There's a sub-genre of middle-grade fantasy that embraces the over-the-top and runs with it. These are the sort of books where silliness rules, where characters are caught in situations that break all the rules, books that set out to entertain their intended audience and keep them turning the pages. They are the sort of book that you might give to the child who loved the Captain Underpants books back when they were learning to read, and who might still be re-reading them.
Here are two examples, from my recent Cybils reading--both of these have been nominated in the middle grade science fiction and fantasy category.
Revenge of the Itty-Bitty Brothers, by Lin Oliver, illustrated by Stephen Gilpin (Simon and Schuster, 2009, 159pp) is the third book of the Who Shrunk Daniel Funk? series. But it's not necessary to have read the first two to enjoy this one. A (moderately gross) encounter with a taco leads Daniel Funk to a breakthrough--through the explosive expulsion of digestive gasses he can control when he shrinks! This is great news for his tiny twin brother, Pablo, who lives a semi-secret life among the detritus of Daniel's room. Now the two can be tiny together, sharing the joys of marshmallow trampolining, soap surfing in the bathtub, and, as the grand finale, shooting into space in model rockets over the La Brea tar pits...
It's straight-forward, light-hearted fun, told in crisp, clear sentences. There are hints that future books in the series might explore some of the intriguing questions that aren't answered here--what happened to the Funk family dad, who disappeared while off on a scientific expedition? Will Pablo always be small? Will his mother and sisters ever get to meet him??? I'd love to know more about these aspects of the story, and less about what it is like to wallow in an ice-cream sundae...but the intended readers who aren't me (fourth and fifth grade boys, I'd say) might well disagree!
Night of the Living Lawn Ornaments, by Emily Ecton (Aladdin--Simon and Schuster, 2009, 229 pages), is a notch up age-wise (seventh grade-ish, I think), and not so much a Boy book--it's narrated by a girl, and there is less burping. That being said, there is a sheep-shaped pepper shaker who has come to life and who is having major digestive issues:
"Eunice patted me on the hand with her little hoof. "We'll be quiet. But if you get a chance?" She did a little hip swivel. There was no sound at all from her insides. "I'm very clumpy," she whispered.
I nodded. "I'll see what I can do." Nothing like adding "find a good sheep innard substitute" to your list of things to do." (p 139)
And the pepper shaker is not the only inanimate thing to come to life. When Arlie and her friend Ty find a mysterious dragonfly pendant, and playfully drape it over the necks of various lawn ornaments and sundry knick knacks, stuffed animals, and Mr. Boots' favorite toy (Mr. Boots being a neurotic Chihuahua), little do they know the mayhem they are about to unleash...
It is non-stop insanity--no quite moments of tranquil beauty and intricate character development here (although I like the "just friends for now" relationship between Ty and Arlie very much)! But Ecton has a way with words that makes the reading fun for all ages, even if it is all, perhaps, just a bit too crazy for my own taste.
Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for supporting the Cybils by sending us panelists review copies!