Book reviews: Just for Kids

Los Angeles Times

Mal and Chad

The Biggest, Bestest Time Ever!

Stephen McCranie

Philomel: 224 pp., $9.99 ages 9 to 12

Frankie Pickle and the Pine Run 3000

Eric Wight

Simon & Schuster: 96 pp., $9.99 ages 9 to 12


Lair of the Bat Monster

Ursula Vernon

Dial: 208 pp., $12.99 ages 9 to 12

Elementary school boys aren't known for their ability to sit still. They're even less known for their willingness to sit and read, but there are certain stories that may up the odds. For beginning readers in particular, books that are funny, adventurous and generously illustrated with pictures are more likely to do the trick. Throw in some potty humor and a talking animal or two, and that tentative reader might start to pick up books on his own, not just because his parents — or school — demand it.

"Mal and Chad: The Biggest, Bestest Time Ever!" is the kickoff to a series about a young boy named Mal and his talking dog, Chad, who experience the usual grade-school difficulties: A mother who's frustrated by her son's unwillingness to do chores, a teacher who favors other students and, of course, a school bully. While the pictures in this graphic novel are black and white, action-packed panels provide all the color that's needed to pull readers from one adventure to the next.

Each chapter centers on a different experiment revolving around the same question: What is Mal going to be when he grows up? Employing the usual imaginary tricks of the trade for young boys, Mal transforms his backpack into a jet pack and his treehouse into a time travel machine that bring Mal and Chad face to face with a T-Rex. Even the family vacuum cleaner does double duty as a device that temporarily shrinks Mal and his pup so they can spelunk in a kitchen sink overflowing with dirty dishes. Mal's highs and lows are rendered with expressive detail in a humorous and relatable story that's made even better with engaging visuals.

"Frankie Pickle and the Pine Run 3000," the second in the Frankie Pickle series, never lets a page turn without a picture. Half-graphic novel, half-illustrated chapter book, the story takes its plot from one of the oldest Cub Scout traditions: the pinewood derby. Frankie is a Possum Scout who desperately wants merit badges — he just doesn't want to do the assignments required to earn them.

Threatened with the prospect of not moving up in the ranks like the rest of his troop, Frankie decides to enter the derby to make up the merit points he lost on the knots he didn't learn to tie. And he wants to build the derby car on his own, unlike most kids who understand this is the one Scout activity where Dad's workshop is essential.

The illustrated story line shifts to graphic novel format for the racing scenes, in "Speed Racer"-esque action sequences that place Frankie in the driver's seat of his car. Author-illustrator Eric Wight pens the story with compassion and humor: Clearly he understands the motivations and fragile egos of his young audience.

Danny is a troublemaking dragon who'd rather do anything but homework in "Dragonbreath: Lair of the Bat Monster." His best friend, Wendell, is a nerdy iguana who prefers reading about adventures in a book than in personally experiencing them. In this fourth installment of the "Dragonbreath" series, the friends head into yet another far-flung adventure in some far-off land … this time to return an injured bat to the jungle.

Danny is a mythological creature who's been able to breathe fire only in dire circumstances. Like the previous Dragonbreath books — in which the friends encountered ninja frogs, Transylvanian hotdogs and other unlikely creatures — he's given that opportunity in "Lair of the Bat Monster" when he's abducted by an oversized creature who's decided, quite literally, to take the young dragon under her wing.

In a witty text illustrated with clean drawings primarily in green, black, white and blue, the reptilian odd couple make their way through the jungle, confronting their fears about getting lost and being bitten by giant bugs. Dialogue bubbles give voice to the characters' interactions, which are playfully antagonistic as they discuss their troubled circumstances and their best strategies for escape. Throughout it all is an unlikely friendship that is frequently tested but never broken.

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