August 30, 2018


Spirit Hunters #2: The Island of Monsters. By Ellen Oh. Harper. $16.99.

A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting #2: Beasts and Geeks. By Joe Ballarini. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $13.99.

     There is a tendency in second series entries simply to repeat what happened in a sequence’s opening volume, on the assumption that readers who enjoyed the first book will want more of the same in the second. This tendency is decidedly on display in the new books by Ellen Oh and Joe Ballarini, which essentially take the same characters and attitudes and abilities originally imagined by the authors and plunk them down all over again in similar, already very recognizable ways. This means that these second books are just as good as entry points to their respective series as the first ones were; it also means that preteen readers – the target audience for both series – will enjoy the sequels only if they want more of what the authors already gave them. Spirit Hunters focuses on a living girl named Harper; her longtime best friend, a ghost girl named Rose; a new and living friend, Dayo; and Harper’s Grandma Lee, a mudang or spirit hunter. The term and concept come from Korean culture, which is a significant if not especially germane element of the series’ background. Thus, in The Island of Monsters, when Harper and her younger brother, Michael, visit their grandmother, “The homey kitchen table was set with three place settings, bowls of rice, and an assortment of the little side dishes that made Korean food so tasty. Harper and Michael were only half Korean, but it was their favorite cuisine. Unfortunately, they didn’t get to eat it often. Only at their grandmother’s house did they get a real home-cooked meal. Both their parents were too busy to cook, and when they did, it would usually be Italian or American, or frozen pizza.” Mundane scenes like this one are, inevitably, juxtaposed with supernatural ones: The Island of Monsters begins in a graveyard from which ghosts have been mysteriously disappearing. The point of the series is that Harper is growing into powers similar to those of her grandmother (hence the plural noun in the series’ title). And for the second straight time, it is a threat to Michael on which Harper needs to focus. This time her parents, as oblivious and feckless as parents usually are in preteen novels (and maybe even a little more so), decide to take the family on a vacation to a spooky tropical location called Raku Island, which is best-known for a murder. Just the place for a sweet family get-together! Of course, Harper has feelings of impending trouble, and of course, no one else does, and of course, peculiar events ensue when the family arrives. And, to continue the “of course” elements, island residents will not discuss various mysterious disappearances, and Harper has trouble connecting with possible assistance from the realm of spirits, and then Michael awakens from a nightmare bearing a curious mark that Harper recognizes from one of her visions. So Harper has to investigate again and save the day again by finding out more about the history of the island and what is really going on there in the present day. The mixture of everyday activities and spirit-world ones is much the same as before, the eventual success of Harper’s investigations (after a few missteps and mild scares) is a foregone conclusion, and even though The Island of Monsters is less spooky and threatening than the first Spirit Hunters book, it is close enough to it in so many ways that fans of the series opener will enjoy it – as long as what they want is more of the same.

     As for Ballarini’s A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting, its second book is essentially a direct continuation of the first, in which protagonist Kelly defeats a Boogeyman at Halloween and thus earns the lasting enmity of the other Boogeymen (there are seven in all – six after the first book, perhaps indicating how many novels Ballarini plans to write in this sequence). The notion of babysitters being trained and sworn to defend infants against rampaging monsters is odd and silly enough to give the series some welcome humor, but beyond it there is little that is unusual: the standard balance-the-trials-of-middle-school-against-what-really-matters elements are here, along with the grow-into-your-powers-and-abilities notion. In Beasts & Geeks, Kelly has to hone her skills in both fighting and babysitting, remember her homework, deal with a first-love situation, and cope with the transformation of many minor characters into minions/puppets of Spider Queen Serena, the chief villainess here. (Yes, “villainess” is the correct term, not “villain” or “character that is villainous.” At one point, Kelly says she does not use the word “Boogeymen” anymore, preferring “Boogeypeople.” How ridiculously politically correct can you get?) Kelly is afraid of spiders, which of course matters a lot in this installment; and Serena is not the only evil creature out there – there is a second, subsidiary one named Gonzalo, possibly being set up as the primary foe in the next book. The various twists of the plot – they are mostly minor ones in an essentially formulaic story arc – eventually lead to a big battle at Serena’s mansion, which is the real point of all the novel’s activity and which Ballarini manages effectively. And at the end, Kelly, who has been ill-treated in her babysitting studies (for no apparent reason except that middle-schoolers tend to have issues like this often, even more in books than in real life), gains what she deserves. That is scarcely unexpected. A somewhat less formulaic element of Beasts & Geeks, and a welcome one, is Ballarini’s occasional presentation of pages from a guide to monsters. These entries are frequently more fun than anything happening in the main story, offering information on the six-eyed sleeknatch, tips on how to get rid of a ghost, material on spells and ceremonies involving newborns, and more. The idea of a protagonist building on and extending arcane knowledge of the past is scarcely original, but Ballarini handles it well and integrates it nicely with the story. Anyone who read the first book in this series will encounter no real surprises in this second one, and anyone who picks this book up without knowing the series opener will have no trouble following what is going on: the things that happen, and how they happen, are quite transferable from book to book, and there is little doubt that they will proceed in much the same way when the series’ third entry makes its appearance.

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