Welcome to Wonderland, Book 1: Home Sweet Motel. By Chris Grabenstein. Illustrated by Brooke Allen. Random House. $13.99.
Dreidels on the Brain. By Joel ben Izzy. Dial. $17.99.
Max Helsing No. 2: Max Helsing and the Beast of Bone Creek. By Curtis Jobling. Viking. $16.99.
The mixture of the funny and the dramatic with the rather unfortunate descriptive name of “dramedy” is part and parcel of novels for preteens and young teenagers. Various writers make the mixture in different ways, some focusing more on the intense elements (but not too intense), some on the amusing (and often crude, but not too crude) ones. Emphases aside, the books otherwise share a great deal in terms of plot and characters: there is a protagonist, there is a sidekick, there are clueless and barely described one-dimensional adults, and there are nefarious doings about that the adults cannot handle but the bold, innovative and perceptive young people can (if the adults do not get in their way). Chris Grabenstein has handled this formula with particular skill and verve in his two books about Mr. Lemoncello’s library, but his other uses of it creak a bit – including his latest, the start of a series called Welcome to Wonderland (sometimes, depending on where you look in the book, spelled “WonderLand”). The protagonist here is P.T. Wilkie, full name Phineas Taylor Wilkie, named for the famous/notorious showman P.T. Barnum and therefore, of course, sharing some of the same instinct for showmanship and stretching the truth. Clever rather than bright, P.T. lives with his mother – he never knew his father – in his grandfather’s seedy Florida beachfront motel, which Grandpa Walt unfortunately opened just about the same time another Florida attraction, named for another Walt, opened near Orlando and sucked all the life out of Wonderland. Imagined competition with Disney World aside, Grandpa Walt has come up with a series of schemes to keep the motel going, and the careful financial management of P.T.’s mom has been crucial as well. But now the balloon payment on a mortgage is due in a month, to the tune of $100,000, and the motel is doomed – or would be if this were not the start of a middle-grade series. Since it is, there has to be a rescue afoot, and P.T. has to orchestrate it. What luck! To the motel comes Gloria Ortega, who is P.T.’s age and really is smart, and highly knowledgeable about business, too. Her dad is the local TV weatherman, complete with brightly shining teeth, and is a widower – Gloria’s mom died years ago, in a place her dad remembers by the call letters of the station where he was working at the time (yes, he is that thoroughly typecast). A budding romance between P.T.’s mom and Gloria’s dad is inevitable, and duly occurs with suitable laid-back modesty. But wait! There’s more! Not even the business savvy of Gloria and P.T.’s mom can save the motel, although there are some funny money-raising schemes orchestrated by P.T. with the aid of his irrepressible grandfather (old folks who are not cranky and bitter are inevitably irrepressible in books like this). The motel needs a lot of money, after all, and needs it quickly. Enter the jewel thieves! Yes, Grabenstein brings in two elderly brothers, jewel thieves whose huge heist decades earlier was never found – both are fresh out of prison and heading for Wonderland because the third member of their little gang, a woman long since dead, may have hidden the stolen loot somewhere at or near the motel. And that’s not all! There is also an unscrupulous private detective on the trail of the missing jewels, for whose return there just happens to be a reward of – wait for it – $150,000. There’s the money that has to find its way to the bank holding the motel’s mortgage! It is no surprise at all that everything ends quite happily here, with some modest danger overcome with little difficulty and everybody nicely settled into and around the old motel, awaiting the next book in this series. Home Sweet Motel is lighthearted fun, with some amusing Brooke Allen illustrations to keep things frothy, and it is a perfectly fine series opener, although it lacks the cleverness, unusual twists and subtly communicated intellectual heft of Grabenstein’s better books. It is, in fact, something of a “beach read.”
Joel ben Izzy’s Dreidels on the Brain is for a different season – Hanukkah season (sometimes, depending on where you look in the book, spelled Chanukah or in one of several other ways, this being a running theme that is supposed to be amusing). This book too has its roots in the 1970s. In fact, it is set in the 1970s, specifically 1971, where a 12-year-old would-be magician named Joel Buttsky, the only Jew in his school, is dealing with his mortifying family and issues whose seriousness ranges from that of Houdini to that of the Holocaust. Joel (“I hate my last name, and don’t want to talk about it”) is having a crisis of faith, and looking for a Chanukah miracle to convince himself to stop having it. That is the serious/dramatic part of the book, whose climax is not some grandly amazing event but a chance meeting between Joel and an old man on a bus – a man who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp thanks, he says, to an orange he once had at Chanukah. It is hard to convey the emotional clout that this scene has, or is supposed to have, without reading everything that comes before, including much that is amusing and a good deal that is explanatory: the story of what Chanukah is and what it means has to be worked into the narrative, and what a dreidel (a type of spinning top) is and why it is important to Jews, and a good deal more of cultural/religious material without which the story would have no resonance at all, and not much humor. The old man’s last words to Joel are the core of the message here: “‘Remember, young man,’ he said. ‘Remember the sweet things in life.’” And Joel wonders at the end of the book whether the old man might have been an angel, and thus perhaps the very miracle that Joel was looking for. The question is unanswered. But the miracle, if that is what it was, follows some difficult times for Joel as well as some amusing incidents. The most difficult is the magic show that he is overjoyed to be invited to put on at the nursing home where his grandmother lives: the show is a disaster, thanks in large part to Joel’s grandmother, whose loud irrationality spoils everything that Joel does not manage to spoil on his own. Yet Dreidels on the Brain is not, despite everything, a depressing book – although lighthearted it certainly is not. Its biggest flaw for many readers – and biggest pleasure for others – is the extent to which it is steeped in what it means to be Jewish at Chanukah time, which is also Christmas time. That element of the book is constantly appearing or about to appear. For instance, in a brief scene involving girls singing Christmas carols, Joel mentions that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written by “a Jew named Johnny Marks. Then they sang ‘Let It Snow,’ by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, both Jewish. …[T]he choir sang only one Christmas song that wasn’t written by a Jew, and that was ‘O Tannenbaum,’ which is German for ‘O Christmas Tree.’ But even that’s Jewish, because Tannenbaum isn’t just a Christmas tree, it’s also a name, and as Jewish as you can get.” Dreidels on the Brain is not overtly intended to be read only by Jewish preteens, but that is certainly the audience most likely to find it appealing.
The “sidekick” angle is not especially prominent in Dreidels on the Brain, but it is there – Joel has a buddy/assistant/crush named Amy O’Shea. This angle certainly does matter in Curtis Jobling’s Max Helsing and the Beast of Bone Creek, the second book in which Max carries on the monster-hunting tradition of his family. Max’s main mystery-solving helper is Syd Perez, a Latina who – like Grabenstein’s Latina, Gloria Ortega – is smarter than the protagonist himself but not as deeply involved in all that is going on. There is, in fact, a lot going on in Max Helsing and the Beast of Bone Creek. It is set during Max’s first-ever vacation, a class camping trip to a supposedly haunted-or-something part of New Hampshire where actual supernatural creatures do in fact keep turning up, their main purpose apparently being to give Jobling an excuse to show illustrated and rather intricate field-guide pages that are often more entertaining than the part of the story they are designed to illuminate. There is considerable humor early in the book, including Max being forced to share a room with the principal, who is scarcely one of his fans, and the overall appearance of the rundown lodge where the class is staying (seemingly another parallel of sorts with Grabenstein’s book and its seedy motel, but really just a trope of many dramedies for this age group). The drama here comes in when some campers disappear and clues point to Bigfoot, setting Max on another monster hunt and also drawing the attention of other hunters, including Max’s British rival, Abel Archer, who eventually turns up in the right place at the right time to do Max a very good turn indeed. The distinctly unpleasant creature who turns out to be behind the evildoing here is only a so-so villain, not as horrifying or potent as might be expected, although certainly violent enough. More intriguing than Max’s eventual escape is his thinking at the end of the book about a mysterious reference to “The King in Yellow,” a phrase with some resonance: it refers to a dark, forbidden play that brings madness to those who read it in Robert W. Chambers’ book of the same title. In the epilogue to Max Helsing and the Beast of Bone Creek, however, it turns out that the phrase refers to a creature, a deeply evil and genuinely frightening being with an eye out for Max – a matter sure to be explored in future books, and likely with greater dramatic tension than Jobling produces in most of this one.
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