Going for mass-market appeal, three new middle-grade series, respectively, stake claim in the gross-out genre, borrow heavily from another international bestselling series, and woo the lucrative Disney princess–loving crowd.
Scholastic Canada has brought together veteran children’s writers – Kevin Sylvester, Ted Staunton, Lesley Livingston, and Richard Scrimger – for a four-book series, the Almost Epic Squad. In the first instalment, Mucus Mayhem, by Sylvester and illustrator Britt Wilson, the “squad” is exposed, as babies, to an atomic chemical dust.
Fast-forward a little over a decade and one of those babes, Jess Flem, is now a video-game addict who suffers from a wide array of allergies and a non-stop runny nose. (Each book in the series will focus on one almost-epic character.) On the eve of Jess’s 13th birthday, things get weird. She is being followed by a blimp, her parents have disappeared, and suddenly she can call upon her used tissues to do her bidding – they’ll transform into various creatures and clean her room or fight off bad guys. Although, in this case, the baddies are gals – a nurse and a babysitter, who were one-time caretakers of the infants.
While female heroes and villains take the lead in Mucus Mayhem, the most dynamic character is Jess’s best friend, Cliff, a trumpet-playing amateur Latin scholar, who urges Jess to stop obsessing about video games, broaden her vocabulary, and engage in the (dangerous) world around them. The novel’s non-stop action and grodiness will appeal to many, and Cliff’s wit and charm will carry the book for those who are just not that into snot.
Billy Stuart and the Zintrepids debuted as a French-language series in 2011 and is only now being translated into English. Yet, it seems to be a knock-off of the popular Geronimo Stilton series (which itself was translated from Italian to English starting in 2004). Both books are about curious time-travelling wildlife characters – Billy is a kilt-wearing raccoon; Geronimo a mouse – and incorporate eye-catching colours, fonts, and symbols to draw the readers attention to highlighted words on the page.
What differentiates Billy Stuart, though, is how much easier the story is to follow than anything in the Stilton series – and how much better the writing is. While the Stilton books are long-winded and filled with made-up words and abstract meandering storylines, the first Billy Stuart instalment is busy but not convoluted. Billy has received a letter from his grandfather asking him to meet in a nearby cave, where the elder has found a time-travel portal. Billy and his friends go to the cave, are hounded by a demon bat, and, just when they think they’re safe, wander into a different time period. The book ends on this anti-climatic cliffhanger. And readers can assume more Billy titles will soon follow – as Bergeron has already written 12 in French.
There are more feelings than action in The Princess and the Absolutely Not a Princess, which is the first book in the Miranda and Maude series by American writer Emma Wunsch and Toronto illustrator Jessika von Innerebner. Miranda is an unhappy princess, who, after her royal tutor retires, is sent to public school. There, she encounters another out-of-sorts classmate, Maude, an aspiring social-justice advocate who’s having trouble mixing well with “the People.”
Miranda and Maude get off to a rocky start: the princess is rude and Maude is bitter. Maude writes something nasty in her journal about Miranda, who – after seeing it – invites everyone to her royal birthday party except Maude. The bash is a bust and both girls feel guilty. And that’s when the two outcasts connect and a beautiful friendship ensues.
There are plenty of well-trodden stereotypes here, including pink princesses, chicken-raising hippies, out-of-touch royals, and the fact that the girls eventually come together over a mutual love of candy. And it’s hard to get behind a book with a title that offers readers only two choices of hero – princess or not a princess. But it’s not the worst thing to have a story that’ll hook those tiara-loving early readers and give them something more substantial. For example, the novel provides an intro to social-justice education – as demonstrated by Maude’s well-organized, class-wide boycott of Miranda’s party. It will be fascinating to watch how the author and illustrator continue to build age-appropriate tension around Maude’s egalitarian views and Miranda’s to-the-castle-born privilege.