Review by New York Times Review
Whats the best way to make tweens laugh? It may be books that find the comedy in coming of age. MEL BROOKS SAID IT BEST. "To me, tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." When you're 12, though, the line between comedy and tragedy can thin to the point of translucence. Teetering on the cusp of adolescence, many kids feel that compared with the threat of embarrassment, walking into an open sewer is rather enticing. Yet the freshest fears yield the greatest comedic bounty. True schadenfreude is built on seeing your fellow humans fail with epic splendor. That's where books come in. Rather than encourage average kids' bloodthirsty instinct to cheer for the downfall of their friends and neighbors, let them delve into the fiascos of fictional characters. Three funny new novels do precisely that, appealing to kids' inclination to laugh at others' foibles and, maybe in the course of things, themselves. TO THE THREE FRIENDS in Caroline Cala's BEST BABYSITTERS EVER (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp., $13.99; ages 9 to 12), there's nothing funny about being broke and filled with an overwhelming desire to pull off the greatest mutual 13th-birthday party in history. When Malia Twiggs (named after a former first daughter and aware it "sounded kind of bootleg") stumbles on an ancient, crumbling edition of "Kristy's Great Idea," the first of Ann M. Martin's classic Baby-Sitters Club books, it's not long before she's roped her buddies Dot and Bree into updating the outdated concept. But how do you adapt a text from an era of corded phones and inexplicable loafer/vest combos to a world of babysitting apps, viral videos and parents wanting to pay via Venmo? Sure, the Baby-Sitters Club books have been successfully adapted into graphic novels that today's kids gobble up, but given that "Best Babysitters Ever" plays off some serious '80s nostalgia, a question lurks: Is the book bound to entice parents and librarians who harbor dear memories of cuddling up with their own super-special editions, more than it will speak to children? Happily, Cala manages to provide hilarity that both the intended audience and the snooping adults will appreciate on their own levels. From the start of this debut novel, Cala flexes her prodigious comedic muscles, managing to render the three friends both as sympathetic heroines and as the victims of lives more humorous than they would like. In the course of things adults are reduced to two-dimensional cutouts, particularly Dot's mother, a hippie who acts like a walk-on from "I Love You Alice B. Tokias." As the girls babysit more, things go worse and worse (aided in no small part by their utter lack of interest in wrangling children not much younger than themselves). By the time they score a massive family-reunion job, their careers end in a hilarious brouhaha involving glorious destruction and property damage. They may never get another babysitting gig, but you're hooked on their story for life. PERHAPS MALIA, dot and bree will consider alternative methods of collaboration, like writing a book together. The wellknown adult author Meg Wolitzer (whose Y.A. books include, most recently, "Belzhar") and her real-life bud Holly Goldberg Sloan ("Counting by 7's," "Short") did just that, resulting in to night OWL FROM DOGFISH (Dial, 320 pp., $17.99; ages 9 to 12). Told in a series of frantic emails and other methods of correspondence, the book chronicles the doomed love story of two men and their canny daughters. Informed by their single dads that they will soon be sisters (despite having never met), the outgoing Bett and the guarded Avery join forces to rend asunder their parents' romantic plans. When the girls attend a summer camp together and bond, the book takes a right-hand turn toward "Parent Trap" territory. A fraught trip to China wrecks the dads' relationship, but by then the girls want to force the incompatible couple back together. Whether or not they've watched "The Parent Trap," young readers who identify with Avery and Bett will want to see their fathers prove that true love conquers all. But a sneaky twist at the novel's end makes it infinitely clear that sometimes the happiness we claim to want for others is instead a projection of our own wants and needs. Built on a foundation of absurdity, coincidence and the occasional rather good one-liner, the novel manages the difficult balancing act of using increasingly ridiculous, and often funny, situations to drill home the idea that every close relationship takes hard work, particularly when things start going south. At the same time, the authors attend closely to the perceptions and interpretations of its young characters - so much so that when Avery extols stories told by unreliable narrators ("the person telling you what happened can't be trusted with the facts and you have to figure it out"), you should pay attention. WHEN BETT AND AVERY Start doubting their own friendship in the wake of their fathers' split, they have the option of never seeing each other again. Not so the woeful putz Liam and his younger siblings in Gennifer Choldenko's one-third nerd (Wendy Lamb, 224 pp., $16.99; ages 9 to 12). When you're a kid, family isn't something you get to choose. After all, Liam didn't have any say in his parents' divorce. Now he spends 90 percent of his time worrying what his classmates think of him and the remaining 10 percent worrying what his little sister Dakota (a full-fledged third-grade nerd with an unfortunate tendency to put urinerelated experiments in the family fridge) will do to embarrass him. His youngest sister, Izzy, has Down syndrome, a condition that, to his (perhaps unbelievable) credit, Liam doesn't find embarrassing at all. When their beloved, and incontinent, German shepherd has to clean up her act or face eviction by the family's crotchety landlord, the siblings seek to keep intact what little family they have. Choldenko doesn't go for the belly laughs found in Cala's and Sloan and Wolitzer's books, in part, perhaps, because she's set the stage squarely in workingclass America, where the price of a pet surgery (to solve Cupcake's problem) is no laughing matter. Nonetheless, the author sneaks in amusing moments that might catch young readers off-guard, as when we learn that Dakota once shaved off her eyebrows "to see if they served a purpose on her face," or when newspapers are placed in context as "how people used to find out things before cars but after dinosaurs." Ultimately, the humor in "One-Third Nerd" stems from Liam's relationship with Dakota. While she lunges boldly forward with plans to save the family dog, merrily disregarding common sense or her siblings' feelings - selling their personal treasures on eBay is, to her mind, a logical sacrifice on their parts - Liam trails behind in a state of high exasperation, stuck on one emotional setting, while his sister has a one-track mind. The women writing these novels are only slightly impeded by the inconvenient fact that for middle-grade comedy to bloom, it must be bounced off the fraught emotions of the prepubescent. Characters must glean meaning in the midst of the ridiculous. Choldenko adheres most closely to the serious, even as she's giving her chapters titles like "Licking Toilet Seats and Other Problems." Sloan and Wolitzer throw a serious accident into the book's third act, upping the tension but preventing the book from a final return to frothy humor. And though "Best Babysitters Ever," with its trail of gut-busters, may appear to be the least serious of the three, even that book deals with feelings of abandonment and loneliness, proving that tragedy plus time-honored humiliations equals comedy. Kids laugh that they may not weep, but who says you have to choose? Elizabeth bird is the editor of "Funny Girl," an anthology of funny female writers for kids. She blogs about children's books at School Library Journal's A Fuse #8 Production.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [January 27, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review
Fifth-grader Liam is used to being the responsible one. With mom and dad divorced, it's his job to rein in his two younger sisters: the ever-precocious second-grader Dakota, whose science experiments rattle the neighbors, and first-grader Izzy, who has Down syndrome. But what's wreaking havoc on Liam most of all lately is his beloved pooch, Cupcake, who can't seem to refrain from peeing all over their basement apartment. Unfortunately, their elderly landlord, Mr. Torpse, says Cupcake's got to go if they can't get this situation under control, so Liam and his sisters are on it. Choldenko packs a lot into this slim volume, as Liam also struggles with his family's financial situation not imperiled, exactly, but enough to worry him and a new foe in tennis, who just so happens to be super wealthy. Liam's concerns are common for young readers, who will find much to relate to in this slice-of-life story. Expressive and amusing, Ceulemans' illustrations enhance the reading experience in a book perfect for classroom read-alouds. Simply endearing.--Jennifer Barnes Copyright 2018 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Fifth grader Liam lives in a basement apartment with his mom, his two younger sisters (promising third grade scientist/resident nerd Dakota and second grade expert hugger Izzy), and their accident-prone German shepherd, Cupcake. Cupcake's bathroom issues push their cranky upstairs neighbor and landlord, Mr. Torpse (also known as Torpse the Corpse), to an ultimatum: either Cupcake goes or the whole family must. Though their divorced mother and father implore the siblings to accept that Cupcake must be rehomed, the kids carry out schemes to keep the dog. Black-and-white spot illustrations by Ceulemans faithfully depict the unique personalities of Liam's siblings and friends, including new kid Moses, whom Liam desperately wants to impress. Choldenko (the Al Capone at Alcatraz series) subtly emphasizes Liam's stress about being the responsible, oldest sibling; his parents' divorce; and insecurity about the family's modest lifestyle. It is Liam's quiet thoughtfulness and relationship with his sisters, especially his interest in their lives-Izzy's Down syndrome social group "the Forty-Sevens" and Dakota's impulsive experiments-that let him shine just as bright as his two extroverted sisters. Ages 8-12. Author's agent: Elizabeth Harding, Curtis Brown. Illustrator's agent: Hannah Whitty, Plum Pudding Illustration. (Jan.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
Best known for her Tales from Alcatraz series, Choldenko writes for a slightly younger set in this celebration of family ingenuity.It's hard enough that fifth-grader Liam's parents divorced and now he, his two younger sisters, and their single mom live in an apartment in need of repair. Their beloved dog, Cupcake, won't stop peeing on the rug, and the landlord has given them three weeks to get rid of the dogor they're all out. Episodic chapters balance depictions of the harsh realities of divorce and financial changes with amusing trial-and-error escapades as the siblings hatch moneymaking schemes to fund expensive vet tests. Along the way, the personality of each sibling shines through. Faced with more responsibility than other kids his age, Liam just wants to play tennis as well as Roger Federeror at least to keep up with Moses, a new student who seems to have it all. Third-grader and total nerd Dakota is biding her time until she can cure cancer. Second-grader and avid hugger Izzy has Down syndrome, and her inclusion is not only seamless, but integral to the plot. Even when getting on each other's nerves, they rally together when it matters most. Expressive black-line art depicts their lovable antics as well as members from their diverse community. Liam and his family are white; his best friend, Dodge, has brown skin and is likely of Latinx heritage, and Moses presents black, among other secondary characters of color.Reminiscent of Judy Blume's work, this endearing story will make many children laugh and allow some to see a part of themselves. (Fiction. 8-12) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.