October 27, 2022


Leila & Nugget Mystery 1: Who Stole Mr. T? By Deserae and Dustin Brady. Illustrations by April Brady. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

Animal Rescue Friends 2: Friends Fur-Ever! By Jana Tropper. Illustrated by Genevieve Kote and Leo Trinidad. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     Adorableness is in, complexity out, in mystery books for preteen readers – and the adorableness quotient is high in the new Leila & Nugget Mystery series. This a-girl-and-her-dog bit of easy-reading fluff is simply fun, because it is such simple fun: large-type story, cute illustrations, and a case of no particular consequence that Deserae and Dustin Brady manage to spin into a story filled with wholesome family and neighborhood connections stretching all the way back to a turtle owner’s father’s days in third grade. The turtle is the “Mr. T” of the title, the owner is Javy Martinez, the father is 32 years old, and thus there is a title reference to a onetime television show called “The A-Team” (with “Mr. T” being a member of that team way back when; the turtle is named after the character). This plot construction is actually rather neatly done, since the authors use it to explain how Mr.T got into the Martinez family and also to solve, eventually, a subsidiary mystery involving Mr. Martinez’ longtime friend, Mr. Margolis, whom Mr. Martinez has suspected for all these years of being responsible for the third-grade mystery (unsolved at the time) of a different case of turtle disappearance. Everything is handled lightly and even deftly here, albeit with a few overdone over-simplifications, such as searching for turtle tracks in the snow in case Mr. T wandered away (somehow nobody connects the fact that turtles are ectomorphs, sometimes called “cold-blooded,” with the impossibility of one escaping through the snow). Ancillary characters are introduced and used to set up planned future entries in the series – notably neighbor Mrs. Crenshaw, originally thought by neighborhood kids to be a nasty witch, who turns out to have been a local-area child detective herself when she was young and to be able to guide Leila on her chosen path of detection. What this Leila & Nugget Mystery is lacking, to some extent, is Nugget: the dog is cute in a formulaic way (all the illustrations of him, and indeed all the April Brady illustrations of everyone, are formulaically sweet), and one element of Nugget’s behavior does give Leila the clue she needs to find Mr. T at the book’s end, but this is more a story of neighborhood friends helping each other than a tale of a girl-and-dog detective team. The whole thing is rather thin, certainly age-appropriate but not as memorable as it would be if Nugget had more than a nugget of personality.

     The critters in the Animal Rescue Friends books have more individuality, to such an extent that they tend to overshadow the humans in Jana Tropper’s story, Friends Fur-Ever! This too is essentially a book about kids’ friendship groups, as the title certainly makes clear. The members of ARF (acronym for “Animal Rescue Friends,” get it?) “take care of injured animals or find vets who can,” and also help animals find new homes. This is a graphic novel rather than a story with pictures, so of course the illustrations by Genevieve Kote and Leo Trinidad are carefully balanced by gender and physical appearance. The kids themselves are on the bland side, but that is scarcely a surprise: the most-interesting of them turns out to be the one who does not quite fit in, a boy named Jimmy who is something of an outsider where the group is concerned, but who proves his mettle when he and a girl named Bell encounter an injured porcupine during a nature walk – and Jimmy figures out how to catch the animal safely and get it to a wildlife sanctuary. Another story here involves a “therapy pig” named Truffles, who visits residents of the local assisted-living center – providing an opening for one of the rather preachy lessons scattered throughout the book, in this case that “when people get older, they can forget a lot of things,” but therapy animals can boost their spirits. Another story is about a missing hamster – with a search providing just the sort of not-too-complex mystery that becomes a natural part of books like this one even if the book as a whole does not have “mystery” in its title. The ultimate lesson of this book, stated in the straightforward way that has already become typical of this series, is that “our plans never really turn out like we think they will – and we still make things work.” That is, things work out thanks to the participation of the animals in the adventures: the animals are not entirely anthropomorphic, certainly not in appearance, but they understand things with more clarity than the humans often do, and it is fun to observe the wide-eyed, knowing way they take in the warmhearted and simplistic action/adventure stories built around them.

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