One-Minute Book Reviews

June 23, 2007

Beach Books for Ages 7 and Up

Reconsidering three popular series — The Baby-sitters Club/Little Sister, The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley and The Time Warp Trio

By Janice Harayda

After finishing all those worthy titles on school reading lists, many children need their own equivalent of beach books, or light summer fare that reminds them that reading is fun. That’s especially true of 7-to-9-year-olds, who may still require a lot of help finding books they can read and enjoy on their own. Here are a few alternatives to the popular series about Junie B. Jones, a heroine some people might define as a bully — loud, rude, full of herself and, in at least one book, physically violent.

The Baby-sitters Club/Little Sister series is a spin-off of Ann M. Martin’s juggernaut, “The Baby-sitters Club,” which dominated the preteen market for much of the 1990s. In its day “The Baby-sitters Club” was, as John Lennon might have said, “bigger than Jesus” among girls roughly ages 9–11. The “Little Sister” novels are aimed at a younger group and involve Karen Brewer, a 7-year-old second grader and the sibling of club founder Kristy. Karen is the anti-Junie. As sweet as a box of S’mores, she loves her teacher, her stepfather, her pen pal and, apparently, just about everybody else. Nobody pretends that these or other Baby-sitters books are art. But they have the virtue – getting rarer every day in children’s books – of grabbing girls’ attention while dealing with characters who are actually nice to each other. Some children might even learn a few things the one I read, Baby-Sitters Little Sister #89, Karen’s Unicorn (Scholastic, 1997), illustrated by Susan Tang. In this book Karen develops a fascination with unicorns that allows Martin to introduce a bit of lore about the mythical creatures. Did you know that if you want to drink from a stream in the books “and a unicorn comes along and puts its horn into the stream, then the water will be safe to drink”? I didn’t.

The New Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley is an easy detective series in which the famous sisters solve cases, styling themselves as the “Trenchcoat Twins.” I watched only a few episodes of the Olsens’ old sitcom, Two of Kind. But on the shows I saw, Mary-Kate and Ashley were often as rude or mean as Junie. So I wouldn’t have picked up this series if a children’s librarian hadn’t suggested it as an alternative to the “Little Sister” books. I read The New Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley: The Case of the Sundae Surprise (Harper Entertainment, 2003), by Melinda Metz, and found that here the girls mostly avoided the bickering they did on their TV show. Mary-Kate and Ashley work cheerfully together to find the thief who stole their secret recipe for Creamy Orange Choco Chunk ice cream, which they had planned to enter in an invent-a-new-flavor contest. And the thief turns out to be harmless, so the twins never face real danger. The book has ten pages of ads at the back for Mary-Kate and Ashley products, including dolls and videogames.

The Time Warp Trio involves three time-traveling preteen boys who quickly became so popular after their introduction in the 1990s that they earned their own show on the Discovery Channel. I’ve read only the earliest pre-TV novels, which have a witty text by Jon Scieszka and whimsical black-and-white illustrations and Lane Smith. These books included The Not-So-Jolly Roger (Viking, 1991), in which the boys join the ship of the pirate Blackbeard, and Your Mother Was a Neanderthal (Viking, 1993) in which they travel to the Stone Age. And they were terrific and far above the Baby-sitters and Mary-Kate and Ashley books. (The newer, post-TV books have a different design and may involve other changes.) These novels also appeal to many children beyond the second or third grade.

Some of these series may be hard to find in stores, but libraries and online sources usually have at least a few titles in each. And because they’re available in inexpensive paperback editions, there’s no need to worry about sunscreen streaks on the pages.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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