Fuse #8

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Review of the Day: Phineas L. MacGuire Erupts!

Children’s librarians must find books to add to their collections from a wide variety of different sources. They read professional serials like Horn Book and School Library Journal. They receive Advanced Readers Copies and read clever blogs that always discuss new titles (cough). Far less professional but no less important, however, is the regular trip to the large corporate bookstore with the wide children’s book selection. Recently I was on such a “research” trip and was attempting to find some kids books to read in the store’s cafe. I plucked up the usual suspects with their shiny covers and titles when my eye was caught by an unassuming little title. First off, I’d like to point out that “Phineas L. MacGuire Erupts!”, does not have the most striking cover in the world. It’s nice, but something about the color scheme and the position of the font causes the eye to slip right over it to the flashier books inevitably stacked around it. However, I couldn’t help but notice that this was an early chapter book. To my mind, early chapter books are THE most difficult books to write. So I snatched it up without any particularly high hopes and later flipped through for a read. What I discovered was a book so funny, so succinct, and so intelligent that I’m shocked that professional review sources haven’t been bandying it about with louder fanfare. This is a great great GREAT book. A keeper and a clever beastie. If you know of any child at all that is just now getting into reading chapter books on their own, THIS is the book to buy them. Now. Forthwith. Without hesitation.

This has not turned out to be a good year for Phineas L. MacGuire, otherwise known as Mac. For one thing, his best friend Marcus has just moved out of town, and the timing couldn't be worse. Mac and Marcus always planned to enter the fourth grade science fair together (that’s the first time you’re allowed to enter) and now that plan is gone. Worse still, there’s a new kid in class who is ALSO named Mac and he's a serious jerk. He tells everyone right from the start that his own school was much better than this one. He trips the shortest kid in class right off the bat. And worst of all, he seems like he really really wants to be friends with our hero. Our Mac is edgy about this, especially when the two are paired together for the science fair. But after visiting with his new partner and seeing what a nice and incredibly artistic guy he really is, the two need to come up with some new plans. #1: Win the science fair. #2: Make the class like Mac #2 (who’s real name is Ben). Both goals are difficult, but when you’re dealing with a hero as scientific and smart as Mac, you know you’re in safe hands.

To be blunt, when I first started reading this story, it sounded mighty familiar. Mac likes to point out that he is allergic to fifteen things including anything purple, all girls, and moist towelettes in foil packs. His mother only acknowledges his allergies towards peanuts and cat hair, of course. All this felt very similar to Sue Stauffacher’s character Donuthead in the book of the self-same title. This was my first reaction towards Mac. I mean, both he and Donuthead have impatient mothers and don’t care for girls at all. But that’s pretty much where the similarities stop. Mac is his own man with his own obsessions and rules. He’s a scientist after all, and if the course of his investigations means that he’s overly enthused by mold or the patterns blood makes when it splatters from his nose during a nosebleed, well so be it.

It’s actually the subtlety of Dowell’s writing that really struck me with this book. There are a million things inferred here or left unsaid that a reader can figure out on their own without being told. For example, when we learn that Mac’s fourth grade teacher Mrs. Tuttle used to be a first grade teacher, some of her goofier tendencies begin to make a lot more sense. The writing in and of itself is superb, of course. We’re dealing with an author who is used to older children’s fiction like, “Dovey Coe” or “Chicken Boy”. But sometimes authors of full-length chapter books have a hard time adapting their style to younger readers. Not Dowell. Somehow she manages to balance things that kids would find funny (like opening an old can of beans and stinking up your house or dealing with a fourth grader who still thinks that dinosaurs are cool) with incredibly spot on bits of adult humor. The fact that Mac’s mother is continually buying healthy food, which is always stuffed to the back of the fridge (where it inevitably goes through a long protracted death) sounded a little too spot on. Dowell apparently lives with two young sons at this time. I suspect I may know from whence some of the inspiration for this title sprouted.

Now there are two distinct reasons why you should buy this book: It’s humor and it’s science. Humor first. Consider the following sentences. “We dug through the trash together. It was kind of a mess down there, since a lot of the paper had paint on it. I checked my shirt. It was a halfway-nice, almost-new striped T-shirt. I predicted five minutes of yelling from my mom if I got paint on it. For my mom five minutes of yelling really isn’t that much. I kept digging”. I love that. Fourth grade logic at its best. But it’s the science that really sets this book apart. Kids interested in the scientific method will find much to love in the character of Mac. In the back of the book you can even find experiments mentioned in the story like “A very simple volcano”, “Microwave marshmallow roast”, and “Exploding film canisters”. Each experiment explains its own science. Now try to think of early chapter books in which science plays a huge part. The closest thing I could think of were Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. As you can see, it’s not a huge genre, making Phineas L. MacGuire a necessary addition.

The illustrations in this book, rendered in pencil, are rather nice complements to the text. Drawn by one Preston McDaniels, they add a spot of character to the book. I was particularly taken with McDaniels’ picture of Mrs. Tuttle in all her goofy glory, or smart girl Aretha. All in all, “Phineas L. MacGuire Erupts!”, is a must-have addition to any collection. If you hold the book up, you can see that at the top of the cover are the words, “From the HIGHLY scientific notebooks of Phineas L. MacGuire”. That has “series” written all over it, no? I hope so. Dowell has set herself up for all kinds of future adventures involving Mac. I just hope enough people buy this first title so as to encourage Ms. Dowell to write a few hundred more. A remarkable little book.


At 7:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ye couldna hae found it in an independent, eh?

At 10:39 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Hi mom. I know. I know. But it was right by my doctor's appointment and ... and ... and ... good point. I will point out that when I buy a book, I never do it from a chain. I just happened to have this copy because I got it free at ALA. I always buy my children's books from Books of Wonder or Bank Street Bookstore. I swear.

At 9:42 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey thanks for this - I'm going to get a copy for my scientifically inclined, almost-in-the-third-grade niece. And give it to her after I read it myself, of course. It sounds great!

At 10:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This sounds like a very funny book. I am always in search of the early chapter books for kids at my school. Thanks.
Happy Reading.

At 8:47 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Yeah, why is it that early chapter books are so difficult to find? As I mention in the review, I think it's because they're so hard to write well. Anyone can create a fantasy novel for 12-14 year olds. Try making something halfway decent for an 8-year-old. Muuuuch harder.


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