June 15, 2017


Gabby Garcia’s Ultimate Playbook #1. By Iva-Marie Palmer. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $12.99.

The World’s Greatest Detective. By Caroline Carlson. Harper. $16.99.

     Fantasy/adventures for preteens almost always turn on likable central characters with a supporting cast of feckless adults and modestly helpful friends, with largely self-inflicted problems and misinterpretations producing most of the drama and a certain amount of laughter (ideally with the characters, not at them). Iva-Marie Palmer and Caroline Carlson show that the formula works as well for a contemporary 12-year-old girl and a Victorian/Edwardian-era 11-year-old boy. Palmer’s Gabby Garcia book, the first of a planned series, focuses on the packed-with-self-esteem star pitcher at Luther Junior High, whose world is turned upside-down when a discovery of asbestos leads to the immediate closure of the school – right in the middle of a baseball game – and the scattering of students to other area schools. Gabby is sent to upscale Piper Bell Academy, where it is obvious she will have trouble fitting in. Of course that is just how the plot goes: Piper Bell already has a star pitcher, Gabby’s attempt to focus on baseball goes badly, her other tries at fitting in do not work, and she needs a playbook – designed to make things happen, unlike a diary that just records events – to try to get her life back on track. Gabby quits baseball altogether and goes in for field hockey instead, which leads to it being decided that since everyone on the hockey team has a special talent, Gabby’s is going to be poetry. Skeptical but trying, still, to fit in, Gabby – who really does seem an unlikely choice as a poet, as the poetry in the book confirms – does her best, but soon finds that even this decision becomes a problem: a poetry event conflicts with hockey. Gabby’s parents are of no use, of course; for example, their comments when she tells them she is quitting baseball are so surface-level that they practically float. They do mean well: even before things go wrong, the parents and Gabby’s inevitable best friend try to warn her about possible issues involved in trying to be a baseball star at the new school; but headstrong Gabby does not listen. Most of Gabby’s pains and worries come from her own misaligned expectations and her use of sports for self-identification – but the book actually seems intended mainly for sports-focused middle-schoolers, so the notion that maybe there are other ways to excel (such as poetry) coexists uneasily with the sports elements. What eventually happens is that Gabby gets over herself and develops a more team-oriented attitude, and then things go much better right up to an ending that clearly sets up the next book in the series. It is the format of the book, more than the plot and writing, that sets it somewhat apart from other preteen formula novels. There are lots and lots of illustrations of characters, plenty of doodles, action sketches, marginal notes, enlarged and boldface type, and other visuals that make this playbook attractive to look at even when it is nothing special to read. All these elements have been used in other books for preteens, but Palmer makes them jaunty enough so the visuals help carry the largely predictable plot.

     Flash back in time to the fictional town of Colebridge and a different sort of adult supervision or non-supervision, and you have The World’s Greatest Detective. Toby Montrose’s parents have disappeared, so he lives with Uncle Gabriel on a street known as Detectives’ Row. The whole city is full of detectives, but Detectives’ Row is really packed with them, and Uncle Gabriel is one such. The problem is that there is not much crime in Colebridge – what with all those detectives, you know – so there is not much money in being an investigator. This means Uncle Gabriel is under financial strain that Toby worries may lead to the need for him to stay with yet another relative (Uncle Gabriel is just the latest in a long series). Then – aha! – Uncle Gabriel is invited to solve a weekend murder mystery in a competition whose winner will get $10,000. Just the thing, thinks Toby: money coming in and a boost for Uncle Gabriel’s reputation and therefore his business. But Uncle Gabriel declines the invitation, leaving Tony to decide to take up the challenge himself – with a little help (sometimes more than a little) from a self-confident friend named Ivy and from Ivy’s dog. Unfortunately, Toby, despite the correspondence course in detecting he has been taking, is not very good at being a detective; and he and Ivy have a series of misadventures that are not quite as amusing as Carlson apparently wants them to be. The underlying mystery here is rather simple, the pacing of the investigation is less than brisk, and the secondary characters are not very well fleshed-out – including Uncle Gabriel (kind-hearted and bad in the kitchen and that’s about it). There is not very much scene-setting or time-setting beyond the Victorian/Edwardian background, and while Toby is certainly likable enough, he does not have a sufficiently strong character to be intriguing – he is simply a boy who has been shunted from relative to relative and wants a way out of that not-very-merry-go-round. Self-assured Ivy makes a good foil for well-meaning but often inept Toby, but the book as a whole never rises above the very basic foundation of a genre where well-meaning but misplaced enthusiasm and largely self-inflicted problems are the plot drivers again and again.

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