Wednesday, September 30

Andromeda Klein

by Frank Portman
Delacorte Press 2009

Tedious. That's the first word that comes to mine when thinking about the title character to Frank Portman's follow-up to King Dork. And self-absorbed and self-important. Unfunny and uncharming. Manic, but not in a pixie dream girl sort of way. Did I say tedious?

At the core of this book is a teen girl who views the world through a prism of tarot and dark magic. When she loses her best friend and partner in magic, Daisy, and her boyfriend in the same week she is convinced the universe is sending her messages. More specifically, Daisy is sending her messages from the great beyond via her cell phone. It's a puzzle – what is Daisy trying to tell her? – that only the most egocentric of people would assign magical properties to. Steeped as deeply as she is in the teas of the occult, there isn't a moment that doesn't in some way echo back with acridity to Waite or Crowley or her tarot misreadings. There are numerical coincidences, and concordances with books in the library in which Andromeda works, but in the end the Great Mystery from the great beyond is little more than a prank that may have once had altruistic origins but has sense gone off the rails.

Portman's portrayal of Andromeda reads like an avatar for his own dissemination of arcane knowledge more than an enriched character portrait. Andromeda suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease that causes her bones including those in her ears to be fragile, allowing her to mishear conversations right and left. This coupled with her constant analysis and regurgitation of the arcane reduces the storytelling to a lurching train of words coupled, at times, to mind-numbing lengths. Portman's third-person narrator slips conveniently (or sloppily, depending on your read) between a distant observer and a voice so close it might just as well be Andromeda's subconscious. There are writers out there who could make this work, and to great effect, showing the reader how messed up Andromeda is in a way that would make us sympathetic. Portman isn't that skilled and the result is a bit of a slog to read.

With a story so deeply invested in various rituals and magik you would hope that the journey through its 400-plus pages would reveal something quiet and reaffirming about the confluences of life's various streams. Instead we find Andromeda the butt of a joke so base that police action is inevitable, but not shown, rendering the intricacies of following the girl's journey virtually worthless. The biggest cop-out comes in not following through on the aftermath, which would have been far more interesting than a good chunk of this book's flabby middle.

Nope, sorry. It's been a while since I had a book make me regret the time I spent with it.

Monday, September 28

The Day-Glo Brothers

The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand New Colors
by Chris Barton
illustrated by Tony Persiani

The picture book biography of the two brothers who developed, by accident mostly, the process by which hippies were able to enjoy black light posters and the military was able to signal aircraft from great distances. Okay, that's a bit flip, but while the subject is unique what is more fascinating is that, as far as I can tell, this is the first biography on the Switzer brothers outside of a self-published book written by a Swtizer family friend. I am hard-pressed to think of one other biography written specifically for a picture book audience that wasn't based on secondary source material; Barton's book reflects his own primary research.

Not realizing that at the start I found myself feeling like the narrative was missing some details about the brother's early lives. But, of course, if the only way to tell the story is by interviewing the Swtizer's living relatives and colleagues then of course background is going to be limited. We know how they came to discover and then develop their daylight fluorescent paints but was it really just as simple as picking up some books at the library and playing around in the basement? Wasn't anyone else working on something similar somewhere else in the world? Had the military never considered developing something similar prior to the Day-Glo brothers? My curiosity is piqued with Barton's book, but unlike other biographies I have nowhere else to go for such answers without doing the research, and possibly writing my own book.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great book on a fascinating subject that I think would have a lot of appeal, especially for boys. And I know the limitations of a picture book might be part of the problem here, but I'm left wanting more. In a good way.

Friday, September 25


by Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow Books 1993

Here we have another one of those picture books that on its surface appears to be about one thing but has a truly odd undertone running through it.

The issue at hand appears to be another version of childhood separation anxiety, this time with a baby blanket. Owen is on the eve of entering school and it is time for him to put away the blanket he has loved since he was born. But how to separate Owen from his Fuzzy is a delicate issue, and no matter how much they try nothing seems to convince Owen that it's time to give up his friend. In the end his mother comes up with a solution where Owen can have his fuzzy with him at all times... by converting his blanket into a dozen smaller handkerchiefs.

Well, that's all very nice, but there's an odd catalyst in this book in the form of a nosy neighbor named Mrs. Tweezers. She's there on page one looking over the fence at a happy Owen playing with Fuzzy, with a glance that can be viewed as either concerned or disapproving. A few pages later when she reappears we know which look it was when she says "Isn't he a little old to be carrying that thing around?" And with this illustration the faces of Owen's parents register concern. A concern they never had before. A concern that suggests perhaps they might be bad parents for not addressing the issue sooner.

Mrs. Tweezers suggests the Blanket Fairy, a ruse designed to help separate Owen from his blanket through trickery. But Owen's attachment to his blanket allows him to unwittingly outwit his parents by hiding the blanket. When he tells his parents the fairy didn't come they attempt to shame him for it by suggesting that Fuzzy's torn, dirty, rattiness are the cause.

Fuzzy continues to accompany Owen until Mrs. Tweezers once again leans over the fence and meddle in her neighbors affairs. "Haven't you heard of the vinegar trick?" And once again Owen's worried, concerned parents feel neglectful for not having heard how to properly raise their son. When dipping Fuzzy into vinegar doesn't work Mrs. Tweezers once again meddles, this time making it personal.

"Haven't you heard of saying no?"

Saying no, without an explanation or any attempt to reason with Owen, has the expected outcome of creating a greater anxiety in Owen. This is when Owen's mother suddenly has the brilliant idea to turn the blanket into handkerchiefs. And in the end, Mrs. Tweezers approves with a wave of her own hankie.

What a horrible message. Listen to your meddling neighbors tell you how to raise your child? Get your child to conform to someone else's expectations? If you can't separate your child from their security blanket through trickery simply say "because I say so" and leave it at that? What really irks me about the Caldecott Honor book is that it seems to send the subtle message that conformity begins in the home, and only bad parents don't know or realize this.

I think we all want to raise children right, however we define "right," but not at the suggestion of a neighbor (who, despite being married, shows no sign of having raised any kids herself). Blanket issues are huge, and I can see the value in a book that deals with them openly, humorously, but not like this. Owen is never told why he cannot bring a blanket to school, never fully prepared for the separation, and seems too ready to accept his blanket begin cut where most kids even resist allowing it to be washed, much less cut.

And all of this is for what? Mrs. Tweezer's approval? She's there on the first and the last page, so clearly she is as important as Owen. So pay attention, children! Your nosy neighbor is a force to be reckoned with. She can manipulate your parents and get them to raise you according to her standards. And without her approval who knows what might happen. She and her chicken-legged house might carry you off to the forest and...

Sorry, got a little carried away there.

Wednesday, September 23

Are You a Horse?

by Andy Rash
Arthur Levine / Scholastic

Our in the old West, cowboy Roy receives a new saddle as a birthday present. "What is this thing?" Roy asks, and he's instructed to 1. Find a horse and 2. Enjoy the ride. Roy is one clueless cowboy to not recognize a saddle, and he continues his clueless way through the picture book asking every animal, vegetable, and mineral he sees if they are horse. The absurdity is compounded by the impossible (a crab? a sloth? a zebra?) until Roy finds what he's looking for. With a final page turn readers are given the twist that is a natural combination of Roy's cluelessness and the reader's natural assumptions.

Are You a Horse?
is saved in that final page turn. Up until then it has meandered its way across the pages like an updated version of Are You My Mother? and despite reinforcement on every page that Roy is as dense as black hole the reader is never clued in that Roy's instructions aren't specific enough. I seriously almost wrote this book off as derivative and unfunny until that last page, and then recognized the rewards of seeing a book through to the end (hey, it's only a picture book, no need to abandon it) and chuckled (sort of) at my own blind spot.

Having watched new readers page through picture books it would be easy for them to skip along and think they know what's happening without actually reading it first (on their own, kids will often read a book's pictures first, then go back and read the text) and on the visual level the story works just as well. Where most pages are full-bleed illustrations, the page with the sloth is drawn out across the spread in a series of panels that slow the visual reader down to appreciate the sloth's slow response.

My one lingering question – and this is mostly a personal question and nothing to fault the book necessarily – is how and why cowboys endure as lasting icons of the imagination. It's an era full of images that seem isolated from the rest of the world, almost like a fantasy world or the fanciful imagining of a pirate's life. Growing up, I remember thinking that the whole world went through an Old West phase, that somehow people went from dark suits and stove-top hats of Lincoln's day, to wearing chaps, then back to suits in the same way that the disco era's polyester leisure suits briefly supplanted traditional sartorial styles on either side.

But what is it about this particular era in American history that fascinates so? Why don't we see picture books set in, say, the Jazz Age or even the beloved Disco Days? What makes the West so special, what sets it apart and gives it appeal? Is it simply that so much of its imagery is iconic? The hats and the boots, the cactus and the unspoiled prairies? But then, couldn't we convey similar messages set during the Flower Power days with long hair and bare feet and psychedelia?

Sometimes I wonder whether these icons and images persist because we keep feeding them to children, or whether there's something larger that children would be drawn to without the extra reinforcement.

Monday, September 21

Getting the Girl

by Marcus Zusak
Arthur Levine / Scholastic 2003

Cameron is a multiple anomaly in the world of teen fiction about boys. He's sensitive, quiet, sweet, poetic, searching, and longs for a girl beyond his reach. I take that back, Cameron reads like the cliche of a sensitive teen boy caught in the shadow of his older brothers and the rough-and-tumble streets of his working class neighborhood. As Cameron drifts along from scene to scene, it is quickly clear that what he longs for and deserves he will get, and the title confirms the inevitable.

So the question is, if we learn all this quickly going in, what's to hold us long enough to care?

Zusak's language. But just barely.

The only way Zusak can pull this off is by having a main character insightful and erudite enough to convey what would be beyond the scope of most teens his age. He presents himself as awkward, but it's the shambling awkward of a teen who hasn't realized he's a king in disguise. The reader sees (and is supposed to) that Cameron is worthy of so much more than his current station in life, and all he really wants is Octavia, the one girl his older brother Ruben has cast aside (as he is wont to do every couple of weeks). But like a pauper sage, Cameron must spend time living the horrible doubt of an artist, looking at his working class dead-end family and wondering if he's good enough for something more.

All along the way we see Cameron's poetic notes that he takes, an attempt to capture an emotional photograph of each transition as he experiences it. His father lives for the gruntwork of plumbing, his brother for occasional fight that has made him top of the trash heap, his sister the secretive photographer who may be his spiritual equal, and through it all Cameron serves as Frederick, Leo Leoni's picture book mouse whose gifts only bloom in the dead of an emotional winter, when it may be that he's lost the girl for good. The old Yiddish expression is that sometimes people need a story more than food; for Cameron, his words are food that keep his soul alive.

And the metaphors. I have author Varian Johnson to thank for pointing these out at a recent lecture at VCFA. Water, water, everywhere, and Cameron is there to swim in it, drown in it, ebb and flow with it. But the water is Zusak's/Cameron's metaphor for his desire, his lust, his longing and hopes. Octavia is the ocean he longs to swim in, to touch and be consumed by. It is compelling because Zusak manages to keep making references to water without downing the reader in the obvious. The metaphor is clearly Cameron's, and its in these moments that Zusak succeeds.

But when a book so clearly telegraphs its message early on and shows no hint at veering off track, then both me and the teenage boy inside me begin to get antsy. The pacing is so deliberate that it frustrates, and Cameron's poetic notes verge on the precious. With few scenes and sparse-but-poetic handling this book's 250 pages could be cut in half and not miss a thing. The first-person narration so eloquent in its observations they make actual prose-poems in Cameron's hand inserted between the chapters redundant. There is a perfect novella – the size and shape of which would attract more boy readers – trapped in this conventional-length novel, one I would have been hard-pressed to find fault with. But as is the story drags, the inevitable seems less a prize for having been held at arms-length for far too long.

Friday, September 18

The Hating Book

by Charlotte Zolotow
pictures by Ben Shecter
HarperCollins 1969

Another book that has the familiarity of being from my childhood, though I'm not really certain I actually did read this before. It feels familiar, which is to say that it taps the same areas of nostalgia that other books from the late 60s and early 70s leave me feeling.

I hate hate hated my friend.

The book opens with this line, and clearly this hate will be examined and ultimately resolved. The girl who utters this statement feels she has been and is repeatedly snubbed be hr best friend and cites a number of examples of proof. Her mother suggests early on that she ask her best friend what the problem is, but the girl simply comes up with a bunch of probable reasons that reinforce her negative thinking. In the end she finally does ask and her friend mirrors her feelings, that their mutual hate was borne of mutual misunderstanding.

The feelings are natural and well-centered in a child's mindset, and the resolution is fine, I only wish that the solution hadn't been fed to the girl by her mother. That the mother makes the suggestion at the beginning is fine, but she repeats the suggestion twice more (the rule of threes) and so finally she does it. So we go from hate-hate-hate to sudden recognition of misunderstanding with little reason or understanding in the transition. And while children do suddenly change and shift allegiances and friendships there is little sense of a lesson learned in the process. Perhaps this book can provide an avenue for that reflection.

The book is very reminiscent of the the Janice Udry and Maurice Sendak book Let's be Enemies which I think might be the better of the two in dealing with the idea of children processing negative emotions. They both come from the same decade, the golden age of the 1960s, and make for a nice matched set of boys and girls dealing with gender-based relationships.

Wednesday, September 16


An Explosively Funny, Mostly True Story
by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer
illustrated by Boris Kulikov
Simon & Schuster 2008

I had such great hopes for this story, but in the end the book fails me due to a pair of fatal miscalculations.

The story of the Joseph Pujol, known also as Le Petomane, is a natural for kids though perhaps mostly boys. we are talking about a man whose notoriety and (yes) fame came from his ability to control his lower abdominal muscles in such a way that she could produce, on demand, posterior winds to such effect that he could "whistle" tunes and perform feats of skill.

The man could fart. On command, with precisions, and with such control as to be able to play recognizable tunes. And he did it on stage for paying customers.

This alone is enough to attract a readership, and Pujol's story is a fascinating one to tell, which is why it is odd that the authors decided the book needed to be told in rhyme. This is it's first great mistake, because in choosing to make the story fit its rhyme scheme detracts from the impact. When Pujol makes his way to the stage of the Moulin Rouge for his debut we get this set of verses:

Up on the stage was this tall dashing guy–
Long red coat with tails, white shirt and a tie.
His black satin pants had a very strange shape,
With a hole in the back for the air to escape.

Solemn and calm, not a sign of stage fright,
Joe fired off noises most impolite
Announcing a sound, with a face oh so serious,
Performing it straightaway – Mysterious! Delirious!

Somewhat clever, if flawed, the verse sells the audience short by falling back on rhyme to make an already interesting story seem more interesting. Its as if the authors were afraid that telling the story seriously would somehow turn away an audience. Comedy is a very serious business, and this act is a novelty that is all the more funny for the seriousness with which it was presented to people – on a stage, in front of the well-dressed, treated as a true talent – loses its humor to cloying rhymes.

The second miscalculation comes in the end notes. Now typical of picture book biographies, the authors give a full accounting of Pujol's life as a way of perhaps legitimizing the story they have just presented. The problem here is that the straightforward narrative is far more interesting than the book's actual text. It would have been a much better book, to my thinking, to have illustrated the details in the end notes that were left out of the story. The origin of his nickname, for example, or the true story about how he discovered his talents rather than the oblique and slightly deceptive version that opens the book.

Both miscalculations I think condescend and it is unfortunate because otherwise I think this could have been a great book. It's a natural (or unnatural as the case may be) subject of interest for readers and sad to see it treated so poorly.

Monday, September 14

Don't Forget to Come Back

by Robie H. Harris
pictures by Harry Bliss
Candlewick 2004

Okay, this book sort of freaked me out.

First, this is one of those books that gets shelved with the "other issues" books that parents use as object lessons they'd rather not teach themselves. You know, rather than talk to kids about how to deal with bullies or first-day-of-school or other traumas of modern childhood, parents sit their kids down with a book and say "Here, read this." Only here we're talking about the separation anxiety that comes from parents going for a night out and leaving the child alone with a sitter.

But it's more specific than that. It's about the anxiety of a single child who has no sibling to rely upon for comfort and otherwise might be a bit more demanding of parental affection or attention. It's also a child whose parents can afford to go to the theater (as witnessed by the Playbill on the kitchen table) and have framed paintings on the wall. It appears, to me, the anxiety of privilege.

I think what freaks me out is that the child is alternately too young or too old to manifest all the behavior shifts included. It's a sort of Kubler-Ross collection of stages of anxiety as their little "Pumpkin" tries to prevent her parents from leaving for the evening. There's anger, guilt-tripping, bargaining, denial, depression, and finally acceptance as the sitter turns out to be permissively silly. It isn't that kids don't run through different emotions when their parents are taking a night out, it's that more often they are less rational than Pumpkin, and there is no realistic depiction of the type of true meltdown that kids go through before entering into the more "mature" phases of bargaining.

While I can see the point and purpose of showing picture book readers that it's perfectly alright to feel anxious about their parents leaving them, the fact that the book's illustrations feel more representative of the white, upper-class experience rather than a more middle-class parents-struggling-for-a-single-night-out-once-every-couple-months-before-they-go-crazy that would typically arouse such behavior.

(pauses to take a breath after that last sentence.)

Also, though Pumpkin survives the ordeal and is pleased the next morning to find that her parents didn't forget to come home, her feelings aren't addressed directly. Her parents seem very blase about her threats and promises to the point where I imagine it comes from familiarity. They have dealt with Pumpkin's little tantrums and emotional blackmail before and are immune, but then how does that help the reader to see such detached parents in the face of such anxieties? Is the reader supposed to say "Gee, she's acting silly!" and then turn that around and say "You know, I've been a bit ridiculous myself of late, perhaps I ought change?"

Perhaps there is something else at work here, something else that irks and makes me uncomfortable. it may have something to do with the idea of the picture book as so heavy a "message book" that it takes the fun away from reading. Which is not to say that books cannot or should not include valuable lessons or messages for the reader to take away, but that there is a line where message overtakes the story. There is a difference between eating something healthy and eating something that's supposed to be good for you; one you do and reap the benefits, the other you do begrudgingly because it's the right thing to do whether or not you like it. A book with message over story feels a little like that to me, and less like reading for pleasure.

Thursday, September 10

The Girls' Guide to Rocking

How to Start a Band, Book Gigs, and Get Rolling to Rock Stardom
by Jessica Harper
Workman Publishing 2009

I'm really torn over this book. On the one hand, this book is a perfect tonic for all those girls (like the author) who were told or felt that the world of Rock & Roll and all it has to offer is a secret club populated by boys who insist that "Stairway to Heaven" is be-all, end-all in rock. To every girl told that their hands are too small to play bass, or that girl drummers aren't powerful enough, or that girls just don't know how to rock, this books sets out not only to dispel these notions but serves as a how-to guide for overcoming all obstacles. Grrl Power! Rawk out!

On the other hand, if I saw a book like this directed to boys I would worry about the viability of Rock & Roll as having any relevance in the world. It's not necessarily a gender thing but a recognition that a particular era in popular music had reached a point where it can be sanitized and taught to tweens and teens in the same way one might package a book on puberty or hygiene or on dealing with peer pressure. It takes some of the spirit out of rock's rebellious nature to say "Here, a step-by-step guide on how to be a rebel! Urgh!"

Hopper gets off on the right foot by focusing on the instruments, with clear nuts-and-bolts information on everything from how to shop for gear to how to achieve specific sounds from the classic instruments. There's a nod to playing what you know, meaning that any instrument (except perhaps the tuba) can rock, and that a good part of what's involved is attitude and experience. It isn't written down in an insulting way, just straightforward here's-what-you-need-to-know-to-get-started.

The next sections cover putting a band together and learning how to gig, how to move on to recording songs, the basics of playing live, and the business end of things including how to book tours. The appendices include a list of influential artists of both genders, movies centered around music, and some basics for using GarageBand software. It's a well-rounded package that could yield some decent results if taken to heart.

My hesitation is two-fold. First, there's no way for me, as an adult male, to actually follow this book and gauge its success. Second, a good deal of what makes Rock & Roll is the drive and desire that cannot be taught. And worse, in today's climate where over-produced, flaccid American Idol-style pop rules the airwaves, when a package deal like Hannah Montana is a role model for girls, it's difficult to believe there are many book-reading girls who might be driven to start something as quaint (they might say 'antiquated') as a Rock band. Besides, why go through all the trouble to pay for equipment and lessons, taking the time to form a band and struggle with that dynamic, spending years to stand in front of an audience to rock out badly when all you need to do is invite a few friends over and have them watch you flail on RockBand? Why spend months, maybe years, learning how to play classic rock at someone's backyard party when you can wail within minutes?

Still, as I remain conflicted, The Girls' Guide to Rocking does provide a solid foundation in the fundamentals and includes a lot of inspirational sidebars about the women of rock who have made their mark over the past 40-plus years. For some girls it might just be the sort of eye-opening they never realized they needed to see beyond the commercially-produced haze of contemporary music.

Saturday, September 5

Lunch Lady

...and the Cyborg Substitute
...and the League of Librarians
written and illustrated by Jarret J. Krosoczka
Alfred A. Knopf 2009

There's evil afoot, and Lunch Lady is there with her trusty hair-netted sidekick Betty to thwart it. Whether its a league of librarians who plan to intercept all the new video game consoles coming in fresh off he boat, or the mild-mannered teacher who created a robot army to replace the other teachers so he can become Teacher of the Year, Lunch Lady and her never-ending arsenal of modified food service devices will be there to save the day.

These graphic novels aimed at the emerging reader has just enough story to keep them moving along and plenty of action to retain the attention of the fussiest readers, but little else. They have a look and feel reminiscent of the the Babymouse series, though they lack that series more rounded characters. The trio of kids - the Breakfast Bunch - are convenient shells for explaining story elements and become useful only when they fall into danger. Lunch Lady (and Betty) should be the focus and we should know more about what makes them tick.

Similarly, this series also makes a play for the Captain Underpants crowd with the wackiness of superheros but are neither as clever in their humor or as gross as they could be. We are talking about cafeteria food here, a prime area for exploration, and it feels little like an opportunity lost that crime if fought only with the utensils. Also, superheroes have backstories that explain and infuse character. Captain Underpants himself is funny because of how he becomes who he is, but with Lunch Lady the reader is supposed to accept her antics simply by virtue of lunch ladies being somewhat off.

I appreciate the idea of producing more long-form comics for this age group but I feel that with kids a certain standard has to be met. I'm not suggesting that the stories can't be fun and frivolous, but that they be delivered with the same expectations that would fall to a work of fiction aimed at the same level. What makes Captain Underpants work with readers isn't that it has underpants in the title, it's that the characters are distinctly drawn, the text is clever and funny, and the story would be almost as funny without illustrations. There's a whole load of possibility in the concept of a superhero Lunch Lady but it's all lost on just-in-time gadgets and one-dimensional characters.

I found that the moment I closed the book I had forgotten most of its story. The same thing happened on rereading them. There is so little to latch onto that they are as immediately forgotten as the empty calories of a celery stalk.

To steal from Douglas Adams: relatively harmless.

Thursday, September 3


by Gary Paulsen
Wendy Lamb Books / Random House

Is it me, or does Gary Paulsen seem to be ripping through a very fertile period? These past few years he's released, it seems, two or three books a year and they always slip in under the radar where I find out about them by accident.

I was actually trying to remember the title of a book of his I read and liked and came across this as I was scanning the shelves. Being in the mood for a light read, and with a promising flap summary, I took the bait.

Lyle Williams is Mudshark, a kid we are told is cool. Cool not so much because he is hip but because his demeanor is calm and detached. When things go missing or problems need to be solved everyone – including adults at school – know to go to Mudshark. So notorious that the day someone tags his locker with a sign proclaiming the Mudshark Detective Agency he simply smiles in acknowledgment.

Small problems plaque Mudshark's fellow students - misplaced gym shoes and lost homework folders - but with his keen eye and memory he is able to resolve cases quickly. Larger problems loom as chalkboard erasers go missing, foul odors come from the faculty lounge, and a gerbil has escaped is cage and at large. Complicating matters is a new school pet, a parrot, who appears to possess a psychic ability that threatens Mudshark's place as the school mystery solver. In the end, Mudshark must debunk the parrot, find the missing erasers, and tie up every other mystery in order to retain his title, and his cool factor.

Paulsen's pacing is odd. The book seems to meander for the first 38 pages (out of 83) as he sets up all the bits and pieces that will eventually come together in the end. They almost read like vignettes, and yet when the story finally kicks in there isn't a sense that everything actually is tied together, or that it ever will. It isn't that Paulsen is being crafty, its this feeling that none of it matters. The only clear conflict is that Mudshark is going to be replaced by a parrot, and solving that mystery almost gets lost in the shuffle.

The mystery to me is why people aren't more upset with Mudshark for his abilities. He is able to find lost items and answer mysteries only because he witnesses them. Which begs the question: if you see a kid drop his homework folder, why not tell him he dropped it? Why wait until he realizes its missing and then play at being a detective when really all you're doing is withholding information until it makes you look good? To that end Mudshark isn't cool, he's manipulative and his powers rely entirely on luck, not skill.

Withholding information is key, because Paulsen does that as well. The mysteries presented cannot be solved by the reader (or at least by a smart reader) they can only be solved when Paulsen/Mudshark explain them. Setting up all these careful mysteries at the beginning leaves the reader hoping there's a great puzzle to be solved, but then before clues can be revealed the mystery is solved. Highly unsatisfying.

Paulsen does write with a breezy clarity that makes him a first choice for reluctant boy readers, but this wouldn't be one of my first choices.

Tuesday, September 1

Bobby Vs. Girls (Accidentally)

by Lisa Yee
illustrations by Dan Santat
Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic Books 2009

Bobby and Holly are friends and have been for some time, they just aren't friends in front of other kids. Because everyone knows that boys and girls cannot be friends, Bobby and Holly have tried to keep their private friendship separate from their school freinds, but things get complicated (and confusing for Bobby) when Holly aligns herself with queen bee Jillian and begins to actively hate Bobby. Or so she'd have everyone believe.

For Bobby's part, he does what you'd expect a fourth grader to do, which is to bumble his way through misadventures that threaten both his friendship with Holly and his standing as a boy in the gender roles that the kids feed into. The centerpiece of the story is election for student council representative that pits boys against girls, specifically Bobby against Holly. Amid the boy/girl tension Bobby also has his former football star turned stay-at-home dad embarrassing him, he gets himself stuck to a tree on a field trip to a botanical garden, and then there's that run-in with static cling involving underwear stuck to his shirt. Also, Bobby longs for a dog, but he's allergic to fur, so he tries to teach his pet goldfish to do tricks to compensate.

Good stuff for the younger middle grade set, and a good starting point for discussions about boy/girl friendships. It does end with a note of hope that boys and girls can be friends but it won't be an easy road ahead.