May 16, 2019


Phoebe and Her Unicorn 9: Unicorn Bowling. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

There Was an Old Astronaut Who Swallowed the Moon! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.

     Some book series seem to be self-perpetuating. They aren’t, of course – each entry requires the author’s creativity and some new material to engage readers, even if every book tends to revisit the characters and plot points of earlier ones. But there is a comfortable familiarity that young readers will find in every Phoebe and Her Unicorn book – and some of the changes that Dana Simpson rings on her characters and their activities make certain series entries better than others. Unicorn Bowling works particularly well, not so much because of the title sequence (although seeing Marigold Heavenly Nostrils in bowling shoes is certainly amusing) as because of the other small adventures that Phoebe and her magical BFF have. For instance, Phoebe learns that when the two of them sang “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” together, Marigold recorded the performance and released it on Unicorn Radio, where it rose to #23 on the charts. Marigold promises to cast a play-piano-perfectly spell on Phoebe for the fourth-grade talent show, then explains that she made the whole thing up, so Phoebe sits at the piano and creates a song called “Unicorns Are Stupidfaces” – which Marigold later walks along humming, because “What can I say? You wrote a catchy song.” Marigold also tells Phoebe that a unicorn invented a video game called “The Glimmering Volley,” which humans picked up and called “Pong.” And she explains that the “rain, rain, go away” rhyme does not work because “rhyming only makes weather angry.” Marigold gets most of the good lines in the Phoebe and Her Unicorn books, but sequences in which Phoebe has bits of self-discovery are the real gems, as when Phoebe is belittled by fashion-focused classmate Dakota and Marigold says Dakota is entitled to her opinion, but “you decorate yourself in a way that makes you look MORE like yourself, and it is a pleasure to see.” Well put – and so is Phoebe’s next comment: “Thanks, although I dunno about fashion advice from someone who’s usually naked.” And Marigold’s rejoinder: “Fashion is the art of knowing what NOT to wear.” It is byplay of this sort that separates the better books in the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series from the more formula-driven and therefore less interesting ones. Simpson’s better Phoebe-and-Marigold books also have room for pure silliness, as when, in Unicorn Bowling, Phoebe decides to play superheroes by dressing herself as “Claustrophoebea” (whose power is super-empathy for people who are afraid of enclosed spaces) and designating Marigold as her “archnemesis, Pointyhead.” So much for the silly stuff: elsewhere, Phoebe complains to her father that she does not get homework, leading him to promise her that next year, she can do the family’s taxes – to which Phoebe responds, “I know you’re joking, but I’ve daydreamed about it.” And then Phoebe discusses homework with Marigold – who, it turns out, “got excellent grades in Unicornversity” and created a thesis called “Transgressive Sparkle Paradigms: A Deconstructive Analysis of Magicalness as a Literalist Post-Modern Idiom.” That goes beyond everyday, child-focused humor all the way into satire – which is rarely part of the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series and is therefore all the more amusing when it appears.

     The amusement is more straightforward in the long-running “Old Lady” series by Lucille Colandro and Jared Lee. This sequence has been around so long that it has spawned a sort of sub-sequence, the latest volume of which is There Was an Old Astronaut Who Swallowed the Moon! The main series features the Old Lady swallowing various objects that fit together – sometimes in more-obvious ways than others – while her small black dog romps around the edges of the pages. The sub-sequence, which still includes the dog, features the “Old Lady” as other “Old” characters – “Old Mermaid,” “Old Pirate” and now “Old Astronaut” – and brings in two young kids, perhaps her grandchildren, who provide factual tidbits that are sprinkled among the pages featuring the Old Lady’s consumption of objects. The kids, a boy and a girl, talk to each other in rhymes that often scan and sound better than the ones Colandro creates for the Old Lady. In the latest book, for example, the kids say, “Why does the moon stay in the sky?/ Gravity’s force keeps it up high.” But the main narrative includes lines such as, “There was an old astronaut who swallowed a comet./ Just like an omelette, she swallowed that comet.” (Colandro does not have a rhyming word there – but fans of Old Lady books just may not care.) Lee’s humorous illustrations help make up for whatever lacks there are in the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the words, and at the end of this book – when it turns out that the Old Lady is not really an astronaut, but has been watching a show with the children at the local planetarium – there are a couple of pages giving more information on the real-world science referred to in There Was an Old Astronaut Who Swallowed the Moon! And at the very end, there is a search-and-find game that invites young readers to go back through the book and locate specific objects on all the pages. The primary connections among the many (+++) Old Lady books may be the Old Lady herself and the pleasant-if-imperfect, more-or-less-rhyming stories; but in the books that bring in the two children to complement the Old Lady’s presence, it is often the additional elements – factual and participatory – that make these series entries enjoyable even when they are formulaic.

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