CM . . .
. Volume VIII Number 6 . . . . November 16, 2001
Two new books in "The Kids from Monkey Mountain" series focus on secondary characters introduced in three chapter books released in 2000. All the characters are students in Room Nine, Doberman School. Author Staunton has cleverly recycled the plots of the initial books, but using the viewpoints of Mary Beth (Princess) and Ryan (Second Banana). By bringing these characters to the forefront, he allows us to become emotionally involved with them while some of the original characters recede into more minor roles. Events then move forward to include the various kids' participation in the Hope Springs fall fair and the town theatre group's latest productions. The stage is also set for additional books using the same technique.
In Princess, Mary Beth goes to great lengths planning ways to avoid dressing up (deliberately spilling gravy on her best dress, borrowing t-shirts so she can change at school). The "princess look" is something her mother insists on, along with dance classes, recitals at the local talent show and auditions with the Hope Springs theatre group. Mary Beth would rather draw and would gladly trade in her dresses on a horse. Her scheming to get out of the spotlight gathers momentum as the latest play auditions approach: a concoction of fake barf should do the trick. Then her mother decides to audition too. Mary Beth gratefully takes on a minor role. Now if she can just convince her mother to let her take those art lessons she really wants instead.
In Second Banana, Ryan is desperate enough to fit in at school that he tries linking up with prankster Travis. He realizes he's still as likely as anyone else to become the object of Travis's jokes, but at least he's included. Ryan even has a few ideas of his own that he thinks are funnier than those of Travis. Trouble is, they usually backfire, and somehow Travis gets all the laughs. When he discovers the comedy act he and Travis were planning has a secret surprise ending - a pie in the face for Ryan - he begins to suspect his true talent lies elsewhere. He decides to try out for the big production of "Oliver" that the town theatre group is presenting. Even though he doesn't get the part he wants - "you gave the best reading...but your singing and dancing are lousy"- Ryan knows he's on the right track.
These new main characters live up to the standard set in the previous books. They are realistic and 3-dimensional. Both are trying to change their present, "intolerable" roles, a decision which invites reader sympathy. Interest in the character of Mary Beth comes as we quickly see she doesn't fit the "Princess" stereotype. Ryan gains our support as his conscience emerges while he tries to model himself after Travis. An interesting comparison might be made between the (now secondary) character of Travis as he first appeared in a previous book (comic villain, mischievous but not uncaring) and the slightly more distant view of him in this story (seems to flaunt his cleverness, meaner); some of his earlier appeal diminishes with his unfair treatment of Ryan. Ryan, on the other hand, is not as memorable. The dialogue has a natural feel for the most part. References by Ryan to Laurel and Hardy and Monty Python may be over the heads of the youngest readers, however. And there are examples in Princess where the tone seems rather adult: page 13, "...all this planning had left [Mary Beth] a little on edge, and a clothes argument always made her feel bruised...", and on page 55 readers may lack the experience needed to imagine "an unruly amoeba."
Different writing styles have been used in each book. Mary Beth's concerns in Princess are revealed through journal entries with short responses by her teacher. Once past the slow beginning, where she recites a list of facts about herself and others, intermittent sections of narrative move the story along. Chapter 2 could have been an effective opening, a scene in which Mary Beth's actions give us clear insight into her objectives. Second Banana employs the present tense, a technique that works well to elicit empathy for the main character. This time, we are privy to the thought processes of a loner with low self-esteem who struggles to belong among his peers.
The focus of the plot in Princess, Mary Beth's angst about wearing dresses, will likely limit the readership to girls. The topic doesn't draw one in with quite the same effect, or easy humour, as other books in this series. The author seems most comfortable with a male protagonist in a character driven story.
The publisher has chosen a new illustrator for these two books. The drawings are more appealing, although those in Second Banana show more action than the less exciting "people poses" in Princess.
Richardson is a former Teacher-librarian and a published children's
writer of fiction and nonfiction, living in BC.
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