Matthew Martin is back—in a rather disappointing follow-up to Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes (1989). After an introductory episode about making a mummy for a class project (with predictably disastrous results), the most prominent story element here involves Matthew's class's efforts to raise money to save the land of their muchloved school visitor, Mrs. Nichols, which she might have to sell to pay medical bills. Danziger's wit is often on target, and she continues to have a precise ear for the pungencies of grade-school humor; but her habit of switching points of view to comment on the action, while sometimes amusing, more often seems arch. In sum, a series of funny episodes that don't really coalesce but are still very entertaining.
Amber Brown fans will rejoice; against all odds, their favorite protagonist is back.
After Paula Danziger passed away in 2004, it looked like readers would never find out how things would work out for Amber as her mother faced remarriage and a move to a new house. Through the efforts of two of Danziger's author friends, Amber has returned, with her funny, often slightly ironic, first-person voice that perfectly captures the tribulations and triumphs of the middle-grade years. Assigned to create a personal budget for a million dollars, she sets aside $25,000 to provide for "anti-nose-picking therapy for Fredrich Allen," a classmate. He becomes less easy to mock when she gets to know him better, since it turns out her mother and fiancé Max are going to get married at the Allens' summer camp to save money, a plan Amber dreamed up. What's harder for Amber is trying to find comfortable middle ground between her father and her mother's wedding plans. She's trying not to take sides but sometimes finds herself caught between them, even in their mostly amicable split, a problem she good-naturedly deals with, setting a fine example for kids in the same position. Simple, often humorous illustrations completely capture the gentle spirit of the tale.
Fully faithful to the voice Danziger gave Amber Brown, this visit with an old friend will totally satisfy readers.
(afterword by Danziger's niece, "the real Amber Brown")
Matthew Martin, 11, last met in Make Like a Tree and Leave (1990), faces reality when his parents decree that he must earn half the money to buy the expensive computer program he craves. After considering renting out sister Amanda's room while she's at camp, he settles on mowing lawns and survives a hilarious session of baby-sitting. Friend Joshua joins him in washing windshields at a traffic light; money rolls in until their parents find out and they are forced to give their profits to charity. Then girlfriend Jill suggests marketing computer-made cards, posters, etc., and "Ima Card, Ink" is successfully in business. A smooth, rapid read, lightly salted with Matthew's trademark had puns and the tasteless jokes so appealing to kids. Danziger's sure touch with dialogue, pixie humor, and unobtrusive ability to tuck in moral messages nicely complement the warm portrait of Matthew's parents and their relationship with their children. (Fiction. 9-12)
As Amber tells he, teasing third-grade classmates, she's not a crayon color but a girl — messy but well adjusted, lucky in a teacher who makes a game of studying other countries, trying to forget that best-friend Justin is moving to Alabama as soon as his parents can sell their house. When they do, Justin and Amber — whose own parents' divorce makes this new separation even more painful — fall into a silly quarrel; still, with a little sympathetic encouragement from the adults, they realize that its true cause is their dejection about the move and make up just before Justin leaves. The familiar story is nicely individualized in Amber's buoyant, authentically childlike narration; it's grand to have Danziger add books for younger readers to her many popular titles for the older crowd. (Fiction. 6-9)
Completing sixth grade, Matthew notices that "everything is getting so complicated...everything around him is changing": older sister Amanda is hostile and rebellious; his parents appear publicly in weird costumes for his mother's message-delivery service. Here, although Matthew's thoughts are still as funny as they were in Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes (1989), his comments and actions are more restrained. He battles with Amanda and classmate Vanessa, but he notices a change in his feelings about girls; he goes on his first date with Jil, but then, during a class trip, peer pressure causes them to quarrel as they struggle to maintain a balance between time together and with others. As sixth grade ends, Matthew "can't wait to see where [Spaceship Earth] takes him next." Beneath the lighthearted surface are messages sure to strike responses from many children. Danziger explains that "ecosystems deal with how one thing affects another"; her book dramatizes the definition in terms of relationships as well as the environment. This third Matthew story stands alone, but will have readers asking for the others. (Fiction. 8-12)
Teenage Kendra Kaye and her family fly to London for Christmas, where they'll see dreamboat Frank Lee, her family's summer house guest in New York in Remember Me to Harold Square (1987). As in the previous book, the kids are sent off on elaborate scavenger hunts, designed by their parents to help them explore the city. Presumably the hunt is also meant to keep the young lovers from getting involved, since Kendra's ten-year-old brother, O.K., is required to tag along (as well as two young English kids, Colin and Emma, the children of Kendra's aunt's fiance). This cumbersome plot device gets scuttled towards the end, when the kids rebel and refuse to collect any more trivia; Kendra's overprotective parents finally grant her some freedom, acknowledging her maturity. While veteran author Danziger zeroes in on certain abiding adolescent worries, this book doesn't address deeper issues, and her zippy, one-liners start to grate on the nerves. Kendra and Frank yearn to be together and steal a lot of kisses, but their relationship doesn't go anywhere; at one point, Kendra is put off by Frank's oafish behavior, but this promising conflict gets dropped. The YA equivalent of popcorn: After an hour, you'll forget you ever read it. (Fiction. 10-14)
Now that her best friend has moved away, Amber (Amber Brown Is not a Crayon, 1994, etc.) is facing fourth grade and the difficulty of finding a new best friend in a class where everyone has already paired off. Meanwhile Amber's mom, recently divorced, is finding her own new best friend, Max, and Amber doesn't like it one bit. At once lighthearted and poignant, this is a clever continuation of Amber's funny first-person narration of the everyday ups and downs of her life. Everything in the story is slightly idealized: Her teachers are gifted, her mom is kind, Max is understanding, and Amber is witty beyond her years. Seasoned with puns and repartee, and leavened with a bit of insight, this easy chapter book is a thoroughly enjoyable read. (Fiction. 8-10)
This Amber Brown easy reader, aimed at younger readers than the originals, feels choppy and a little too involved with bathroom humor for its own good, even considering the audience. Amber and her pal Justin are headed to the mountains for a vacation with their moms and Justin's three-year-old brother Danny. The journey starts out with the kids horsing around in the car—“Poke a nose. Poke a nose," they guffaw, headed as they are for the Poconos—and then Danny "making a really disgusting sound": Yup, Danny's put his diapers to good use. When they finally arrive, Amber and Justin head for the swimming pool, though Amber isn't much of a swimmer, unlike Justin, who cavorts like a fish. "Actually, Justin and I call it the swimming 'ool' because our moms told us that there must not be any pee in the pool." (That passes for the educational content of the book, that and "Oh dear—a deer.") Later, they have a sleep-out with their fathers, who have come for the weekend, which is crashed by the uninvited Danny, but a neat time is had by all. Ross's warm artwork feels lost in Danziger's seemingly random text that spends most of its time taking stabs at infantile humor. On the other hand, this and its companion, It's Justin Time, Amber Brown (ISBN 0-399-23470-5), will serve as primers for the Captain Underpants crowd. (Easy reader. 5-8)
Danziger (What a Trip, Amber Brown, 2001, etc.) breaks new ground with this amusing middle-school story illustrated in a novel way—with scrapbook art by the author done in the style of the sixth-grade narrator, Skate Tate. (Scrapbooking is the popular hobby of compiling photo albums and decorating the pages with stickers and special papers.) In diary-like fashion, Skate tells the story of her first stressful months at Biddle Middle School, when she must adjust to a long bus ride, a new building, different friends, and the sudden death of her adored globetrotting relative called GUM (the family nickname for Great-Uncle Mort). The first-person story is told in present tense, mainly in one-sentence paragraphs that approach stream-of-consciousness mode, supplemented with the addition of a few school assignments and scrapbook entries in different typefaces. Skate has lots of typical sixth-grade worries about her place at school and with her friend, but she has a solid, happy family life, and her wise great-uncle helps her with her self-confidence issues in some creative ways that support Skate’s budding talent as an artist. A 32-page, full-color insert of sample scrapbook pages shows photographs of Skate and her family and friends (using friends of the author for the models), including several pages detailing a family trip to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Danziger creates a believable, humorous world for Skate and her family, and GUM is a character anyone would love to have as a relative. The author’s scrapbook art may inspire readers to try crafting their own documentary pages. (Fiction. 9-11)
It’s always a fair day or better with the irrepressible Amber Brown around. In this third addition to the easy reader A Is for Amber series, Danziger (Get Ready for Second Grade, Amber Brown, above, etc.) sends Amber and her best friend Justin off to the Poconos (or Poke-a-Nose, in Amber-speak) with their families on vacation. Amber’s parents have been fighting (in back-story development that foreshadows their divorce in the Amber stories for older readers), and she hopes that will stop and everyone will have a perfect day at the county fair. They all have fun on the rides, but another parental fight erupts, and Amber, feeling lost and rejected, really does get lost when she tries to find Justin’s happier family. Her parents see that their fighting has hurt their child, and the tension is resolved in a satisfying conclusion with some tears, hugs, and a teddy-bear prize from Amber’s dad to her mom. Ross provides her usual cheerful and humorous illustrations in watercolor and ink, with lots of funny faces from the children. Danziger shows her usual deft touch with childhood feelings and family dynamics, adding another original story with genuine humor and emotion to the growing chronicle of Amber’s life. (Easy reader. 5-9)
First- and second-grade teachers (and their students) will be especially interested in this laugh-out-loud, first-person story of Amber’s first days in second grade. Ross continues his significant contribution to the A Is for Amber easy reader series with his expressive watercolor-and-ink illustrations that always set a cheerful, humorous tone. Danziger (It’s a Fair Day, Amber Brown, below, etc.), with her pitch-perfect view of a child’s emotions, zeroes in on all the anxieties of a new school year: an unknown new teacher, uncertainty about friends, a snotty queen bee, and a teddy bear backpack that invites teasing comments. Amber’s new teacher is a delight: Ms. Light, a denim-clad, hip lady with light-up lightbulb earrings and lots of information about light and electricity. (Move over, Ms. Frizzle!) The members of the second-grade class are introduced with Danziger’s deadpan, punny humor: Freddie, who can do armpit music; Fredrich, who picks his nose; and Hannah, who clearly has her claws out for Amber. Before long, Amber stands up to Hannah Burton (“Look, Hannah BURPton. Stop it”) and, in a satisfying conclusion, vows with confidence that she’ll be reading chapter books before long because she is indeed ready for second grade. The stage is set for more tales about Ms. Light’s Bright Lights, and Amber’s adoring fans will be ready for more second-grade fun. (Easy reader. 5-9)
Jonathan has a new baby brother, Daniel. Jonathan calls him Gasburger, Poopburger, and Spaceblobburger. The rest of the extended family coos over the often smelly little guy. Most of them call Jonathan “Pookie Bear” because of the stuffed bear he used to carry with him at all times. He hates that name; it makes him silently growl. After making peace with his older cousin Charlie, Jonathan gives the bear to Daniel and announces to the family, “Now he is Daniel Pookie Bear, and I am Jonathan. JUST Jonathan.” Amber Brown’s creator goes after a younger audience with this tale of the new-baby blues. The tale’s end is realistic; there is no complete turnaround. Jonathan’s friendship is conditional: “When you’re older, if we get along, I’ll teach you to say GRRRRRRRRR.” Karas’s signature gouache-and-pencil illustrations are a good match: silly and cartoon-realistic. Just like Barfburger Baby. (Picture book. 4-7)
Sixth-grader Matthew is the class tease; and some of his "jokes," like putting gum in a girl's long hair, are more mean than funny. His most outspoken animosity is directed at his 13-year-old sister, Amanda, who reciprocates in kind: their incessant bickering is painfully true to life. Matthew has other troubles: he's one of the youngest and shortest in his class; Mom is a health-food nut who barely relents enough to allow Matthew a little junk food for the 11th birthday party that climaxes the story; he can't spell (though he's a computer whiz); and the girls in his class are finally so outraged by his tricks that they form a club to retaliate and picket his party. With the collaboration of his father (revealed to be an unreformed practical joker himself), Matthew manages to negotiate a treaty, and the girls are included in the festivities. Danziger's first book about a boy is for slightly younger readers than The Cat Ate My Gymsuit (1974), etc. Matthew is a believable enfant terrible whose glimmers of affection for Amanda hint that a mellower Matthew may eventually emerge. Readers of a similar age are sure to be amused by the authentic details of the pranks (including imitation dog do-do) and the satirical exaggeration (though adults may find the depiction of Mom over-harsh). A scene when Matthew and his parents engage in a water fight is truly comic. Not as deft, or as deep, as Byars, but sure to entertain.
This lightweight, romantic teen novel floats atop a tour of New York City. Like oil and water, the two don't mix well. Westsider Kendra Kaye (14) and her cheeky little brother Oscar ("So what does S.W.A.K. mean? She Was A Kangaroo?") are saddled for part of the summer with Frank (15), a Wisconsin farm boy from a troubled family. Rather than have the young folk sit around, their parents present them with a sort of scavenger hunt, a list of things to do, places to visit, cuisines to sample and questions about NYC to answer; they'll have to scramble, but if they get through the list their reward is a trip to England. Despite some obstacles, Frank and Kendra hit it off, and by the end of the summer their friendship has become something more intense. This much Danziger handles in her usual cheery, sympathetic way, with plenty of rapid-fire puns delivered by a cast of sane characters willing to recognize problems and talk things out. The travelog doesn't come off so well. The list is confined to Manhattan places below about 125th Street (they go to a Mets game, but that's an afterthought), so readers get only a tourist's-eye view of the city, and except for an excited visit to the set of All My Children and a sobering one to the Jewish Museum, the characters', reactions range from "Awesome!" to "It is so sad." Most of the meals, performances, museums, and sights are hardly noticed, much less described. The author does communicate an upbeat, positive impression of life in the Big Apple, but it's a vague impression, from a single angle.
At its worst, this is a trite and trendy saga of how a junior high English class gets it together to fight for the job of Ms. Finney — a paragon of an innovative teacher who puts across dangling participles and sensitivity sessions with equal ease. The only relief from cliche is the relationship between lumpish, insecure Marcy and her father — a frustrated, angry, non-verbal man who can show his love only through providing food and shopping trips. The parent who can't communicate his love and concern is no doubt a more common problem than alcoholism or divorce, but he's seldom dealt with this forthrightly in contemporary stories, where parents, whatever their faults, are usually articulate. Marcy's tense family situation is really the subject here; the instant therapeutic effect of Ms. Finney, a sort of denim, skirted deus ex machina, is a cop-out.
Like other Danziger ninth graders, Phoebe Brooks works out problems with her divorced parents and, on the side, acquires a boyfriend who's a "good kisser" and a caring person. She also gets involved in a protest-turned-constructive-committee to improve the yucky cafeteria food at the high school she attends in Woodstock, where she and her father have moved since the divorce. About her cafeteria involvement, Phoebe remarks: "In Woodstock a lot of grown-ups are . . . fighting for good causes, like against nuclear power plants. . . . I think that when kids grow up seeing their parents involved, the kids get involved too." Perhaps in an attempt to make Phoebe less trivial than her previous heroines, Danziger makes her a depository of bumper-sticker virtues, just like all those Woodstock cars. She's for granola cookies and against fur coats, likes the way a friend sends smoking guests outdoors ("We care too much about people to be part of their harming themselves"), and comments, when the doorman tells her that her mother's upper-east-side New York City apartment building may go coop, "I worry though that some people may be evicted, especially some of the poor people and some of the older people on fixed incomes." Phoebe is far more troubled by her mother's proposed marriage to a rich creep, but she finds some instant wisdom to help her through that, too. "I have to learn how to handle this new situation so that it works out well for me—as well as it can without being really what I want. That's it, isn't it?" she asks her approving, understanding father, who has given up a good city job to paint in Woodstock. Now he has taken up with a suitable Woodstock type, the mother of the best friend Phoebe has met on the Divorce Express—her name for the bus that shuttles kids between their Woodstock and New York City parents. Phoebe likes to rearrange the letters in names and key words, and in the end she finds that the letters in DIVORCES also spell DISCOVER. But there isn't much to find behind these snappy lines and readymade attitudes.
Thirteen-year-old Cassie starts her first-person story with the assertion that "Pistachio nuts, the red ones, cure any problem," and she ends with "Twinkles, I bet, are the answer"—a fair enough indication of the level of growth that has transpired in between. And though Cassie does indeed have problems that neither pistachios nor twinkles can solve—chiefly, divorcing parents whose insensitivity brings on her frequent asthma attacks-her tone throughout is so glib and inauthentic that it's hard to believe in a real suffering child under all the predictably triggered hysterics. ("Sometimes I think my parents are wonderful, and sometimes I hate them" is a typical Danziger illustration of adolescent psychology.) Cassie does better outside the home, acquiring a kissing boyfriend, running for freshman class president and beating out the candidate from the elite in-group, and winning the right to wear sunglasses in class after she has disastrously plucked out her eyebrows. Not improbable, but shallow—a synthetic slice of "typical teenage" life.
Danziger's camp novel has Marcy from The Cat Ate My Gymsuit tapped by English teacher Ms. Finney to be a CIT (Counselor-in-Training) at a summer arts camp. After one day with the other counselors and another with the kids, Marcy and her senior counselor are close enough to "adopt" each other as sisters, and she and male counselor Ted establish a relationship that is "more than a crush." (She's already overcome a potential crush on Jimmy, the camp Don Juan.) More realistically, the obligatory camp pill, Ginger, does not become a lovable team player. Her problems might be too big for the camp to solve, camp head Ms. Finney (now Barbara) finally admits when Ginger runs away. Still, Marcy feels guilty for being too wrapped up with Ted and such to attend to the younger girl's needs. Marcy for her part is counseled by Barbara, still a model adult, with no "magic pills" for anyone but lots of support which encourages them all to talk out their problems. On a swing at night she speaks to Marcy about becoming adult, putting problems in perspective, and not expecting perfection of herself or others. From Barbara's exemplary surrogate-parenting to Marcy's continuing lack of communication with her father and her new fear of her feelings when kissing Ted, this gives us pop-psychology profiles instead of imagined characters and shallow with-it attitudes instead of sincere probing. Danziger's fans probably won't mind, but neither will they be stretched an inch.
This new novel by the popular Danziger features a heroine who lives in the year 2057 but whose problems will seem familiar to today's teens. Aurora Williams, 15 and a sophomore, is in the right crowd with the right best friend, and even has a date for the big dance with the right boy. When her parents announce that they are joining a colony on the moon, she is devastated and considers every option, from pregnancy to being nice to her sister to escape. Dragged sulkily to her new home, having wrung from her parents the promise of a return to earth after a year, she begins a reluctant adjustment and, of course, finds that the kids on the moon are not as bad as she thought they'd be, that there are values beyond the ones she's held so dear, and that she'd like to stay after all. An understanding friendship with a boy helps. A Danziger book is rarely distinguished by plot, characterization or literary style. She does hone in, unerringly, on the concerns of her audience, using a style that rat-tats out wisecracks—not great, but funny and on the mark. Her audiences will not be disappointed.