THE MYSTERY OF MR. NICE: A CHET GECKO MYSTERY, by Bruce Hale

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Bruce Hale’s Chet Gecko series is based on a clever and very fruitful premise – a gecko detective in a zany elementary school exclusively populated by animals. And Hale very clearly knows how to spin a mystery. But the thing that really shines in these books is the language.

Hale writes in a silly, stylized parody of classic noir. He exaggerates the genre’s use of odd, figurative phrases. Every other page contains yet another delightful expression.

“I pushed my hat back on my head and let my eyes go as dull as a lawn mower in a rock garden.”

“[Her] desk was so neat, it was scarier than a piggyback ride on a porcupine.”

“Moving slower than a parent-teacher conference, we sneaked up the driveway, past the barbed wire, and through the bushes.”

“The crook chuckled deep in his chest. It sounded like an alligator digesting a handbag salesman.”

“[His] whistle cut through the pandemonium like a belch through a church service.”

“If ugliness were art, he’d have been the Moan-a Lisa.”

And yes, these are funny. Yes, they are an excellent sendup of one of noir’s favorite ticks. But more importantly, after only a handful of pages, Hale’s playful attitude becomes infectious. Every additional quirky phrase and groan-inducing pun is like an invitation to try your own hand at it, and the silliness of so much of the book’s subject matter will set younger readers at ease and help them feel more confident, more certain that they, too, can be similarly creative.

These books are great for kids just getting started on mid-sized chapter books, and especially those kids that have an interest in animals and/or mysteries. They’re good, too, for readers of any age who enjoy watching a talented wordsmith toy around with the English language.

MELONHEAD, by Katy Kelly

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I came across MELONHEAD at the library, totally randomly, and having now found the book, it honestly frightens me to think about what my life would have been like had I gone another few months (or even a whole lifetime – eek!) without discovering Katy Kelly and work. I know, for one thing, life would’ve at the very least been a little bit duller.

MELONHEAD concerns Adam Melon and his best friend Sam Alswang’s attempts to win the Challenge America! competition by coming up with the best reinvention of any kid or team of kids at their school. This plot, though, is almost incidental, and is constantly being diverted by Melonhead’s antics and asides. The Challenge America! storyline is like a plain old fir tree, and Melonhead’s loony, all-over-the-place narratives are the sparkling ornaments, strings of lights, and strands of tinsel that turn those basic branches so dazzlingly festive.

Much more than any single overarching plot, MELONHEAD is driven by its cast of delightfully quirky characters and their curious, inventive approach to the English language (it helps, too, that Gillian Johnson has provided a batch of energetic, spot-on illustrations). Their dialogue is snappy and charmingly bizarre. For instance, this snatch of a scene that comes just a few pages into the book, after Melonhead has (already) gotten his foot stuck in the hole of a tree.

The next things I saw were two red and blue striped socks and two legs coming out of the upstairs bathroom window. They were attached to Pop. He walked across the roof and said, “Your foot has disappeared into a hole?”

“It’s more like a short tunnel that has no exit,” I said.

Down below, Sam was dragging Pop’s ladder across the driveway. “Never fear, Paul Revere,” he shouted. “I’m climbing to the rescue.”

“One boy per tree,” Pop said. “House rule.”

Then he asked me: “Can you untie your shoe?”

“Nope,” I said. “The laces are inside. They’re tied tight and double-knotted.”

“Double-knotted?” Pop said.

“I do that for safety,” I told him.

“Of course,” Pop said. “What happens when you try to pull your foot out?”

“It doesn’t move,” I said.

“I’ve got it!” Sam shouted. “Stuff butter around your ankle. Your foot will slide out.”

“That’s using the old bean,” Pop said.

A minute later Madam was in the driveway, tying a short green bottle to one end of my rope. “Olive oil should work,” she said.

“I married a genius,” Pop said.

Or here’s another one, just a handful of pages later, after Melonhead gets rescued from the tree by a group of firemen wielding the Jaws of Life. When he gets to school the next morning, his friends are waiting for him. They all have questions, but Sam gets his in first.

“How was it being saved by the Jaws of Life?”

“The greatest,” I said. “For me and for the firemen. Before my foot situation they only used the Jaws to open car doors that were smashed in accidents.” 

“What do the Jaws look like?” Sam asked.

“They’re kind of like a jackhammer,” I said. “There’s a cutter part that they didn’t use and a spreader part that they did. I never thought wood could stretch but the Jaws made the hole open enough to squeeze my foot out.”

“How did it look?” Jonique asked.

“Soggy,” I told her.

“How come?” she asked.

“Because every foot has about a hundred and twenty-five thousand sweat glands,” I said. “All of mine were working.”

“Stink-o-rama,” Lucy Rose said.

“Totally,” I said. “My mom said my shoe is ruined. I told her, ‘Not to me.’ I nailed it to the wall over my bed so I will always have the memory.”

“Does your whole room smell like foot?” Sam asked.

“Completely,” I said. “Come over and have a smell.”

Lucy Rose twisted her face so her nose and freckles were bunched up. “Never in this lifetime,” she said.

“This afternoon for me,” Sam said.

I could read hundreds of pages of this stuff. And luckily, Katy Kelly is easily able to sustain the silliness and pitch-perfect narration and dialogue for that long.

MELONHEAD is superb for so-called reluctant readers, inquisitive kids, and readers of all ages looking for a laugh and an entertaining story told by an endlessly curious, accidentally mischievous boy.

And fortunately, once you breeze through MELONHEAD, there are five more stories in the series waiting for you to enjoy.

. . .

Click here to learn more about Katy Kelly, and here if you want to learn more about the story behind Melonhead specifically. You should also check out illustrator Gillian Johnson’s page here.

POOP FOUNTAIN!: THE QWIKPICK PAPERS, by Tom Angleberger

poop-fountain

I bought this book for two reasons: because I was interested in seeing what else Tom Angleberger (author of the uber-mega-bestselling ORIGAMI YODA series) had written, and, more importantly, because it had “poop fountain” in the title.

Going into the book, I felt like I already knew what I’d find. An adventure story, of course, and one studded with the sort of gross-out humor promised by the title.

And yes – I got all that.

But I also got so much more.

Despite the fantastic-sounding title, POOP FOUNTAIN! is extremely real. The poop fountain, for instance, is an actual feature of an actual sewage treatment plant (there are even pictures of the place included in the book to prove it). But the realness that truly surprised and excited me was that of the characters.

Our narrator, Lyle, lives in a trailer park, and his parents both work at a nearby convenience store (the Qwikpick mentioned in the title). One of his best friends, Marilla, is a Jehovah’s Witness, and the other, Dave, is Jewish.

In almost any other kids’ book, the facts above would become the story’s central issues, and would be tackled (and maybe even tortured) until a lesson was wrung out of them. But here, instead, they are simply stated, and allowed to guide the story exactly as much as they really might in the book’s characters’ lives.

I was recently reminded of the QWIKPICK series while reading an article in the latest issue of the magazine WIRED. In it, Jason Parham discusses the recent crop of TV shows that have featured and starred black actors and other American minorities. He begins the piece by recalling the shows he watched as a kid in the ‘90s on the United Paramount Network. “UPN couldn’t match the budget of broadcast rivals like NBC,” he writes, “but it was the only one of the Big Five that devoted a considerable slate of programming to investigating black lives.” The thing about this programming that so interested and excited Parham back then, and that now seems to him so revolutionary, was the way that these shows didn’t make a big deal about their characters’ blackness. “These were not tales of the exceptional but of the mundane . . . These shows were disruptive by virtue of their very perspective: Blackness was the default, not the subject matter.”

This is exactly what I found so refreshing about Angleberger’s book. Living in a trailer park, having parents who work unglamorous jobs and friends of different and often-ridiculed religions – this is all the default, not the subject matter. (And neither is Marilla’s blackness, which is never mentioned in the book but is clear from the illustration on the book’s title page.)

Toward the end of his piece, Parham quotes Shonda Rhimes, “creative architect behind ABC’s Thursday-night scheduling block of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder.” In a speech she gave at a Human Rights Campaign gala, she said, “I really hate the word diversity. I have a different word: normalizing. I’m normalizing TV. I am making TV look like the world looks.”

In his own way, Angleberger is normalizing kids’ books. And, perhaps paradoxically, he does more to promote the sort of empathy in readers that so many books for kids try to (and should). Because kids don’t always need their hands held, and when, in books or on TV, they encounter characters in different circumstances than their own who nonetheless face the same problems and feel the same emotions they do, they will reach the conclusion that those differences are mostly superficial all on their own – and that, in the end, is the best possible way to learn a lesson.

. . .

To read Jason Parham’s article in the most-recent issue of WIRED – and you should – click here.

BUNNICULA, by Deborah and James Howe

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There are loads of things to love about this book. There’s the premise – a literate dog and cat who team up to uncover the mystery of a vegetable juice-sucking vampire rabbit. There’s the writing – consistently clever and perfectly paced. There’s the humor – whimsical insights into the lives of pets and carefully orchestrated, irony-packed scenes.

But the thing I might love most about BUNNICULA is the Howe’s refusal to dumb down their writing, to kid-ify their references and language. Our main characters, after all, are a dog and a cat, not a puppy and a kitten. It makes sense that Chester, a full-grown adult tabby, would develop an interest in psychiatry, and that Harold, a dog having spent many years in the company of a know-it-all, book-loving feline, would possess a strong vocabulary. This sophisticated tone is also necessary for the book as a whole – it simply wouldn’t be as good if, after being asked to accept the fact that a dog and cat can think and talk and read and write, that dog and cat didn’t think and talk and read and write in a nuanced, educated way. If you’re going to be ridiculous, you must fully commit, you must be over the top about it. Like acting or, really, any other kind of performance, halfway just doesn’t cut it.

And here, in BUNNICULA, by fully committing, by going over the top, the Howes aren’t merely doing a service to their characters and their story – they’re doing a service to their readers, too, especially the younger ones.

The books I read as a kid that stuck with me the most are the ones that, in one way or another, challenged me. There were those like The Phantom Tollbooth and The Neverending Story that forced me to confront ideas and concepts and impossible places that, before then, could’ve probably never fit inside my head, and there were those like the collections of Sherlock Holmes stories, each of which required frequent reaches for the dictionary.

Of course, I didn’t always want to pick a book and be challenged. Same as today, sometimes I just want a good story, simply and straightforwardly told.

But it’s important – it’s imperative, even – that those books that require kids to reach (either mentally, conceptually, or more literally and physically, for a dictionary or an encyclopedia or, more likely, for their iPads or laptops) are out there for them to find.

The Howes even offer a clue that they know their book might be one of these “reachers,” and encourage their readers not to despair if they don’t understand every word or get every gag. Toby, the youngest member of the Monroe family (the owners of Harold and Chester and Bunnicula), stays up late reading one night with Harold. When he finally can’t keep his eyes open any longer, the boy shuts the book a bit sadly.

“I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what happens in the next chapter,” he tells his dog. “This is a good book, Harold. It’s called Treasure Island, and it’s by a man named Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s kind of hard reading, though. I have to keep looking the big words up in the dictionary, so it’s taking me a long time to get through it . . . But it’s a really good story.”

And just in case this isn’t enough encouragement for their readers to go out and get a copy of Treasure Island for themselves, the Howes have Toby add, “It’s all about pirates and this little boy just like me.”

It helps, of course, that BUNNICULA’s big words and clever jokes are bound up in a silly, entertaining story. And no – that’s not the sugar you add to the medicine to help it go down. For kids (and at least this adult), the silliness is just as necessary and important as the vocab words.

Get a hold of BUNNICULA for yourself, or for any kids who might be interested in what their pets are up to when they head off to school or go to sleep. The book is also an excellent – and tame – introduction to the horror genre.

SPACE CASE, by Stuart Gibbs

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I have a confession to make: I judge books by their covers. And every time I’m in the library or bookstore and happen past one of Stuart Gibbs’s books’ covers, I think, “That looks like a book I’d really like.”

A few weeks ago, I finally took the next step – I plucked one of those books off the shelf and gave it a read. And it turns out my hunch was a good one.

In addition to being graced by yet another one of Lucy Ruth Cummins’s wonderful covers, SPACE CASE is an excellent read. Structurally, it’s a fairly traditional murder mystery, but with a fascinating and well-researched premise – the murder occurs on Moon Base Alpha, humankind’s first (semi)permanent non-terrestrial habitat. Our narrator, Dashiell, serves as our tour guide in this futuristic community of scientists, tech geniuses, and doctors, peppering his story with the sorts of insights into the harsher realities of life on the moon that only a twelve-year-old could offer. Within a couple of chapters, Dashiell also becomes this murder mystery’s lead investigator.

Anyone even moderately interested in space and curious about what it might really be like when we finally get beds and bathrooms installed up there on the moon will enjoy taking a dip into this fully realized world. And the mystery really is a great one – packed with characters (and suspects!) that are multi-dimensional, believably passionate and uniquely motivated. And the conclusion is satisfying, the final pages shining a light back on all those that came before it to reveal an intricate plot and a plethora of clues buried just beneath Dashiell’s casual, almost conversational narration. As if all that weren’t enough, the whole thing gets wrapped up with a final, tantalizing sentence, sure to have you running to the library or bookstore to look for a sequel.

Get this book for yourself, or for any kids in your life that like mysteries and/or have an interest in space.

And click here for more about Stuart Gibbs and his work, and here for more about Lucy Ruth Cummins and hers.

Where I’ve Been

Hi there,

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on here (five months and one week, to be exact). Perhaps you have been (or are now) wondering where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing.

Well, I’ve been writing up a storm, that’s what I’ve been doing. I also bought a house, moved into that house, spent a couple weeks in Italy, and, very recently, spent some time out in the western part of these United States.

The study of the new house (with IKEA-hacked bookcase by me).
The study of the new house (with IKEA-hacked bookcase by me).
Italy.
Italy.
Elk crossing the road in Jackson, Wyoming.
Elk crossing the road in Jackson, Wyoming.

But more pertinent to this blog – the writing. I finished up edits on the first book of my EngiNerds series, which is slated to hit shelves about one year from this very month. It will be featured, excitingly, on the Fall 2017 line of Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Division’s newest imprint, which launches this upcoming Spring.

In addition to the editing, I’ve been polishing up a handful of manuscripts that I’m now working with my agent to place, and hammering away at a bundle of other, newer projects.

And all the while, the barrenness of my blog has been nagging at the back of my brain . . .

Which is why I’ve decided to post today to let you know that I’ve recommitted myself to blog more often, and to do so with an emphasis on my reading. If you follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on Goodreads, you’ve no doubt seen that, while I may have taken a break from blogging, I certainly haven’t stopped reading (if anything, the former has gotten shoved aside in favor of the latter). But starting today, instead of merely giving the books I finish three or four or five stars (I tend to be a pretty generous star-giver, almost always rounding up), I aim to write a bit about them here.

Look for the first post later today. And if you remained subscribed to this blog despite my nearly six-month absence, thanks for sticking with me.

Jarrett