Ok, so when I was growing up, I did not walk 2 miles in the snow to school going uphill both ways. I took the crosstown bus. And candy bars did not cost a nickel – more like 60 cents. But, back in my day, there was no such thing as Junie B. Jones, or Magic Tree House (only a Magic School Bus – more on that later).
Those two newfangled phenomena first came to my attention a few years ago when I spent about 4 months working in the kids’ section of Barnes and Noble, and one of the first things to learn was how to direct inquiring 7 year olds to those two series, which were conveniently right next to each other. I did not, however, read them until this past weekend, when I read the first book in each of those two series.
I liked JUNIE B. JONES AND THE STUPID SMELLY BUS. It has a distinct voice, but mostly Barbara Park just does a great job of portraying the thoughts, feelings, and logic of a 6 year old with accuracy and respect. This is what makes the Ramona books so excellent, and I was strongly reminded of those, although the Junie B. series are shorter, simpler, and aimed at a younger audience. I did find that some of the language devices Park uses to put the narration in the voice of a kindergardener got a little annoying, but I might not have minded as a kid.
On the other hand, DINOSAURS BEFORE DARK, the first in Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House set, was boring. There wasn’t enough to the characters to get me interested – I could see the types they were supposed to be, but they kind of felt flat. And even at the scary parts, I didn’t feel like the kids were actually scared. The other aspect to this series is that on each of their adventures the kids go back in time or to foreign place, so there are facts on the relevant topic sprinkled in. Which could totally appeal to kids loving to learn about dinosaurs and castles and outer space and such. The problem is that, at least in this case, the information stayed so shallow that I don’t think it would fulfill that child-obsessed-with-a-topic desire for depth and details. Any 6-7 year old with an interest in dinosaurs would know ten times as much about them as was given here – at least, I did when I was in my dinosaur phase.
Here is where I thought of the Magic School Bus series, which I loved as a kid, and which did an excellent job of being funny and entertaining but really being science books. Granted, its not a fair comparison, because the Magic Tree House Books are going for something different – stories with facts included, not science books with an engaging story for a frame. To me, the one I read just didn’t wind up being a good story. Then again, thousands of kids can’t get enough of them, so perhaps its just me.