September 10, 2020


Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw 3: Who Is the Bucks Bandit? By Gina Loveless. Illustrations by Andrea Bell. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.

     Once again the Merry Men…err, Merry Misfits…stride forth in Nottingham…err, Nottingham Elementary School…led by Robin Hood…err, Robin, wearing a hoodie. The third Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw series entry is a distinct case of more-of-the-same, filled with minor arguments and major (well, seemingly major) misunderstandings involving Robin Loxley (a nod to the Robin Hood legend, whose central character was the outlaw Robin of Loxley, or Locksley) and her friends. The friends are also minor reflections, very minor ones, of characters in the Robin Hood tale: there is Mary Ann instead of Maid Marian, for example, and there are rapping twins Allana and Dale, a slight nod to minstrel Allan-a-Dale. But the underlying premise requires Gina Loveless to redefine just what an “outlaw” is, since it would be thoroughly unacceptable to build stories around someone who, you know, actually operates outside the law. Thus, Robin directly states to her friends (and to readers) that something like stealing, even in a good cause, is “not what being an outlaw means to me. It doesn’t mean breaking the law or school rules. Being an outlaw means doing what’s right when nobody else is going to and not caring what other people think, because you know it’s the right thing to do.”

     Everybody got that? Throw out your dictionaries and any books you might have about Robin Hood and his praiseworthy reasons for breaking the law (many times): being an outlaw means not going against the law (or rules).

     The audience for this book series consists of fifth-graders (more or less) who will not think to question this underlying premise and will simply enjoy the hijinks, antics and attempted underlying seriousness of purpose with which Loveless presents the stories. Loveless actually builds the books around concerns that are supposed to be serious, using the scaffolding of the Robin Hood connections to erect tales of life lessons onto which she tries to graft enough humor (abetted by Andrea Bell’s illustrations) so that the serious stuff comes through clearly and goes down easily.

     This means that it seems that Nottingham Elementary continues to have the same issues with its student-rewards program that it has had through the first two books in the third, Who Is the Bucks Bandit? It helps to read these books in order, since this third one makes only brief and passing references to events in the first two – which are important to know and understand in order to follow the ins and outs of the students’ relationships, arguments and territorial disputes. In the third book, a new character named Wilu Johnson comes to the school and is soon suspected by some students of being responsible for the mysterious disappearances of “bonus bucks” from various teachers’ desks. That leads to accusations and counter-accusations among the students, with Robin, who narrates the book, trying to sort everything out fairly, but ending up being blamed – by Wilu himself – for the supposed thefts. “‘How could you think it’s me?’ I shouted. ‘I’m the only one who’s been nice to you all week long!’ Wilu squinted his eyes at me. ‘You were probably just getting close to me so you could make it look like it was me, when really it was you all along.’” Standard misdirection, conspiracy theories and elementary-school-sized paranoia are the name of the game throughout the Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw books, so this exchange fits right in.

     Of course, neither Wilu nor Robin is actually responsible for the bonus-bucks problem. They and Nadia, who was Robin’s main nemesis in the first book but with whom Robin now sort of gets along, end up being summoned to the principal’s office; the illustration showing the three with concrete blocks on their feet as they unwillingly shuffle to the office is one of Bell’s best, showing their figurative unhappiness at going to see Principal Roberta. It then turns out that the bonus bucks were missing because of an ill-conceived plan by the principal herself to alter or eliminate the whole bonus-bucks program – a plan that the principal apparently thought to further by concealing what she was doing and letting the kids get into arguments and accusations about what was going on. This is clearly a principal who would fit in just fine in fifth grade. In any case, everything ends happily for the students, and Wilu becomes one of the Merry Misfits, and it is a fair bet that the next book in the Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw series will offer still more of the still-the-same – which, for kids who enjoy this easy-to-read, lightly plotted, emotionally unchallenging series, will be just fine.

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