May 13, 2021


Bark Park 1. By Brandi Dougherty. Illustrated by Paige Pooler. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

Bark Park 2: Scouting for Clues. By Brandi Dougherty. Illustrated by Paige Pooler. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

Escape from a Video Game 2: Mystery on the Starship Crusader. By Dustin Brady. Illustrations by Jesse Brady. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     Make-believe puppies just don’t get much cuter than Scout, as drawn by Paige Pooler for the Bark Park books by Brandi Dougherty. A little brown pup with absolutely perfectly placed touches of white (four identical white paws, a tail that is precisely white-tipped, a white stripe exactly bisecting her head and highlighting her super-wide eyes, and so forth), Scout interacts playfully and adorably with other dogs that romp off-leash at a dog park where the smallest of small surprises lurk. These “mysteries” are about as minor as they can possibly be, but for the very youngest dog-loving children who are just getting into reading on their own, they make for some brief, entertaining stories. There are three very short chapters in each very short Bark Park book: the entire emphasis here is on making everything easy to read, easy to absorb, and easy to figure out. To vary the animal interactions a bit, Dougherty includes a friendly crow and adorable squirrel who become peripherally involved in the mild action. Thus, in the first book, when the ball belonging to one of Scout’s friends turns up deflated, Scout discovers that Abigail the crow accidentally punctured it while picking up a shiny piece of foil that had become stuck to the ball. And in the second book, when Scout’s blueberries – her favorite snack – disappear, Tippy the squirrel comes under suspicion (although Abigail turns out to be the culprit this time, too). Humans are incidental, to the point of irrelevance, in this dogs-talking-to-each-other series, but people do appear occasionally so they can move the plot along just a bit, as in a second-book story in which Lulu, a new arrival at the park, shows up leashed and gets into trouble (just a little of it, in keeping with these books’ mildness) after the other dogs help her out of the harness. The stories in Bark Park are so thin that the illustrations are especially important, contributing even more than pictures usually do in books for the youngest readers. The dogs have minimally individualized personalities, but the illustrations enliven everything, as in the first book’s very funny portrayal of the attempt of a dog named Bones to help the Great Dane, Rocky, out of a plastic veterinary collar. Adults looking to give new readers some super-easy-to-read books of cute mysteries – cuter than they are mysterious – will find the Bark Park series arf-fully adorable.

     For somewhat older readers, the pictures can be fun in the Escape from a Video Game series, but they are scarcely the main point. Yes, the two-page spread of a starship-trooper type pointing a weapon at a lab-coat-wearing, bipedal lizard with hair and also at a large, anthropomorphic, clearly nervous wombat is a great deal of fun. But the actual point of this second series entry is – well, the story does not actually have a point, and that’s the point. Mystery on the Starship Crusader, like its predecessor, The Secret of Phantom Island, is a pick-your-path book, in which readers go through a page of text, come to a multiple-choice option at the bottom, turn to the page they select, and immediately – well, it depends. Advance? Go back? Move sideways? Die (“lose a life” in gamespeak)? Like the first book in this video-game-derived series, Mystery on the Starship Crusader presents those possibilities and more. It also lets readers, on some pages, unlock achievements with such unhelpful names as “Aahooga” and “Robot Pretzel.” And this book also retains the first one’s slightly snarky sense of humor about the whole process, as on a page asking “Who’s the traitor?” and giving options that include “yourself” and “the game itself.” Among the characters here are Wumbo, Murp, and Doctor Iz – he (or it) being the character assumed by the reader. Each character is transformed from a real-life person, and all the characters are being manipulated by a rich guy named James Desmond Pemberton, who is using technology bought on the Internet after being purloined from a now-shut-down company called Bionosoft – this is the tech that results in people being pulled into the video game from the real world. Of course, none of this makes a lick of sense, but hey, there’s also a million dollars involved: Pemberton is rich, remember, as well as being a “guy [who] wiggles his eyebrows to build suspense” and takes pains to ask the trapped-in-game characters, “Aren’t mystery stories great?” Well, this mystery story isn’t particularly great, or even particularly mysterious, but like the first book in the series, it does a pretty good job (if not a particularly good one) of bringing the video-game experience into book form, more or less. Well, actually less – no video, no motion, no interactivity, no weird creatures morphing into other weird creatures through pixel magic – but for kids who like video games, this series retains enough of the milder sort of gaming experience to be enjoyable. Especially when the pictures show what it looks like when a “hacker apple with wires for arms” types on a keyboard.

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