Sunday, March 28, 2010

Two books about adventures with friends

O'Connor, Barbara. The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis. Frances Foster Books/FSG, 2009.

Roberts, Ken. Thumb and the Bad Guys. Groundwood Books, 2009.

Every shy and introspective sort of person needs the kind of friend who, by the sheer force of his or her powerful indifference to rules and regulations and the possibility of punishment and public shame, encourages the normally reticent person to Break the Rules.

And so it is with Popeye and Elvis. Popeye lives with his grandma Velma and his good-for-nothing Uncle Dooley (who accidentally shot Popeye in the eye with a BB gun when Popeye was three years old - hence the name) in tiny Fayette, South Carolina, where everything is always the same. Boring. And then a big old motor home gets stuck in the mud near Popeye's house, bringing Elvis (and his 5 younger siblings) into Popeye's life for a while.

Elvis is taciturn (one of Popeye's Velma-taught vocabulary words), rebellious, and full of moody attitude. He is, in short, a Royal Rule Breaker and Popeye is spell-bound. And when they discover a Yoo-hoo carton turned into a perfect little boat and sailing down the creek - and it has an enigmatic note in it, too - they know they've found the perfect small adventure. Who is making these little boats?

This is a summer story full of squabbling little kids, tired old dogs, and eccentric Southern folks with odd names. It has some terrific insults ("hog-stinkin' sack of nothin'"), some excellent vocabulary words (and some creative ways of using them, as in - referring to Velma's rage at Uncle Dooley - "The avuncular atmosphere in the house was not too good."), and a lovely, satisfying ending that is really a beginning.

It feels so timeless that, if it weren't for the small drink boxes of Yoo-hoo and a mention of large plastic bottles of soda, I'd guess this took place in the 50's - there are no computers or cell phones in evidence, just a couple of tv sets.

Also timeless is Thumb and the Bad Guys, set in the tiny Canadian seaside village of New Auckland. If it weren't for a mention of Harry Potter, I'd have been certain that this was set in an earlier decade - and certainly the illustrations by Leanne Franson depict girls and women in cats-eye glasses and other retro attire.

Thumb and Susan are as bored as Popeye was, and it's because nothing exciting ever happens in their town. What they need, Thumb decides, is a Bad Guy. And sure enough, they find one. Kirk McKenna has not only some very odd personal habits but has also been sneaking around in a very nefarious manner. And then the kids get a weird new teacher - why on earth would anyone want to come to their boring village if not for some sinister purpose? It turns out that there is a secret - and the whole town is in on it.

This is a particularly quiet and old-fashioned kind of tale, with plenty of charm and slightly offbeat humor. What is with the teacher and her bathing cap wig? And Kirk's nasty obsession with spitting? And of course there is the reason Thumb got his nickname...

Both of these tales will offer kids a short but hugely entertaining trip to quiet little places where nothing ever happens.

Or DOES it?

Both books are quite short, but are great for grades 3 to 5.

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