June 28, 2018


The Supernormal Sleuthing Service No. 2: The Sphinx’s Secret. By Gwenda Bond & Christopher Rowe. Illustrated by Glenn Thomas. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Gabby Garcia’s Ultimate Playbook #2: MVP Summer. By Iva-Marie Palmer. Illustrations by Marta Kissi. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $12.99.

Marge in Charge. By Isla Fisher. Illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans. Harper. $6.99.

Marge in Charge #2: Marge in Charge and the Stolen Treasure. By Isla Fisher. Illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans. Harper. $15.99.

     Series starters for preteens tend to follow a predictable path – and so do series’ second entries. The first books need to introduce the characters and basic settings, establish underlying plot points and the reasons for the protagonists to be doing whatever they may be doing, and create an environment designed to lure readers ages 8-12 into the whole milieu in which the series will take place. Second books need to pick up where the first ones leave off but also move beyond explanations and world-creation and into actual adventures. Otherwise, readers who enjoy the first book of a series are unlikely to stick around through the second and even less likely to be back for the third and any beyond that. Much of the time, second books in series end up being pretty formulaic, taking the characters in predictable directions based on whatever setup was offered in the first book – these second entries almost read like continuations of the initial volume rather than genuine launches of stories that can theoretically go on through quite a few later iterations. Once in a while, though, a second book of a series proves significantly better than the first, and this is what happens with The Supernormal Sleuthing Service by Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe. The idea here is that supernatural beings, known among themselves as supernormals, coexist with but are invisible to ordinary humans, and congregate from time to time in a New York City hotel of whose existence everyday New Yorkers are unaware. The first series book, The Lost Legacy, was clunky, uncertain of how to balance mystery with humor and just how to present the various characters. Its task was made difficult by the authors’ decision to have the central character, Stephen Lawson, initially totally unaware of the existence of supernormals and of his own relationship to them: he is half fey, but his human father never told him that or, indeed, gave him the slightest bit of information about his heritage or about his long-missing fey mother. Using Stephen as a conduit through which to introduce readers to the supernormal world made theoretical sense, but the book also tried to put together the other two kids who, with Stephen, would make up the sleuthing service of the title: Ivan, son of two supernormal-world detectives, “a short boy about Stephen’s age” with “close-cropped red hair and glasses,” and Sofia, daughter of high-ranking supernormal-world diplomats, “a girl with a high, curly ponytail and a flouncy black dress.” Bond and Rowe also presented various other characters, set up the good guys and bad guys, and produced a mystery for the young sleuths to solve. The whole book was overly complicated and did not hang together very well – but The Sphinx’s Secret is much better. Here the three-person sleuthing team already exists, and the whole story revolves around a powerful but dishonest sorcerer who tricks a sphinx into allowing him entry to a place from which the sorcerer can then select any magical item he wants. The result of the trickery is that the sphinx turns to stone and the whole magical world is at risk from the sorcerer – so it makes narrative sense that the adults focus on dealing with the sorcerer and preserving their way of life while the kids, to whom the sphinx was a friend, pay attention to the possibility of returning the sphinx to a living state by proving that the sorcerer cheated in the sphinx’s riddle test. Some of the intriguing subsidiary characters from the first book reappear in the second, the best of them being a talkative and highly self-conscious elevator that steals the scene every time it appears, and indeed has as much personality as the three team members put together. The balance of mystery/adventure on the one hand and humor on the other is much more solid in the second book than in the first, and the young sleuths hit their stride in The Sphinx’s Secret instead of mostly blundering their way along as they did in The Lost Legacy. On the basis of its second book more than its first, The Supernormal Sleuthing Service seems to be a series that preteen readers will be able to enjoy for some time to come.

     Second series entries do not usually work out this well. Sometimes authors essentially try to duplicate in a second book what they produced in the first. That is Iva-Marie Palmer’s approach in the (+++) Gabby Garcia’s Ultimate Playbook #2: MVP Summer. The first Gabby Garcia book established the title character as a baseball-obsessed pitcher who tries to get through her everyday life by creating a “playbook” through which she will handle all the anticipated needs and difficulties she may face. Of course, she ends up with unanticipated needs and difficulties – mild ones – and has to rethink the playbook or think beyond it. The specific challenges change in the second book, but not much else does. This time Gabby’s pitching skill gets her invited to join an elite baseball league, and her slightly quirky charm gets her asked out by her crush – but the main issue in the book involves her bestie, Diego, with whom she has been friends just about since birth (both were born at the same time). Diego has been in Costa Rica and has discovered there that he is fascinated by birds and birdwatching – something in which Gabby has no interest whatsoever, try as she may to share his enthusiasm. Diego is therefore pulling back from baseball, to which Gabby is fanatically devoted, and the result is estrangement between the friends and a summer that does not seem as if it is going to result in Gabby attaining MVP status on the field or retaining solid ongoing friendship away from it. And then Gabby finds out that she has been awarded a scholarship to a prestigious private school, meaning she and Diego will not even be in the same classes after summer ends, and pretty much everything seems dire. But not for long: it quickly turns out that nothing but simple miscommunication has been going on all along, Diego cares about Gabby as much as always and is thrilled about her upcoming school opportunity, and of course she gets the MVP award she had hoped and planned for as a climax of the summer. The Gabby Garcia’s Ultimate Playbook series is very heavily illustrated – the books are not graphic novels, but Marta Kissi’s pictures are integral to them and crucial to their effect rather than being mere enhancements (as are the illustrations by Glenn Thomas in The Supernormal Sleuthing Service books). Gabby’s poetry – yes, she writes poems, apparently so Palmer can indicate that she is more than just a star baseball player – are also sprinkled throughout the book and used, along with the pictures, to help advance the story. Young readers who enjoyed the first Gabby Garcia book will have equal fun with this one, since it is so similar that their reading experience will essentially be duplicated.

     In some series, second books are not on the same level as first ones, as in the Gabby Garcia novels – they are a step down. It may not be a big step, but it is a step nevertheless. That is the case in Isla Fisher’s second entry in the (+++) Marge in Charge series. The first book, originally published in 2016 and now available in paperback, has a title that might lead young readers to imagine that Marge is “large and in charge,” but in fact a big part of the setup here involves Marge being very small – about the size of many children, even though she is an adult, and an older one at that. Marge is a babysitter for the Button family, whose seven-year-old daughter, Jemima, narrates the books on behalf of herself and her four-year-old brother, Jakey (also known as Jakeypants). The magical-babysitter trope has a long history, most famously including P.L. Travers’ books about Mary Poppins, but Marge in Charge never comes even slightly close to the delights of Travers’ creation. Marge has multicolored hair (“green, blue, orange, red, and yellow”) that she always conceals under a hat or scarf when adults are around, and in each story – there are three per book – she has fun with the kids while working around their straitlaced parents’ posted rules. This is a harmless and perfectly enjoyable setup, and it works nicely in the first book, which largely consists of Marge telling improbable stories to Jemima and Jakey about her past: she explains that she is a duchess who used to live in a palace with 779 rooms, and she has “ten pets: three white miniature ponies, three swans, two polka-dot Pomeranian puppies, a long-tooth ferret, and an albino water buffalo.” None of the pets ever makes an appearance – the only pets here are the Button family’s “pug-nosed puppy dog,” Archie, and two pet snails named Bill and Bob – so the truth (or not) of Marge’s stories is never established. What matters, though, is simply that Marge and the kids have loads of fun; everything gets tremendously messed up before the parents come home; Marge manages to clean and rearrange everything just in time (whether through magic or skill is also something never firmly established); and even things that the kids do not want to do, dislike doing or are afraid to do become enjoyable when Marge leads the way. She is unstoppable in a very pleasant, wholesome and frequently highly amusing way – as when she ends up helping out with music class at school and gets her head stuck in a tuba.

     The problem with the second book in the series, Marge in Charge and the Stolen Treasure, is that Marge is no longer quite unstoppable, no longer quite in command of everything, and no longer quite as unflappable as in the first book. The reason is that Fisher here introduces Jemima and Jakey’s baby cousin, Zara – and as Jemima says, “even though Zara looks like an angel, she is definitely not one.” No, indeed – no matter how hard Eglantine Ceulemans tries to make this little one look sweet, she is not nice, not endearing, not cutely mischievous, not fun and not funny. And even though she is certainly in diapers and has supposedly just recently learned to crawl, she somehow manages to grab things from Jemima and Jakey and Marge and scoot away with them so quickly and efficiently that none of them, not even Marge, can catch her. This makes absolutely no sense, and it thoroughly undermines the idea of Marge being “in charge.” For that matter, it undermines making Marge the central character in the book: everything in Marge in Charge and the Stolen Treasure revolves around Zara, in all three stories, and that makes the whole book decidedly less interesting than the first series entry. By the time of the third story, a wedding at which Jemima is supposed to be ring bearer – except that Zara manages to steal the rings, hide them where nobody (not even Marge) can find them, then scoot around so quickly and adeptly that nobody (not even Marge) can catch her, it has become abundantly clear that good-natured Marge, even though she barely manages to restore order to the chaos, is not able to handle Zara’s not-funny-at-all behavior and antics. By having Zara repeatedly outmaneuver Marge in this way, even though Marge eventually comes out on top, Fisher diminishes Marge as a character and reduces the quality of the entire Marge in Charge series: Marge is not really in charge when Zara is present. The first Marge in Charge book is amusing enough, if somewhat bland and predictable, but the second is a real disappointment that comes close to undermining the whole premise of the series. Hopefully Fisher will put Marge back in charge when the sequence continues.

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