Fuse #8

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Review of the Day: Bully-Be-Gone

Happy, Mother's Day! I should really have done a book today that involves mothers in some way, shape or form. Chalk this one up to both poor planning on my part and the wonderfullness that is today's book in equal parts.

Walk into a library or a bookstore. Remove from your pocket a small stone. Close your eyes, spin around, and hurl the projectile any which way (making certain no one is standing around and that there isn’t any delicate glass about). Now go see what book the stone hit. If you happened to be in the children’s room, particularly in the fiction section, you probably had a pretty good chance of hitting something meaningful, depressing, or meaningful AND depressing. And let me tell you, there is no better sure-fire method of turning a kid off of reading than making them read only books that fit into those two categories. As a children’s librarian I’ve been reading a ton of children’s books published in 2006 and I am SICK of books that aren’t any fun. So when “The Misadventures of Millicent Madding” (adventure one = “Bully-Be-Gone”) fell into my lap I didn’t know what to think. The Amy Vangsgard cover art kind of turned me off. Clay is cool but not always appropriate for a fiction cover. Still, it sounded... fun. And I needed fun. I needed fun badly. Now after reading this book cover to cover, I can say this of “Bully-Be-Gone”: It is every bit as great as the premise suggests and it is bound to be dearly beloved by scores of wide-eyed kidlets. All around amusing.

If you are smart and attend school in some fashion, there is one fact of life you have to acknowledge. Bullies. Well young Millicent Madding certainly is smart, but she hasn't resigned herself to a life of dodging this scourge of her public school hallways. Instead, she’s just invented a whole new kind of face cream. It’s called Bully-Be-Gone and it’s supposed to affect your average bully’s sense of smell, automatically repelling them. The problem is, Millicent’s still new to this whole inventing game. She’s had some bad luck in the past and her fellow members of The Wunderkind Club (a group of the smartest kids of Masonville) are wary of trusting this new invention. But try it they do and the results aren’t exactly what Millicent thought they might be. Now Bully-Be-Gone is attracting love-struck bullies rather than repelling them and Millicent’s in a fix. Add in her long-lost aunt trecking across the country in an ancient wedding gown, a tale of contortion and cooking, two parents lost in time, and an uncle who’s hair color and hair style changes every day.... well let’s just say that the town of Masonville may never quite be the same again.

Sometimes I can pinpoint the exact moment where a book won me over. Often a book as a whole gains my love, but once in a great while there’s a single defining turn of phrase or image. For me, a children’s librarian, it was page 28. Sweet sweet page 28. On that page we meet the local town librarian, Miss Ogelvie. She simultaneously fulfills your normal librarian stereotypes (bespectacles, prudent, unmarried, etc.) and pounds them into dust. Consider this sentence: “Closer inspection revealed that Miss Ogelvie had, through years of lifting books, developed a rather intimidating frame. Her arms, especially, were thick and strong – a fact she played up by having had them tattooed with the faces of literary figures like Shakespeare and Toni Morrison”. Any book that contains a character who has the author of “Beloved” imprinted in ink on their forearm has my instantaneous love.

But heroic librarians aside (and I haven’t even mentioned the legend of Goody Constance Madding, which is faaaabulous) it’s Tacang’s prose here that sets the book apart from the pack. It’s rather well-written, balancing the author's story with amusing details and ideas. Tacang isn’t going for deeply held emotional resonance, but he still manages to hit a meaningful chord here and there. Plus there could also have been a danger of going too wild with this book. Too wacky. The back cover promises scores of kooky crazy kids and adults with everything from human cannonballs to rebel librarians, and they’re all here, true. But at the same time, this isn’t another “Surviving the Applewhites” or “Pure Dead Magic”. The wacked-out nuttiness is great, but the author never overplays his hand. It’s a delicate balance, and all the more impressive when you consider how well it ties together.

And by the way, the inventions in this book aren’t your average half-hearted “Freddy and the French Fries” lame-o inventions. Every single one is an invention that should exist (with the possible exception of the gloves that clip your fingernails) and that anyone would love to own. I would like to personally suggest to the world that we take Tacang’s suggestion of a carpet with Autosuck Technology and make it real. It makes so much sense! “You simple flipped a switch and the carpet retracted dirt, in a sense. Dust, soil, and other small debris were sucked through the carpet and into a plastic bag”. Honestly, somebody call the patent office ASAP. I need me one of those.

If I have any objection with this book, it concerns the ending. With all her friends hating her for their hard-to-shake new bully-buddies Millicent needs to find a cure, stop the bullies, and get on her uncle’s good side by the story’s end. She does so, but it’s done in such a sudden madcap way that it feels to the viewer that they’ve suddenly run smack dab into the literary equivalent of a brick wall. A little more time spent on wrapping up stories (and not having her friends forgive her QUITE so suddenly) would have given “Millicent Madding” far more convincing closure. Ah well. Can’t have everything, I guess.

Child inventors have been gracing the pages of children’s books at least since Homer Price “fixed” that old donut machine in 1943. By and large, however, the inventors have been boys. Now Millicent Madding has come to kick ass and take names. Alongside another 2006 title, “Roxie and the Hooligans”, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, these two books look at bullies and find incredibly creative ways of dealing with them. Kids everywhere should approve. Enjoyable reading with more than its fair share of intelligence.


At 5:10 PM , Blogger Disco Mermaids said...

Regarding being SICK of books that aren't any fun...THANK YOU!!! From this side of the bookshelf, most of my writing friends write books for children to read FOR FUN, and every editor we meet says they want FUN books, but then we just aren't seeing that reflected in what they publish (and I'm not just talking about our books...though that'd be nice!).

When I first saw Bully-Be-Gone, I had a similar reaction. What a relief! And the fun only starts with the amazing cover.

Thanks for giving this book some publicity. Maybe if booksellers and librarians turn children on to more of these books (which there are very few of) more houses will publish them.

Okay, I'm done.

- Jay

At 2:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that your book choice was perfectly suited for Mother's Day because my mother, at least, be thrilled when she reads your lovely review of Bully-Be-Gone. (She's not yet web savvy, so I sent her a hard copy.) What better gift to a mother than a good dose of pride in her son?

Thank you, so much, for the enlightened, thorough, fun, and well-balanced review. I will continue to read your work religiously.

Brian Tacang

At 7:03 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I hate typos. WILL be thrilled, WILL be thrilled.

Brian Tacang


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