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Starting Something

Every series has to start somewhere and it’s always exciting, to me at least, to find a series I’ll really enjoy. And I tend to encourage kids to read series. If they become invested in a character, they’re more likely to want to pick up the next book and the next, and read and read and read. And that’s the goal.

Unfortunately, many of the series starts I’ve read recently haven’t charmed me. I had great hopes, based on the title alone, for The Great Hamster Massacre by Katie Davies. The book sets us up for what will be more “investigations” done by Anna, her younger brother Tom, and Anna’s best friend Suzanne. But there isn’t any real mystery (spoiler alert: a hamster sometimes eats its young) and we’re left with what is supposed to be an amusing buddy book. But it’s not. None of the characters are compelling and Suzanne’s brutish father is actually a bit scary.

The Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt, too, promised to be engaging, but Nanny isn’t fun. Not really. Yes, she lets the kids eat chocolate all day, but that gets tiring. And her adventures aren’t anything special. They’re just about tricking people. I’d like to think more can be done with a pig as a nanny.

Liar, Liar by the prolific Gary Paulsen is OK, but didactic: Kevin, the protagonist, lies to everyone, gets into loads of trouble because of it, and has to make amends. He learned his lesson! Perhaps if Kevin were more likable, the lesson wouldn’t be so onerous, but instead you just want Kevin to not lie. In the next book in the series, Flat Broke (due out in July), Kevin gets into financial difficulties. I’m sure he’ll learn the errors of his ways there too.

Like most of the world (I mean that), I love Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin. So I was looking forward to The Trouble With Chickens, her first foray out of picture books and into juvenile fiction. And the premise seems great: a detective noir series with great dane J.J. Tully as a former police dog turned investigator. The book starts out strong, with a Sam Spade voice: “It was hot, sunny day when I met that crazy chicken. So hot that sometimes I think the whole thing may have been a mirage. But mirages don’t have chicken breath, mister.” But, confusingly, J.J. doesn’t narrate all of the chapters. Part way through, another dog jumps in and the only clue to the change is an icon at the top of the chapter. For young readers (and me!), this was quite confusing. It’s a shame, really, because otherwise the book is fun and the mystery turns out to be amusing.

Instead of those books, I would steer kids to two other series starts. “The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger, surprised me because of how well it captures the pre-teen boy voice. One rather dorky kid is able to give other boys advice, albeit through the thoughts and voice of the paper-folded Yoda he made. The format of the book is appealing too: A boy’s journal-like account of the various events that prove Origami Yoda is truly wise, edited by two other friends (one a skeptic, one contributing artwork). I’m looking forward to the next book: Darth Paper Strikes Back (naturally).

I also like Cinderella Smith – about a young girl who is called Cinderella not for the obvious reasons. Rather, she often loses shoes. Stephanie Barden’s Cinderella is good, but not perfect. She has foibles. And her friends (and frenemies) do too. The story, which is hinged on whether Cinderella will get the lead in the fall dance recital – if only she finds her missing ballet shoe in time! -- almost falters because Cinderella seems too good and one of her friends verges on being too bad. But Cinderella stays likable.

That’s the key, I guess, the character (or characters) should be strong enough and likable enough to entice you to follow them to their next adventure.

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