Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, by Nathan Bransford (Dail, 2011, mg, 288 pages) is a vastly entertaining space adventure for young readers. Jacob (bane of substitute teachers and mischief maker extraordinaire) and fellow sixth-grader pals, Sarah and Dexter, are somewhat taken aback when a traveller from outer space offers to swap his space craft for a corn dog. But they make the trade, and climb on board. Although Dexter (the cautious one of the trio) has his doubts, Jacob turns the key in the ignition. And they're off on a wild ride past our galaxy into the unknown.
Unfortunately, the unknown includes a large planet, suddenly looming right in front of them. But there's a handy button labeled "huge missile launcher" on the console, and it seems to Jacob like a reasonable thing to press. The titular cosmic space kapow results, as the initial planetary explosion leads to chain reaction of epic destruction.
Now the friends are cut off from earth by a hugely massive debris field, and their adventures really get going. Before they make it home again, they'll meet a young interstellar bandit, explore odd planets of various kinds (including a planet populated by substitute teachers!), and test the limits of their loyalty to each other.
Jacob Wonderbar is a sterling example of wacky sci-fi fun for young readers. Often this particular category of book is hard for cynical adults (such as me) to swallow, but Bransford, with his three-dimensional characters and fast-paced plotting, kept me entertained. And I think the intended audience (in particular, the eight or nine-year-old boy) should just eat this up in a whirlwind of rapid page turning. Kids at the upper end of the middle-grade spectrum (ie, the 11 or 12 year old boy), who may be becoming more cynical than even hardened adults, might find it too goofy, however (but that's their loss).
Here's a particular thing that pleased me very much indeed (although this will go over the heads of young readers):
"Sarah sat straight up in bed. She was actually daydreaming about a boy saving her? Sarah shook her head violently....Her hero Betty Friedan would be so ashamed" (page 97). And that tells you a lot about young Sarah!
As an added bonus, Jacob is a kid of color. Here's how he is described:
"He stared at his hands, a soft brown color that was lighter than his mom's dark skin and darker than his dad's light skin. It was proof that he was half of his mom and half of his dad, but since he didn't look like either of them, it also made him something else entirely" (page 22).
And you can see that in the internal illustrations, like the example above, Jacob's skin is indeed darker than that of his friends.
But would you know this from the cover? No. The boy on the cover is clearly less pink than the girl, but he looks pretty much like a white kid to me. I had no idea that he was a kid of color until I'd reached page 22. I've stared and stared at his skin tone as shown, hoping that its biscuit-like beige would become "soft brown," but it didn't, in my eyes at least.
So I won't be alerting Elizabeth over at Shelftalker to this one, to include in her list of (non-race-driven) multicultural titles, for which she just issued a call. She states that "kids of color must be featured on the book covers," and Jacob Wonderbar doesn't seem eligible to me. Kid of color though he might be, I don't think the book cover shows him as such.
(Edited to add: I was confused viz Sarah's ethnicity, as her parents speak to her in Mandarin at the end of the book, but this confusion was not justified! Someone has pointed out that she is described in the first chapter as blond and blue-eyed, just as she is pictured (I wasn't paying attention to descriptions at that point--sorry for spreading my confusion!). The Mandarin seems to be just another example of her parents determination to fill every minute with Improvement, which makes a whole lot more sense! Thanks very much to the commentator who clarified that.)
Here are other thoughts, at Sneak Peek Preview and Ms. Yingling Reads.
(quotations and internal illustrations taken from an ARC received from the publisher, and might not be exactly as they appear in the final version).
Here's a follow-up post I wrote a few days later...."Why I try to blog about books with diverse characters--Jacob Wonderbar revisited."