July 16, 2015


Backyard Witch 1: Sadie’s Story. By Christine Heppermann and Ron Koertge. Illustrated by Deborah Marcero. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

My Weirdest School #2: Ms. Cuddy Is Nutty! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $4.99.

Alien in My Pocket 5: Ohm vs. Amp. By Nate Ball. Illustrated by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $4.99.

Amelia Bedelia 7: Amelia Bedelia Sets Sail. By Herman Parish. Pictures by Lynne Avril. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $4.99.

     Simple, easy-to-read books strung into a sequence can be enjoyable pastimes for young readers, roughly ages 6-10, who are willing to take some time – but not too much – away from their video-saturated, fast-paced lives. These series essentially tell the same story again and again, with relatively minor variations from book to book, making them easy to follow and mentally unchallenging – but very enjoyable as periodic pastimes. The new Backyard Witch series by Christine Heppermann and Ron Koertge, for example, starts from the familiar premises that magic is all around if you just look for it, and that when you are feeling down, a little bit of magic can go a long way toward perking you up. Sadie’s Story opens with nine-year-old Sadie being upset because her two best friends, Maya and Jess, are taking a four-day trip together without her. Right after they leave, Sadie meets a pleasant witch in the back yard and is soon having modest adventures while avoiding the always-oblivious parents who are typical in stories like this (Sadie’s dad has taken the summer off from work to write a book, and is rather scatterbrained; her mom is a yoga instructor who spends most of her time upside-down against the wall, so “Sadie was accustomed to having conversations with her mother’s feet”). The fun here comes from Sadie’s insistence that the witch must adhere to fairy-tale conventions, which the witch does not. For instance, Sadie says the witch, Ms. M, must have lived in the forest before – but the witch says she lived in Milwaukee. Sadie says the witch’s friend must have lived in a gingerbread cottage, but the witch says, “Hardly. …Milwaukee gets cold in the winter.” And when Sadie sees the witch on the roof with a broom and assumes Ms. M has flown there, Ms. M explains that she went up a ladder and took the broom along to clean the gutters. There are some actual spells here, including (of course) ones that go awry, but the book’s point is really that magic is everywhere, as Ms. M explains: “What in the world’s isn’t magical? Nobody understands electricity. Not really. And look at penicillin. It grows on bread! You think that isn’t magical?” Eventually Ms. M has to leave, Sadie’s friends return, and after some mild sadness, everything is fine and happy and the authors are surely looking ahead to the next book in this series. Deborah Marcero’s illustrations are as appropriate and unchallenging as the story itself – not magical, but certainly quite pleasant.

     Pictures and text go more clearly together in the many weird-school series by Dan Gutman and Jim Paillot. The second My Weirdest School book is absolutely typical. It starts when a teacher, Mr. Cooper, tries to make a superhero-style entrance to the classroom and manages only to knock over a trash can. It continues as the elderly woman for whom the school is named, Miss Ella Mentry, gives the school a million dollars. The school then decides to use the money to start its own TV station, based on an idea from the book’s narrator, A.J. And that is where Ms. Cuddy comes in: she is a “digital media arts teacher.” And she is very competitive, getting extremely upset (to the point of nuttiness) when she learns that another school has also started a TV station and is getting more viewers for its morning announcements than Ella Mentry School gets for its presentation. The book turns into a ratings game between the schools, with the competing TV stations getting more and more outrageous in their search for viewers, and the whole thing ends with a zombie attack – not real, of course, but more than enough to bring in the TV audience. The ridiculousness of the whole setup is exactly the point, and is the reason My Weirdest School and its predecessors and successors can be fun to read and look at.

     Much the same is true of the Alien in My Pocket series by Nate Ball, with illustrations by Macky Pamintuan. As in the weird-school books, there is a single underlying premise here: a four-inch-tall alien named Amp (from the planet Erd) crashes into Zack McGee’s bedroom, and mildly amusing adventures take place. The fifth of them, Ohm vs. Amp, has Amp’s Erdian commander, Ohm, show up on Earth as well, intending to take Amp home. Various mild excitements and misunderstandings ensue – this is the pattern in all series of this type – involving not only Zack but also his “best friend and next-door neighbor, Olivia,” who “was clear-thinking in an emergency. I, on the other hand, had a brain that turned into pink yogurt when things got tense.” And things certainly do get tense here, or at least tense enough to propel the plot forward, as Ohm insists on getting ready to take Amp home, and there is the possibility of an invasion of Earth in the offing, and it takes some quick thinking about an atlatl (an ancient tool for throwing darts and spears with greater power) to come up with a way to send Ohm and Amp back where they came from. But things do not quite go that way, because if they did, the series would be over, and there is no particular reason for that to be the case. So there are some twists and turns near the book’s end (unsurprising ones, but ones that fans of the series will welcome), resulting eventually in Ohm’s departure but Amp’s remaining with Zack and Olivia in preparation for the sixth book, which will be called Forces of Nature. A sample of that book appears at the end of this one, along with instructions on building an atlatl as a science project: Alien in My Pocket is specifically designed to include Common Core science within and along with its stories.

     There is nothing scientific or especially learning-oriented in the Amelia-as-a-preteen Amelia Bedelia series by Herman Parish, a spinoff from the adult Amelia Bedelia books created by Parish’s aunt, Peggy Parish. None of Herman Parish’s simple chapter books is up to the quality of the ones by Peggy Parish, but each – including the seventh, Amelia Bedelia Sets Sail – offers an enjoyable focus on the central character. This time, Amelia goes on a beach vacation and gets to spend time with her surfing cousin, Jason – who, however, seems to have a secret of some sort, apparently involving the upcoming annual Beach Ball. Young Amelia is subject to some of the same verbal confusion that Peggy Parish made a defining characteristic of the adult character, although in Herman Parish’s books it always seem more forced and less genuine a personality quirk. Thus, for example, when Amelia’s mother says during the drive to the beach that Amelia makes things up left and right, Amelia remarks that the car is on a bridge and cannot go left or right; when Jason describes the town’s Main Street as the “main drag,” Amelia wants to know what people drag on it; and when, while sailing, Amelia is told to weigh the anchor, she says it seems to be about 25 pounds. These mild malapropisms are not the main point here, though. Amelia Bedelia Sets Sail has more to do with a prank that Jason plans to play, how it relates to the legend that pirates buried some treasure near the beach, and how a hail of water-filled beach balls saves the day when a fire breaks out on a half-sized pirate-ship replica. Lynne Avril’s copious drawings help move the story along – they do not just illustrate it – and fans of the young Amelia Bedelia will surely enjoy this simple, rather homespun summertime tale, as well as the recipe for mud pie at the book’s end.

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