April 16, 2020
(+++) ON SECOND THOUGHT
My Pet Slime 2: Cosmo to the Rescue. By Courtney Sheinmel. Illustrated by Renée Kurilla. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw 2: The Friend Thief. By Gina Loveless. Illustrations by Andrea Bell. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.
Once series for young readers get going, they tend to proceed along the same lines. And that applies even when series are not generated directly as book sequences but represent a mixture of online and traditional-book elements – as is the case with ones based on a digital library called “Epic!” (complete with exclamation point). Both My Pet Slime for third-graders and Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw for fifth-graders come from this source, and both are now up and running in ways that should allow them to continue for some time as long as they continue to stick to easy-to-read stories and formulaic plotting and characters.
The second My Pet Slime entry features even more magic and fantasy than did the first, in which mysterious “space dust” brought to life an ultra-cute homemade “slime pet” created by an eight-year-old girl named Piper Maclane and visible as a creature rather than just a slime ball, in true “it’s magic” fashion, only to Piper and not to her parents. Then it turns out that Cosmo (the slime pet) is actually visible as well to super-popular and rather stuck-up Claire, and thus becomes the basis of a friendship between her and Piper. And in the second book of the series, the girls discover that Cosmo’s magical visibility works in whatever way is most convenient. So do his (its?) other magical powers. For example, when Piper and Claire go on a rescue mission aboard Claire’s scooter, Cosmo develops jet-engine skills to get them where they need to go super-quickly, and remains visible even on crowded streets because the scooter goes so fast that everyone and everything on it is a blur rather than clearly visible. And later, it turns out that one adult can in fact see Cosmo as alive. Oh, and Cosmo can also unlock locks, slide under doors to open them from inside, and more – whatever advances the story in a convenient way. The plot this time involves the kids’ determination to find and rescue Piper’s Grandma Sadie, who provided the “space dust” that brought Cosmo to life and 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 has gone missing, and it turns out that she is being held captive. Piper learns that when she gets magical E-mails that magically disappear shortly after being read but are written by an evil organization so stupid that the messages include the group’s name. And, when the bad guys don’t get what they want, one of them shows up unannounced and undisguised at Piper’s door to deliver an actual letter. It turns out that the super-smart-but-amazingly-dumb bad characters are from a place where Claire’s Uncle Ricky just so happens to work, only he is a good guy, so Piper and Claire head to the bad-guy headquarters (conveniently located right in their town and within Cosmo-powered-scooter range) to locate Grandma Sadie. And they do just that in Cosmo to the Rescue, although they do not actually get her out of captivity in this book – a cliffhanger ending means “wait until next time.” The simplistic language and plot and the obvious tossing about of bits of education (such as the names of constellations) make this book, and the series of which it is part, perhaps more suitable for readers even younger than third-graders.
Similarly, despite its title, the Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw series feels and reads as if it is for kids younger than fifth-graders. In fact, the type size of this book is significantly larger than that used in My Pet Slime. The protagonist in Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw is Robin Loxley – a distinct nod to the Robin Hood legend, whose central character was the outlaw Robin of Loxley (or Locksley). Hence the overall series title, the connection with old legends made clear because Robin wears a hood (well, a hoodie). The Friend Thief briefly recaps the first book in the series, which had to do with Robin besting an arrogant classmate at basketball and being victimized by the nasty school bully, Nadia, whom Robin overcame after some mild difficulty. Oh – the school’s name is Nottingham Elementary, which makes Assistant Principal Johnson, in effect, the sheriff of Nottingham. That is another Robin Hood reference that most fifth-graders (or younger readers) will not get. 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. But that is not the series’ structure. So in the The Friend Thief, Robin initially has her onetime best friend, Mary Ann, back, after repairing a misunderstanding between them, and a school fair is planned for the near future, and it seems that all will be fine for Robin and her friends – until Nadia re-emerges in new guise and starts getting all of Robin’s friends to be friends with her. Uh-oh. Things get complicated in terms of friendships and bullying and “taxing” (in another nod to the Robin Hood tale, Nadia had been making other students give her their school “bonus bucks” until Robin stopped the scheme). The fair starts well, but between trying to figure out Nadia’s latest nefarious plan and eating too much (and vomiting as a result), Robin says that “the fair had been totally ruined for me.” And then things get even worse on the friendship front, until eventually Robin confronts Nadia and accuses her of stealing Robin’s friends – which leads one of them to say, “You can’t steal friends,” and another to remark that “you can earn them, and you can lose them.” Well, that is the “teachable moment” here – nothing about history and legend and England in the 12th and early 13th centuries (the time of the Robin Hood tales). So modern-day Robin, after initially walking away from everybody and deciding that she is better off without friends, realizes that she has “really, really messed things up,” comes up with sincere apologies to everybody, and gets accepted back into her friend group. And then the group needs a name, so what the kids settle on is “The Merry Misfits,” since that is another echo of Robin Hood’s “Merry Men.” And so the second entry in Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw ends not with a cliffhanger but with the promise of further adventures to come – and with Nadia now being included as a friend rather than an enemy. Like the My Pet Slime series, Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw is clearly designed to be “relatable” and “inclusive” and to teach, with little subtlety, the lessons that are considered crucial today about cooperation, friendship, family ties, and so on. There is something rather manipulative in the way these series are designed for social/education purposes, with the stories hung onto the intended lessons rather than being tales from which those lessons emerge naturally. But the lessons themselves are unexceptionable, and for young readers – especially ones a bit younger than the official target age range for each of these series – the stories should be engaging enough to maintain interest so that their purpose comes across as planned by “Epic!”