Trapped in a Video Game 5: The Final Boss. By Dustin Brady. Illustrated by Jesse Brady. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Birthday Cake! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
There is an entire subgenre of books designed for so-called “reluctant readers,” the idea being that kids who just don’t care for the traditional book experience in our video-saturated age can be lured into old-fashioned reading by books that are written and packaged specifically to appeal to them. That often means the books are graphic novels or are a hybrid form between standard novels and graphic ones – amply illustrated, but not divided into individual comic-book-like panels through which the sequencing of events occurs. There is, however, another approach to “reluctant reader” books, and that is to embrace the likelihood that the reluctance stems from preoccupation with video games and thus to embrace books that are themselves a lot like video games. The value and limitations of this approach are quite clear in Dustin Brady’s Trapped in a Video Game series, whose conclusion, The Final Boss (that’s “boss” as in super-powerful video game villain, not as in someone for whom you work) proceeds with all the silliness and absurdity and mild camaraderie that have characterized the entire series. In fact, there is little sense of “series” to these books, which are essentially self-contained adventures despite the occasional cliffhanger: Brady could easily have ended the series before The Final Boss or just as easily have extended it for multiple additional volumes. What he actually does is have the nominal protagonist, Jesse Rigsby, and his friend, Eric Conrad, go into a video game universe created by the usual evil corporate bigwig who has used his company, Bionosoft, to devise a virtual universe named after himself (“Reubenverse,” because his name is Max Reuben). As The Final Boss starts, it is only 10 minutes before the time when all of reality will be sucked into the Reubenverse and ruled forever by the evil billionaire because YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO SEEK ANSWERS TO THE “WHY” QUESTION! JUST FOLLOW THE PATH AND BEAT THE BAD GUYS! Oh. Right. Anyway, those 10 minutes in the real world equal 10 days in the video game world because DON’T ASK! So the intrepid kids, who are so undifferentiated that a reader can swap their names at random and find the story progressing exactly the same way, have to go through hundreds and hundreds of levels and earn thousands upon thousands of XP (experience points) and periodically dodge the occasional Hindenburg (the improbably named robotic remover of game glitches, which has an annoying habit of identifying Jesse and Eric as glitches that must be excised). The vast, vast majority of the action is described in only a few words, and generally without illustrations (this is not a visually driven series, although Jesse Brady, Dustin’s brother, does periodically offer some art); and the whole story proceeds with all the super-sped-up pacing of, well, a video game – only, actually, faster. Eventually, of course, the good guys win, friendship triumphs, the real world is not destroyed, the Reubenverse does not come into full-fledged existence, and reluctant readers somehow learn that it is important to spend their time with thoroughly unchallenging books about video games instead of with the video games themselves because YOU WERE TOLD NOT TO SEEK ANSWERS TO “WHY” QUESTIONS AND HAVE REPEATEDLY DISOBEYED. DISCUSSION TERMINATED.
While some book series have a definitive end, others sequences go on and on – but feature individual definitive endings. The “Old Lady” books by Lucille Colandro and Jared Lee are designed this way: each builds, through a series of strange ingestions by the Old Lady, to a twist ending that pulls together the mild mystery of why the Old Lady swallows those specific items. The books are based on the nursery-rhyme song, “I know [sometimes “There was”] an old lady who swallowed a fly” – which, in “house that Jack built” fashion, builds and builds as more and more items are swallowed, ending when she swallows a horse and “she’s dead, of course.” Colandro and Lee keep things much lighter than that, though. They also sometimes create sequences that are too obvious to be fully entertaining, which is what happens in There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Birthday Cake! The title gives away the whole plot – and the poem’s meter is wrong, too, while it would have been right (and the book would have had at least a little bit of mystery) if the title had simply been, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Cake.” Given the fact that kids will know from the cover of this board book exactly what is going on – and that there will be no surprises in the swallowing sequence itself, which involves items including candles, balloons and confetti – this is one of the weaker books in the series. It will be fun primarily for pre-readers and perhaps very early readers, who will enjoy the amusing pictures of the lady’s tremendous mouth and may have additional fun watching the reactions of the little black dog who is a fixture in Lee’s series illustrations even though it has no specific role in the stories. The other use of this book could be as a bright and happy-looking birthday gift: the final page says “Happy Birthday” and shows a party table loaded with presents, decorations and (of course) a cake, and the book’s cover features glitter that makes the whole thing look very festive. The amusement level here is mild, but for some very young children, it will be enough.