October 17, 2019
(+++) SERIES STARTERS
My Pet Slime. By Courtney Sheinmel. Illustrated by Renée Kurilla. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw. By Gina Loveless. Illustrations by Andrea Bell. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.
The cross-pollination of the online world and traditional publishing continues apace in standard-looking books whose content is taken from material originally created online. A digital library called “Epic!” (complete with exclamation point) is the source for two new book sequences, one aimed at third-graders and one at fifth-graders. Both series are formulaic in characters, events and outcomes, and the initial novels in both are in large print, quite easy to read, and amply illustrated (although not graphic novels). They may, in fact, appeal more to children a grade or even two grades below their intended audience, than to children in the designated grades – although that, of course, depends on individual kids’ reading levels.
My Pet Slime is about a girl named Piper Maclane who wants to be an artist and wants to have a pet. But she is allergic to everything with hair or fur, and does not want a lizard or fish or frog because “I want a pet that can sleep in bed with me at night.” Somehow this translates into using her artistic talents to make a batch of slime (in her room, which is against her parents’ rules) and sculpting it into cute-pet shape. The slime gets all over everything when Piper makes it, and a massive cleanup is necessary, but somehow all this does not mean that the slime will get all over the bed at night if Piper’s new pet sleeps with her. Anyway, Piper also has a standard school-type problem in the person of a girl named Claire, who is “really popular” and with whom other kids always agree: “Out loud, I agree with her, too. Life is easier when you agree with Claire.” So we have the standard not-quite-a-bully and the standard not-quite-an-outcast in a standard school setting, and My Pet Slime proceeds mostly in standard ways. But there has to be a gimmick (that is standard, too), and in this case it comes in the form of Piper’s Grandma Sadie, who works for some sort of top-secret space-exploration organization (apparently the book is set somewhere in the future, despite everything appearing to be present-day). Grandma Sadie brings Piper a gift of “space dust collected from around the cosmos,” and it just so happens that this space dust, when Piper opens it near her slime pet, brings the slime to life. Now Piper really has a pet! And she names it Cosmo, of course. But, um, it has to obey the usual rules of magic in books for third-graders, which means that nobody actually believes Cosmo is alive, because Cosmo isn’t alive when an adult is anywhere nearby. So Piper’s parents think she is making up the notion of a slime pet, and so at first does irritating Claire, with whom Piper gets into a big argument at school because Piper thinks Claire has taken Cosmo out of Piper’s backpack and thrown the cute little purple thing in the trash. Eventually everything gets sorted out, and Claire can also see that Cosmo is real, and so all would be well and everybody would be happy if this were not a series-starting book. But it is, so there has to be a cliffhanger at the end – which, in this case, is that Grandma Sadie has mysteriously gone missing. The next book will revolve around what happened to her.
As for Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw, here too the focus is on school bullying, and on interpersonal relationships in which adults get involved primarily to make things worse through lack of understanding. But since this series is aimed at slightly older readers, it is marginally more intense. Here the protagonist is a girl named Robin Loxley – a distinct nod to the Robin Hood legend, whose central character was Robin of Loxley (or Locksley). The outlaw of legend was an archer and swordsman, but Robin Loxley in Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw is a basketball player, and a good one. That leads her to challenge an arrogant classmate, and win – but she inadvertently injures him when she bounces the ball to him and it rebounds into his nose. As it that were not enough, Robin is victimized – as are all her classmates – by a nasty bully of a girl named Nadia, who steals the “bonus bucks” given out at school by creating a “tax” (another reference to the Robin Hood legend) for kids who want to use the school playground. Well, Robin – who wears a hoodie, hence the whole Robin Hood thing – has to negotiate the whole bully-in-school mess, and the way she does it is by teaming up with some other “outlaws” to steal back the stolen bonus bucks and return them to the kids from whom Nadia took them. (Rob the rich to give to the poor, and all that.) Unfortunately, Assistant Principal Johnson soon gets involved, and Robin gets detention for leaving a note describing Nadia as “evil,” and matters escalate from there. Oh – the school’s name is Nottingham Elementary, which makes Johnson, in effect, the sheriff of Nottingham. The likelihood is that most fifth-graders today will not pick up on all the Robin Hood references, or even most of them – although Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw could actually become a teachable book if parents used it to encourage their children to read about the Robin Hood legend and find all the ways in which this book draws on it. Matters get increasingly complicated as the book goes on, and it eventually turns out that there is a family relationship between Nadia and the boy whose nose Robin inadvertently bloodied – but it also turns out that, just as King Richard returns in the Robin Hood stories to rescue the outlaws from King John, so Principal Roberta returns to wrap things up and take over from the unkind Assistant Principal Johnson. Also here is also a plot point in which Robin is estranged from her onetime best friend because Robin did not attend the friend’s birthday party, which she couldn’t do because she couldn’t get a ride, and the message left for the friend never got there because…well, it was all a misunderstanding, and of course things are looking up friendship-wise at the end of the book, except that friendship issues are hinted at as being the main topic of the next book in the series. Both Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw and My Pet Slime are fine for series openers, introducing basic characters and themes that will be used in later volumes; and both are aptly (if not very creatively) illustrated, making them even easier to read (because they are already short, and there is even less text than expected as a result of all the pictures). Nothing in either book is the slightest bit out of the ordinary in a series for the targeted age ranges, but the point here is not creativity or genre-bending – it is simplicity and straightforwardness, taken from an online world in which those characteristics are predominant and made available in book form for young readers who are not spending 100% of their lives online.