As the days begin to grow shorter, we all need laughter’s bright sparks. “Justin Case: Shells, Smells, and the Horrible Flip-Flops of Doom,’’ is a near-flawless novel about the perils of being a geeky young boy in a summer camp for jocks. Rachel Vail’s sequel to her popular “Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters’’ has a lot of the same kind of sly, touching humor as “Diary of a Wimpy Kid’’ or “Big Nate,’’ for a slightly younger crowd, with less reliance on graphics and more on heart-tugging, humorous observation.
Our rising fourth-grade hero, Justin Krzeszewski plays the “Nothing to Worry About” mantra over and over in his head, but he’s a worried kind of kid, hence his nickname “Justin Case.” When he chooses a highly active summer camp over the safer science camp, he tests his bravery in funny and convincing ways. “At Camp Goldenbrook, there are no demonic imaginaries and there is no just playing. There are activities all day long.” Justin makes a few unexpected friends, and treats the reader to insightful questions — “How is Newcomb not volleyball?” — and observations — “In Science Camp we sang songs like, ‘I want to walk (clap, clap) a mile in your shoes, to walk a mile in your shoes.’ In Camp Goldenbrook during Color War we sing, ‘We are the Blue Team. Beat up the Red Team!’ ” Vail hasn’t forgotten how it feels to be young: “Well, sometimes I got distracted and thought about why would they throw pennies onto the floor of the pool . . . and how many cookies I would eat if I had infinity cookies or what Mom would do if I turned into a giraffe.” Matthew Cordell’s black and white line drawings underscore the pathos and humor at every turn.
“Justin Case: Shells, Smells, and the Horrible Flip-Flops of Doom’’ features outcasts and heroes, switches, surprises, accidents, swim tests, painful games of Knuckles, rites of passage, pratfalls, and scenes of pure poetry, like this between Justin and his dad:
“ ‘Hey, Dad,’ I said.
“ ‘Let’s swim to the moon.’
“ ‘Okay,’ Dad said.
“ ‘Looks like we could do it,’ I said.
“ ‘Sure,’ he said, and put his heavy hand on my shoulder.
“ ‘Might take us five hours,’ I said.
“ ‘Mmm-hmmm. But, if you want to, we can.’
“I leaned against him. He was big and solid as a tree. ‘Yeah, Dad,’ I said. ‘Let’s swim to the moon.’ ”
David LaRochelle’s “It’s a Tiger’’ provides the sly, subtle kind of humor that appeals to the preschooler who will grow up to love the Justin Case books. It’s not easy to find picture books with this level of verbal and visual sophistication that manage to remain kid-friendly to even the littlest lap readers.
“It’s a Tiger’’ hides a comically fierce tiger on every other page — now disguised as a monkey’s tail, now a “great big fuzzy snake” or vine. The reader is drawn inside the adventure — “Are you ready for a story? Me too” — into explosive chase scenes. “A TIGER! How did he get here? Hurry! Climb that ladder and we’ll make our escape.” Artist Jeremy Tankard has impeccable timing, moving rhythmically through a book that alternates relaxation (“Ah, sunshine! Doesn’t that feel good?)” with delicious comic terror — “A TIGER! Run!” His use of ultra-vivid burnt orange, bright golds, and lime greens enhances the visual and verbal excitement. The cartoony quality of words and pictures keeps the tiger from being too scary. “It’s a Tiger’’ comes to a sweet surprise ending that, with luck, may lead to a swampy sequel.
Picture this: Goldilocks lives in a posh penthouse with her husband and daughter. One day a certain bear barges in and tries out everything. Some porridge is too “soggy,” some too “crunchy,” and some “a bit on the DRY side, but it is better than nothing.” One chair — a cactus plant — is too ouchy, and another (a house cat) is too noisy. Author-artist (and animator for the popular Charlie and Lola TV series) Leigh Hodgkinson upends the familiar in “Goldilocks and Just One Bear.’’ While her words are witty and well-turned, her art is the key to the manic energy here, working with cool flat perspectives and subtle jokes on every corner of every full-color page. Even the words go zig-zagging and zooming around at angles — the whole book is full of wit and energy. “Goldilocks and Just One Bear’’ will delight children who know the original, yet stands on its own as a picture book about delightfully bad behavior.
Ellis Weiner’s series opener, “The Templeton Twins Have an Idea: Book One’’ will appeal to the Lemony Snicket crowd. It features 12-year-old twins, John and Abigail Templeton, who defend their inventor father’s honor and their lives when a crazed and goofy former student declares himself the real creator of the personal jet pack.
At the core of the novel’s appeal is the snarky, irritable, reluctant narrator who uses sarcasm, ersatz multiple-choice tests, and cryptic crosswords to engage the reader. (“What is the difference between ‘HAA!’ and ‘YAAHH!’? Be specific.”) For me, the narrative intrusion was the laugh-out-loud and saving pleasure of a somewhat overly-convoluted plot. Those who love hair-bend twists and turns may find a winner here.
JUSTIN CASE: Shells, Smells, and the Horrible Flip-Flops of Doom
By Rachel Vail
Illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Feiwel & Friends, 192 pp., ages 7-13, $16.99
IT’S A TIGER
By David LaRochelle
Illustrated by Jeremy Tankard
Chronicle, 36 pp., ages 2-6, $16.99
GOLDILOCKS AND JUST ONE BEAR
By Leigh Hodgkinson
Nosy Crow, 32 pp., ages 3-7, $15.99
THE TEMPLETON TWINS HAVE AN IDEA: Book One
By Ellis Weiner
Illustrated by Jeremy Holmes
Chronicle, 232 pp., ages 9-12, $16.99
Liz Rosenberg, the author of, most recently, “Tyrannosaurus Dad,’’ teaches at Binghamton University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.