Reviews of "Science Fair" and "The Maze of Bones"

Science and history are made fun in these lively tales.

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Any parents who have stayed up until 1 a.m. getting glue in their hair and giving themselves vicious paper cuts with poster board will have no trouble accepting the premise of Dave Barry’s and Ridley Pearson’s new novel: The science fair is rigged.

In Science Fair, the stakes are high at Hubble Middle School. Thanks to a donation by an alumnus who made a fortune sending smells over the Internet, first prize is $5,000.

Eighth-grader Toby Harbin­ger is desperate to win, because he sold his dad’s original “Star Wars” blaster on eBay – to a guy who thinks he’s actually Darth Vader and wants his money back.

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Unfortunately, the rich kids at Manor Estates always take home first place, and Toby has just discovered the reason: They buy elaborate plans from an unknown source and then pay the übergeek who runs the Science Nook to make them up for them. (Parental help is for suckers.)

But this year, the plans call for classified technology, and the projects are part of a semifiendish scheme to take down the US government.

Barry and Pearson have teamed up before on their sequels to “Peter Pan” (“Peter and the Starcatchers,” etc.), but this is the first time they’ve set their partnership in the real world.

The occasional delicious bit of satire
“Science Fair,” with its combination of broad humor and action, is likely to appeal to fans of Carl Hiaasen’s “Hoot.” As a bonus, there’s the occasional nugget of satire adding heft to jokes about exploding eggplants, stinky cheese, and small republics suffering from a shortage of vowels. (Although The Onion did that better about a decade ago).

Any barb aimed at the overreaching goals of helicopter parents (and the unfortunates trapped in their rotating blades) hits the mark.

Barry and Pearson are almost effortlessly in touch with their inner middle-schooler, and it’s impossible not to root for a kid as pelted by unfairness as Toby. Plus, there’s a levitating frog named Fester.

Another writer who knows how to tap into the psyches of fourth- and fifth-graders is Rick Riordan (“The Lightning Thief”), architect of “The 39 Clues,” a new 10-book mystery-adventure series that comes complete with its own website (“Win Over $100,000 in Prizes!”) and collectible cards.

Scholastic, having run out of books starring boy wizards, is hoping for another commercial phenom with “The 39 Clues.”

I’m all for Hitchcockian references, but the relentless marketing – perhaps unfairly – makes The Maze of Bones feel as manufactured as a Ford Taurus.

Fourth graders probably won’t notice or care, and they’ll get a kick out of hunting for clues online and collecting cards. (It’s Webkinz – only not fuzzy!)

But part of the excitement of Harry Potter and the Lemony Snicket series was that kids chose them for themselves. The add-ons came later.

The plot follows two plucky, penniless orphans (are there any other kind?) as they engage in an Amazing Race-type scavenger hunt to save the world. Siblings Amy and Dan belong to the

Cahill clan, which has “had a greater impact on human civilization than any other family in history.” (Uh, sure.)

After their Great-Aunt Grace dies, she stipulates in her will that her heirs can choose between (everybody, get your Dr. Evil voices ready) $1 million or the first of 39 clues.

Naturally, Amy and Dan choose excitement over filthy lucre. The other competitors are all cardboard types: wealthy snobs, a family of jocks, a child star.

A delightful dose of history
Once the setup is past, the book settles into a nicely brisk adventure story with lots of globetrotting, double crosses, nonfatal bombings, references to Ben Franklin, and occasional appearances by an Egyptian Mau cat.

The history is delightful, and it’s surrounded by so many poison fingernails and dart guns that kids may not even notice.

“The Maze of Bones” is hardly original, but it has the potential to be a lot of fun. (Amy and Dan only get as far as the second clue, so there’s a lot of globe still to trot.)

At various points, the story reminded me of other, more brilliant books – from “The Westing Game” to “Harry Potter.” It’s more a junior version of “National Treasure” than “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – a good time, but ultimately derivative.

If you want to read a great children’s book about a mysterious will, try Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game.” You won’t get a website or game cards as accessories, but it does come with a Newbery Medal and a terrific twist ending.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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