Peter McCarty is one of the true bright new lights of the picture book world. His art combines an almost Dada-esque grotesquery with hints of Japanese cartooning and a dash of gentle humor. In “The Monster Returns’’ he provides a worthy sequel to “Jeremy Draws a Monster.’’ As with all of McCarty’s work, it’s worth a second and third look, for he fills his books with subtle details and visual jokes.
Jeremy is up in his room drawing when a paper airplane sails through his open window, bearing a message from his monster, followed by a phone call. “ ‘I’m bored’, said the Monster. ‘And I’m coming back!’ ’’
Jeremy gathers his friends and gives each one “a fancy pen’’ to conjure their monsters. The result is something between a creature convention and a welcome party. Each child has a way of creating a monster that in some way reflects himself or herself - Jeremy’s monster, like him, wears a number 3 on his shirt and has serious cowlicks. A friend in a fish shirt draws a shark monster; a girl in a flowered dress creates a flowered monster; a round-eyed boy in purple creates a purple owlish monster and so on.
“The Monster Returns’’ is a lovely, simple story about art and friendship. While Jeremy doesn’t like “to be disturbed when he was drawing,’’ he’s not a lone ranger, either, and McCarty suggests that artists can do some of their best work in the company of others. He makes ample use of white space, which is another expression of what he does in the spareness of his language - McCarty leaves plenty of room for the reader’s own imagination, in a story that rings sweet and true.
Kathryn Littlewood’s middle-grade novel “Bliss’’ comes achingly close to greatness. Its hard-working young heroine, Rose, loves to bake, and she knows there’s something special, in fact magical, about the Bliss family bakery - especially in the handed-down cookbook her mother won’t ever let her use. Rose feels “ordinary,’’ and at times she’d do “just about anything at all’’ to feel special. Her parent’s muffins, cookies, and cakes mysteriously cure the various ills of the neighborhood. But when Rose’s parents leave town on an emergency trip, and her long-lost, glamorous Aunt Lily appears, Rose must answer the question of who really owns that cookbook and what should be done with its powers. Is the charming Aunt Lily trustworthy? What happens when you serve Love Muffins and hand out Cookies of Truth in the same week?
Rose and her siblings - with a little help from their friends and the mysterious Aunt Lily - turn the town upside down and literally backwards, and must put things right again before the parents return. Adventures and misadventures criss-cross in rapid-fire succession - sometimes a bit too rapidly, and the humor, in places, gets a bit broad. But there are charming touches throughout, like the boy Devin Stetson, whom Rose adores, and for whose sake she goes daily to buy bad doughnuts from Stetson’s Donuts and Automotive Repair. Aunt Lily and Rose are the likeable centers of the book - each imperfect in her own way. Rose comes to experience “the magic of a person’s ability to change, to grow, to heal, without the aid of any magic at all.’’ Middle-grade readers who enjoy slapstick humor and fantastical adventures will get a generous helping of each here in what amounts to an impressive debut.
“The Mighty Miss Malone’’ makes an auspicious and lively beginning, with the irresistible 12-year-old Deza as heroine and narrator - she is the mighty Miss Malone of the book’s title, and a future authoress. As one character notes, “[T]he only thing guaranteed is, one way or the other, you’re going to have a very interesting, very busy life.’’ Her brother Jimmie is under-developed and puny, but has “the singing voice of a angel’’ and he loves Deza “more than any big brother has loved a little sister since time immoral.’’
The Malone family may be poor - this is the Great Depression era - but they are “on a journey to a place called Wonderful.’’ That journey gets sidetracked when Deza’s father survives a near-fatal boating accident. A nearly broken man, he leaves the family to find work in Michigan, and things plunge from bad to worse. What happens for much of the rest of the novel is a little like what happens to a bottle of ginger ale when you shake it up and leave the cap off. That’s a shame, given the real genius of its author, Christopher Paul Curtis, Newbery medal winner and author of the marvelous “Bud, Not Buddy,’’ in which the character of Deza was first introduced.
Deza makes it almost worth the bumpy ride. She is unsinkable. “If you could forget about the way the boxcar smelled like a toilet and ignore the heat and the darkness and the hard floor and the flies you could say it was pretty comfortable. You could say that, but you’d be telling one of the biggest lies ever.’’ The trials of the Malone family, historically accurate, may remind some of today’s difficulties: People battling unemployment, homelessness, prejudice, and despair. Deza and her family meet and surmount all that and more, in a story that ultimately takes us someplace close to Wonderful.
Liz Rosenberg, the author of, most recently, “Tyrannosaurus Dad,’’ teaches at Binghamton University. She can be reached at email@example.com.