy their Lego sets to expand upon them in ways that are not only entertaining but also genuinely informative.

     There is occasional genuine information in the many books of The 39 Clues sequence as well, but it is wholly incidental to what this long-running multi-media series is about. The consistency and fulfillment of expectation here have to do with a focus on the two central characters, Amy and Dan Cahill; the complex plots launched by nefarious villains of one sort or another; the assurance that Amy and Dan will eventually triumph against impossible odds (the odds are always impossible); and the inclusion in each book of six trading cards (or, more recently, digital cards) that can be used to explore the world of the series online. The fourth sequence involving characters from The 39 Clues, which is supposed to be the final one, begins with an adventure as world-spanning and unbelievable as always: Mission Titanic. The setup here starts with the fact that Dan and Amy have retired from leadership of the Cahill family, which is now headed by Ian Kabra. He is not particularly well-suited to be in charge of the most powerful family in the world (pretty much everyone who is or ever was anyone of importance belongs to one Cahill branch or another). And as the book starts, Ian runs into a rebellion, in which a number of Cahill adults are in league with a mysterious character called the Outcast. Thrown out of the Cahill mansion (literally), Ian must, against his wishes, seek out help from Amy and Dan, who of course agree to supply it. Doublecross shapes up as a kind of kids-vs.-adults sequence, and of course readers are expected to be firmly on the side of the kids. The absurd premise this time is that the Outcast is re-creating four famous disasters and daring the “kid” faction to prevent them. The first one, given the title of the book and the picture on the cover, is obviously the sinking of the Titanic. That is, this is obvious to everyone except the kids, who spend much of the book going down the wrong road after they conclude that the disaster cannot possibly involve the Titanic because some elements of the Outcast’s clue-filled poem do not refer to that 1912 disaster. Eventually Dan, Amy, Ian and the others do get on the right track, as the Outcast and his henchmen and henchwomen twirl their respective mustaches (figuratively) and speak in the usual stylized “villain dialogue” in which formulaic adversaries in formulaic series like this inevitably talk. This book’s writer, Jude Watson, has the formula down pat, having written five previous novels in the overall sequence. Watson (real name: Judy Blondell) knows not to write with too much style, not to give too much description, and not to do much of anything to slow down the plots and counterplots. So Mission Titanic does a good job of starting the latest The 39 Clues series, and gets a (+++) rating for the many fans of the books and the whole concept. This is actually a “books-plus” approach of a kind, not in the Klutz sense, but in terms of young readers needing to participate in ways that go beyond simply reading if they are to get the full flavor of these wildly improbable adventures with their wholly predictable outcomes.

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