When one book just isn't enough

A look at three new additions to popular children's book series for readers ages 4–9.

I have written a grand total of one fan letter in my life. I was 8. A fifth-grade friend, far more worldly than myself (she owned the soundtrack to "Grease" and a Joan Jett album), obtained the address of the publisher of the Trixie Belden mystery series. We sent off a carefully worded letter to the author expressing our deep gratitude for the Bob-whites of the Glen, and waited.

Weeks later, we received a form letter from the publicity department, explaining that "Kathryn Kenny" didn't exist. Instead, the letter explained, a factory of ghost writers churned out the 39 books starring the teenage sleuth.

Disillusioned doesn't even begin to cover it – it may have been days before I could bring myself to return to Crabapple Farm.

Heading my son's prospective list of celebrity Thank You notes is Mary Pope Osborne, author of The Magic Tree House series. He has followed siblings Jack and Annie from the Cretaceous Period to Camelot, and at adventure No. 36, "Blizzard of the Blue Moon," he shows no signs that his allegiance is flagging. The difference is that Pope Osborne actually writes all the books herself.

The series is a phenomenon that can be a huge blessing to both author (a chance to finally let that substitute teaching gig go) and readers (Eighteen Dragon Slayers' Academy books? Go Wiglaf!)

All you need is a character beloved enough to carry readers through book after book – and an imagination flexible enough to craft new scrapes for them to get out of. "Harry Potter" is obviously the most successful example of the species, but by my count, the granddaddy of them all is "The Boxcar Children," which weighs in at 109 titles, plus 21 "specials." ("The Boxcar Children" is also an example of what can happen when an assembly-line mentality takes the place of genuine creativity. Gertrude Chandler Warner only wrote the first 19 books, and the continuity errors later on can make alert readers shudder.)

One of the more delightful series for third- and fourth-graders stars Winnie Fletcher, a girl with two best friends, a loving dad, and a talent for drawing. In her third book, Winnie at Her Best, all of these elements are on display. Her friend Vanessa won a spot in the high school play, and their buddy Zoe is representing the school at the county spelling bee. Winnie, while happy for her friends (well, mostly), just wants to be the best at something, too.

(My favorite, though, is still the second book, "Truly Winnie." When Winnie goes away to summer camp, she finds herself telling fibs about her mother, who died just after Winnie was born. She tells her cabin mates that her mom is still alive and a famous artist as well. When her dad shows up on Visitors' Day, Winnie must clean up the mess she has made.)

Author Jennifer Richard Jacobson does a great job of dealing with emotions like jealousy and feelings of inadequacy that children (and adults) grapple with, while keeping her tales grounded and her heroine appealing.

Jacobson also has a new addition to her Andy Shane series for first- and second-graders out this year. In Andy Shane and the Pumpkin Trick, bossy Dolores Starbuckle needs help. Tricksters have smashed her Halloween pumpkin, and she's feeling as crushed as her gourd. Andy has to find a way to stop the vandals before Dolores's big party.

First-graders who can't get enough of Franklin the turtle and Arthur the aardvark will also enjoy the Fox sisters, Zelda and Ivy. Laura McGee Kvasnosky writes slyly humorous tales (closest in tone to Arnold Lobel's wonderful "Frog and Toad") that capture how it feels to be both an older and a younger sibling – perhaps because Kvasnosky was the middle child of five. ("Sometimes ... in the Zelda role, and sometimes the Ivy.")

In the first story of Zelda and Ivy: Runaways, their dad serves cucumber sandwiches once too often. To punish him for crimes against lunchtime, the girls run away – to the backyard, where they spy on their parents (who strangely don't seem to notice they're gone).

In "The Time Capsule," each girl buries her most prized possession for "the children of the future," only to instantly regret it in the present.

And in the last tale, their neighbor Eugene, who first appeared in "Zelda and Ivy and the Boy Next Door," stops by to help invent "creative juice."

With "Andy Shane" and "Zelda and Ivy," a word of warning: The hardback books cost about $15, and take roughly 15 minutes from beginning to end. If there aren't going to be many repeat read-throughs at your house, it might be economically advisable to wait for the paperbacks.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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