May 30, 2019
(+++) MIDDLE-SCHOOL MANEUVERS
The Ghost Network, Book One: Activate. By I.I. Davidson. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.
My Life in Smiley 3: Save Me! (or not…) By Anne Kalicky. Translated by Kevin Kotur. Illustrated by Tim Jones. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.
Whether told at breakneck pace with adventure-movie intensity or unfolded in a leisurely manner in which pictorial elements are as important as narrative, books for and about middle-schoolers have certain things in common: awkwardness, self-discovery, team building, stretching one’s comfort zone, and finding out that adults are pretty much useless and/or not to be trusted – among other narrative characteristics. The Ghost Network by I.I. Davidson (pen name of Scottish author Gillian Philip) is a cinematically paced story of magical intrigue and wand-waving battles against evil by young wizards – oh, wait, that’s the Harry Potter series. But in the first book of a planned trilogy, The Ghost Network is redolent of J.K. Rowling’s deservedly famous sequence. True, the four 12-year-olds at the center of the story – the largely interchangeable John, Slack, Akane and Salome – are hackers, not wizards in training, but the computer-focused elements here are handled exactly like the magical ones in Rowling’s works and innumerable others. That is, there is no multi-hour, many-day grinding away at a problem to solve it, there is no extended collaborative effort, there is no building on what others have done – there is generally quick and generally easy discovery of back doors, ways into and around protections, and methods of accomplishing marvelous feats. It all seems like magic and has no more basis in reality than magic does. But because this is a book about and for middle-schoolers, the details of extreme hard work and lengthy, boring experimentation and searching simply do not fit. What does fit is the discovery and solution of multiple mysteries, handled in ways that are absolutely typical of adventure books for this age group. For example, since John’s father’s disappearance and presumed death are formative for John, it is obvious that John will eventually find out that his dad did not die after all, but escaped the nefarious clutches of wizards…err, computer experts who wanted to turn his good-guy findings toward evil. Since John, Slack and Salome end up together at a super-isolated, super-secret hacker school on a small and extremely cold island off the coast of Alaska, it is a given that they will somehow have to escape – and a given that their magical powers…err, computer-based powers will provide their way out. Since Akane is half a world away, in Japan, and since the tentacles of the evil coder network reach everywhere, it is obvious that she will have a harrowing flight from evil minions and eventually have to escape to – well, Alaska, of course, because these preteens have far more magical…err, computer-based resources among them than the entire evil network of adults possesses. Throw in a certain amount of middle-school-style jealousy and bullying at the super-secret school, which is called the Wolf’s Den, and add the inevitable locked door in the basement that readers will know does not lead to a broom closet as soon as the author says it apparently does, and you have Project 31, which is what the Wolf’s Den is really about – and which only John, Slack, Salome and Akane can stop, maybe with a bit of help from John’s not-really-deceased father. It turns out that the four quickly-bonding friends have one crucial thing in common: all suffered extremely severe accidents in earlier life, accidents that should have been fatal, that were fatal until John’s father – a brilliant surgeon – rescued the four, including his own son, using experimental methods that essentially turned their human brains (which store far more information than any computer possibly can) into computers that store far more information than any human brain possibly can. Wait…that can’t be right. But it is – and it is only one of the absurdities here. However, Davidson paces the book much too quickly for its intended readers to pick up on any of the multiple impossibilities that give the book a veneer of science fiction but really relegate it as firmly to the realm of fantasy as anything involving Harry Potter. Activate does a neat job of setting up the basic story line of The Ghost Network, and is packed with enough thrills and chills (some of them literal: this is Alaska in winter, after all) to pull adventure-seeking middle-schoolers into the tale without allowing them to question the whole framework too closely. This is pure and simple escapism, and fun as long as readers do not think too much about it.
There is also little thinking needed for Anne Kalicky’s My Life in Smiley series. But this is much, much lighter fare, being simply a highly standardized chronicle of the trials and troubles of an ordinary middle-schooler named Max Cropin. The series is made distinctive solely by 12-year-old Max’s strong inclination – that is, Kalicky’s strong inclination – to include innumerable smiley faces throughout the diary-style narrative. These are not by any means only smiley faces: although they do sometimes smile, they more often frown or change into a panda or puppy or fish or three-eyed green Martian, or stick out a tongue or show big bright teeth or wear a crown or become a heart or an orange or…well, the possible variations on the simple, circular face seem nearly infinite, and a big slice of that infinity shows up here. There is a certain, rather mild degree of culture shock involved in North Americans reading these books, which were written in French and originally published in France (this one in 2018). But the surprises, such as they are, show up mainly in characters’ names and in occasional references to sports such as “American basketball.” The basic plots of My Life in Smiley emigrate from Europe very simply. The third series entry takes Max away from school and all its tribulations to summer camp and all its tribulations, which are entirely of the sort to be expected for middle-schoolers: outdoor activities, bug bites, lack of friends, heat, the absence of favored junk food, and so on. The story proceeds exactly as any similar one written in the United States would: Max lists all the things he hates about camp and then discovers, one by one, that they aren’t so bad after all, and there are even compensations for his two-week summer sojourn into the not-so-wild – such as a pretty girl camper and a mysterious diary that Max just knows he is going to figure out, with a little help, of course, from his friends (there must be friend groups in books like this). Max’s narrative skills, at least as translated into English, seem barely to be at his age level: “If I had to sum up my current romantic situation in one word, it’d be: heartbroken! [Sad-face emoji.] And believe me, it really hurts for Maxime Cropin the Great to admit something like that.” What saves the My Life in Smiley series from being simply dull is a combination of the many smiley-and-not-so-smiley faces with Max’s basically pleasant (if inept) personality – and some rather cute illustrations, such as one showing Max’s friend Mehdi telling jokes on stage, with Mehdi drawn as a stick figure, the jokes in cartoon-style balloons, and a couple of laughing smiley faces atop the whole picture. By the end of the book, unsurprisingly, Max finds he has had a good time at camp, the mysterious “Dindin Hood’s Journal” has turned out to be surprisingly useful, and pretty much everyone has become friends with pretty much everyone else – so of course everybody pledges to return to camp next year, Max declares that he has “some unforgettable memories,” and as soon as he gets home, Max starts crossing off calendar days in anticipation of his next trip to camp. All of this is about as corny and easy to anticipate as it can possibly be, but it is sufficiently good-hearted and well-intentioned so that young readers drawn in by the ample, even overdone smiley appearances and multiple illustrations will have a good time following Max to an upbeat if thoroughly unsurprising conclusion.