January 20, 2022


Puzzlooies: Disaster Master. By Jonathan Maier and Cara Stevens. Illustrated by Kristen Terrana-Hollis. Random House. $7.99.

Puzzlooies: Don’t Feed Fluffy! By Russell Ginns. Illustrated by Jay Cooper. Random House. $7.99.

Puzzlooies: Oliver and the Infinite Unknown. By Russell Ginns and Jonathan Maier. Illustrated by Michael Arnold. Random House. $7.99.

Puzzlooies: Welcome to Escape City. By Jonathan Maier and Russell Ginns. Illustrated by Nate Bear. Random House. $7.99.

Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy 4: As the Deer Flies. By Doug Savage. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Ridiculousness rules in some books, where it is really their sole reason for being – no matter how carefully the books are positioned as “brain games” or “think pieces.” To be sure, there are things to solve and things to do in the Puzzlooies series – heck, “puzzl” is right in the series’ name – but the purpose of figuring things out is merely to take preteen readers deeper into madcap adventures and eventually out of them. The Puzzlooies creations (singular Puzzlooey because why not?) are designed like note pads, opening from the bottom as the venerable Mad Libs creations (which Puzzlooies distantly resemble) have for decades. Tying the multiple-author, multiple-illustrator series together are four gender-balanced, race-balanced “zany, brainy kids” who show that ridiculousness knows no male/female or ethnic boundaries. The stories introduced by these kids (Eunice, Maralee, Ray and Clinton, if it matters, which it does not) combine Mad Libs elements with choose-your-own-path book structure with a bunch of bad puns, various follow-the-path and find-the-words and solve-the-crossword activities, an occasional destroy-the-book element (portions of pages that must be cut out and arranged), a factoid here and there, and plenty of non-factoids everywhere (Vampire Lava Bats, for example). In each book, the story starts with a setup written just like, well, a story, but soon evolves (or devolves) into a series of “oops” moments that readers explore by solving some sort of puzzle. Disaster Master, for example – the Puzzlooey with the Vampire Lava Bats – starts with a girl named Sammy Chipper in a town where City Hall drops into a sinkhole, a traffic accident results in a bolognado (a tornado made of bologna), a volcano is about to erupt, there’s a squid attack, and…well, you get the idea. If you don’t get the idea, you will get it by solving the various puzzles – drawing lines to connect lunchmeats, solving a code based on nautical items, following arrows that lead in different directions through letters of the alphabet, moving along a circuitous path that covers both sides of a page so you have to keep flipping the page back and forth to follow it, and so on. There are answers at the back of each Puzzlooey, but the puzzles are designed to be simple enough to keep readers going through the story. This is true in each book. For example, there is Don’t Feed Fluffy! This is about an utterly adorable little critter that belongs to two scientists named Grunderblunken and that, when fed, becomes as big as a Great Dane covered in feathers and prickly needles and is described by pet sitter Leo as a “goldablabamoomoo,” which is about as coherent as the story gets. Then there is Oliver and the Infinite Unknown, in which Oliver’s sister, Monica the “ultra-genius,” creates a portal to nowhere or anywhere or everywhere or something like that, and soon Oliver – who habitually fixes things messed up by Monica’s over-enthusiastic brilliance and creativity – is watching dinosaurs ride scooters and meeting future people who tell him, “Have a zemzumulous day.” There is also Welcome to Escape City, in which a school team of checkers champs (the Tinsley Termites) mysteriously winds up in a mysterious city with mysterious signs and pathways and other mysteries that must be solved before such things as a galloping swing set and crab-walking set of monkey bars capture them or confuse them or, well, something. One giant checkerboard and one visit from aliens later, everything works out fine. In fact, absurdities of all sorts turn out to be the climaxes of all the Puzzlooies books, and that is the whole point of the series: it is ultimately pointless. For harmless fun with mild doses of puzzle-solving included, the books are fine – although if adults think young readers might want to go through them more than once, it is necessary to make copies of the cut-up-these-pages elements before the cutting-up starts.

     Pointlessness is also pretty much the only point of the Laser Moose series, featuring Laser Moose, a moose whose eyes shoot lasers, and Rabbit Boy, a faithful-companion type who is a rabbit. Also in the fourth series entry, As the Deer Flies, are Gus the wolf, who wants to invent a machine that will help him communicate with birds because, after all, why not? But he makes the mistake of enlisting the help of Cyborgupine, the brilliant but nefarious porcupine-cyborg villain, and things get exceedingly silly, if not particularly surprising or dramatic, from then on: Cyborgupine secretly changes the mind-interpreting machine into a mind-exchanging machine, one result of which is a deer trying to fly, which explains the book’s title. Okay, none of this makes even an iota of sense, and Doug Savage’s serviceable cartoons, which are basically fine, never have the kind of “wow” factor that would make the art a big reason to engage with the book. Nor is the soft-pedaled “moral of the story” of any special interest: it turns out that Rabbit Boy, even though he is small, can do heroic things because, again, why not? It is worth pointing out that Savage does not include in this book any flashbacks to the foundational story of how Laser Moose came to be, you know, Laser Moose, so anyone not already familiar with and interested in the character – or his buddies and nemesis, whose backgrounds are also not “flashbacked” – may be a tad confused by all the goings-on. The result of all this is a (+++) book that never pretends to be more than a romp. Well, actually it does pretend to have some significance, but not in the story itself: after “The End,” there are seven pages about tree rings, because the climactic battle in the story is fought at the Old Oak, the oldest, biggest and strongest tree in the forest. And the last of those seven pages is a guided activity: readers can create “tree rings” representing their own lives. That is actually a pretty neat idea, but is scarcely the reason anyone will become engrossed in As the Deer Flies. In fact, the book is never engrossing, nor is it meant to be: it is simple, simply silly fun, and as such may be just the thing to give young readers some respite from the cares and concerns of everyday, non-laser-powered life.

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