April 27, 2017
(+++) THE THICK OF THINGS
Bridget Wilder 2: Spy to the Rescue. By Jonathan Bernstein. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $6.99.
Bridget Wilder 3: Live Free, Spy Hard. By Jonathan Bernstein. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Everland 2: Umberland. By Wendy Spinale. Scholastic. $17.99.
Sometimes the contrast between the formula used in adventure series for preteens and those for teenagers is especially stark. Jonathan Bernstein’s Bridget Wilder trilogy is clearly for the 8-12 age group, focusing on middle-school angst, the contrast between a seemingly ordinary girl and her actual exciting non-school life, and a whole series of rather trumped-up family issues. There is also a lot of humor in this series, although the funny and exciting parts never quite meld – it is as if Bridget is two separate characters rather than a single one with multiple facets. Actually “facets” is not quite the right word, implying a polished gem and a wide variety of angles – Bridget is at best semi-polished and semi-precious, and the entirety of her characterization consists of her being an average everyday middle-schooler (to whom the intended preteen-girl audience can therefore relate) and at the same time a wonder-working, heroic, behind-the-scenes (and eventually in-front-of-the-scenes) super spy (the fantasy of which is something else to which targeted readers can relate). The first book of the series, Spy-in-Training, had Bridget become a spy at the behest of her birth father, whom she had never known or even seen in a photo (an over-convenient plot twist there). Eventually it turned out that her recruitment into a super-secret spy agency was nothing but an evil ploy to get at her dad; so by the start of Spy to the Rescue, the second book (originally published last year and now available in paperback), Bridget has been forced to become just a normal middle-school student of average abilities and with the usual friendship-and-family issues. Since that scenario would make for a very boring book, Bernstein does not let it last long. Soon Bridget is getting framed by someone at school for a series of petty misdeeds, such as stealing cheerleader secrets; and then her super-spy father goes missing, so Bridget obviously has to take on the world (or at least the bad guys in it) to rescue him. Having the book start with Bridget being kidnapped by evil cheerleaders is a pretty neat touch, but other elements of Spy to the Rescue are just too formula-driven to keep readers interested unless they have low expectations. Exploding toilets; magnetic chewing gum; an annoying older brother named Ryan, who is Bridget’s chaperone on a trip to New York and who brings along his drip of a girlfriend, Abby; said brother’s unexpected protective streak when Bridget needs protecting. OK, got it all. And then there is some supposedly straight talk to Bridget, when she is told, “You think you can be a spy when it suits you and then go back to your normal life. But you can't…. You have to commit or walk away, Bridget. You can't just show up for a weekend and then go back to school like nothing happened.” Uh-huh.
So, anyway, then we get to the series finale, Live Free, Spy Hard, where those words of warning have evaporated into thin air. This time, Bridget’s dad, Carter Strike, like, totally upsets Bridget by assigning someone else to protect Bridget’s favorite boy band on a world tour. And then the president’s daughter is kidnapped (oh, that’s original) during the presidential campaign, forcing Bridget to go undercover to get the drop on a plot to take over the United States through the use of evilly programmed “Font phones.” This eventually leads to the sort of pronouncement inevitably made by defeated adult super-villains who get their comeuppance because of the pluck and integrity of average preteen girls: “I’ve still got more money than anyone else. I can still remake the world the way I want it.” But no! No while Bridget is in the spy game – whether or not she is fully committed to it! On the other hand, there is that little bit about Bridget’s mom, who is about as dim as parents usually are in books like this, discovering that Bridget has been lying about her extracurricular activities and has actually been engaging in spy stuff instead of, you know, regular extracurricular stuff. Bernstein can’t seem to let go of this series: the third book ends with a chapter called “The Fall,” and then again with a chapter called “Aftermath,” and then yet again with one called “Mommy and Me,” and then with “The Final Chapter,” which ends with the presumed start of yet another adventure, whether Bernstein intends to chronicle it or not. This just-can’t-end-it conclusion seems to indicate that Bernstein genuinely likes Bridget, and certainly he has gone out of his way to make her likable from readers’ perspective. The near-constant touches of sometimes-goofy humor and the determinedly superficial nature of Bridget’s relationships with pretty much everyone scarcely give her any realism as a character – but as in many other spy books and many, many other books for preteens, reality is seen mostly as a barrier to enjoyment.
Not that there is necessarily anything real-seeming about books for older, teenage readers. There is, however, determined grittiness and an attempt to pretend that events are genuinely important and deeply meaningful in books such as Umberland, a sequel to the singularly charmless Everland, which took Peter Pan into steampunk territory in a way that stripped it of every bit of its warmth and made it unengaging to the point of ugliness. Having dumped Peter Pan into a dark and dismal Neverland, Wendy Spinale now takes on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and gives them similar treatment. If Bernstein seems genuinely to like his central character in the Bridget Wilder series, Spinale seems genuinely to dislike pretty much everyone and everything in Everland and Umberland, and does not seem to care much for the classic models that she twists and distorts, either. Umberland is sort of a sequel, but its connections to the previous book are rather thin. In a way this is just as well, because it means that Umberland pretty much stands on its own after the first few chapters, which tie into Everland because it turns out that the supposed cure for the virus that figured largely in Everland was not a cure at all, but has turned into something worse – something that can only be defeated (or defused) through the use of a poisonous apple that, however, appears to be extinct. Unless it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then it is in the middle of a very dangerous labyrinth, into which someone must venture to try to find what may or may not be at the center. So much for the tying-together of the two books. It turns out that the person who must undertake the quest is Duchess Alyssa, who will be helped by Maddox Hatter. Yes, here we have Spinale’s version of Alice and the Mad Hatter (Maddox is described as “the host of the grand Poison Garden Tea Party”), and that is about the extent to which Umberland pays tribute to anything by Lewis Carroll. Peter, from the first book, does continue to be a character here, but is even more annoying than in Everland and seems less realistically motivated – while, somewhat surprisingly, Alyssa and Maddox actually make sense as characters, and their actions tend to flow fairly reasonably from their personalities. This puts them in stark contrast to Peter, whose impetuosity and lack of concern for consequences, although not totally out of keeping with the Peter Pan model, are so extreme that they become a distraction. Somehow Spinale thinks a perpetually angry, pushy, clingy Peter is a worthy and positive character – an odd viewpoint, to put it mildly, even though it is not surprising that a book intended for teenagers would have at least one constantly bitter character in it. Spinale is determined to do not only steampunk but also almost-horror, as in a scene in which Alyssa is trapped beneath a dangerous gryphon that she has killed, while a character who calls himself the Colonel kills a whole group of the creatures, so that “the ground is littered with dead gryphons, their blood staining the earth.” Spinale again uses the Everland structure of having different characters narrate different chapters, but as in the earlier book, this is a narrative device only, not a way of deepening characters or giving additional insight into their feelings or motivations. Umberland is a marginally better-told tale than Everland, which was a (++) book; the sequel ekes out a (+++) rating. But teenagers with any slight familiarity with Carroll’s books – even to the point of wanting to make fun of them as “for little kids,” which they are not – may still be disappointed to find that Spinale treats her classic models here with nearly as much contempt as she heaped on J.M. Barrie’s work in the first book of this sequence.