Marissa Moss, author of the Amelia's Notebooks series, first published in 1995, featured in the American Girl Magazine and now totaling more than twenty titles, brings us the boy version, sort of. As Max himself says, "There's a girl in my class who keeps a notebook about EVERYTHING in her life. SUPER BORING!" Max's notebook, which he found mysteriously tucked under his pillow one morning, is "perfect for writing scientific stuff in... I have so many great ideas, I need a place to record them. I don't want to forget ANY of my cool inventions or experiments. My mom and dad are real scientists and I'm going to be one, too." A combination of Alien Eraser comic strips, drawings, photographs, experiments and inventions, Max's notebook also weaves multiple plot threads throughout the story. The main plot line in Max Disaster #1, Alien Eraser to the Rescue, involves the escalating fights between Max's parents that result in their separation and Dad moving into his own apartment by the end of the book. Max's feelings about this and his attempts to make sense of it are is a subtle theme that carries on into Book #2 and, I suspect will do so for the course of the series.
At first I was thrown by this development. On the surface, this book seemed to be about a boy who likes to draw comics and explode marshmallows in the microwave under the guise of the term "science experiment." And, because the main character is a boy and we all know that boys do not experience emotions or notice the emotions of others, I expected this to be a straightforwardly funny story with the typical gross things like boogers or farts thrown in here and there. The dissolution of a marriage and how it effects the children seemed to be wildly out of place, both for the target age target gender of the book. But, I do know, boy do I know after parenting two very sensitive, emotional boys, that boys do feel as well as think and they are concerned about the welfare of others, even if it is generally most often in direct proportion to how someone else's happiness will affect their own state of well being. And, based of the books I have read in an effort to expand my horizonal experience of the world of children's literature, books with boys as main characters can be well written, entertaining and thoughtful AND sell well - all at the same time! The first that comes to mind, written at a slightly lower reading level, is Megan McDonald's excellent series, Stink, now up to book #4 and published by Candlewick Press, who also brings us the Max Disaster series, among other great books.
The other wonderfully creative thread in the fabric of this already very creative story is the Alien Eraser himself. The front and end pages of each book feature comics in which the Alien Eraser is an independent being who has come to earth on a mission to, as he puts it, "find an unsuspecting host - someone who will think that he's invented me and will draw stories about me... someone I can use to recount my glorious deeds." Alien Eraser comes Max's and slips a notebook under his pillow as he sleeps. Within the pages of the notebook are comics that Max writes and illustrates about Alien Eraser after he and his best friend Omar decorate dozens of pencil topping erasers to look like people, villagers fleeing a volcano eruption (this during a moment of boredom at having to perform the same old vinegar and baking soda experiment again in class), military guys and aliens. Max even makes a happy family of erasers that he wishes would replace his arguing parents and mean older brother.
The experiments and inventions included in the book are very do-able for a kid with some adult supervision and actually seem pretty cool. In Book #1, Invention #4 is a glitter jar and Experiment #4 is a look at how how hot water and cold water react to each other. I have never seen this one before and plan to try it out as soon as I can find two empty jars in my cupboards. Book #2, Alien Eraser Unravels the Mystery of the Pyramids is even better because Experiment #2 is a recipe for a modern version of an ancient love potion (which Max hopes will make his parents change their minds about separating.) If my son has not already concocted something like this (but not for the same reasons...) without my knowledge, I am sure he will be stirring up the toenail clippings, honey and birthday candle as soon as he reads this book. I especially like Book #2, in which Max and Omar team up to do a school report on Ancient Egypt because Moss includes facts about Egypt that I never knew and avoids the typical type of information found in kid's books. I also loved the scene in the beginning of the book when Max hurts his mother's feelings by calling his Dad to ask him about pyramid power instead of asking her. Max confides in his notebook, "Here's why I didn't ask Mom: As soon as she heard I was studying Egypt she gave me a HUGE pile of books. The whole point of asking a parent a question is so that you don't have to slog through so many books to find the answer yourself." As a mom who has been known to throw a book at any assignment/problem my kids bring to me, I had to laugh. Thank you, Marissa Moss, for cluing me in as to why my kids are so secretive about their school work these days!!
Actually, I had lots of laugh-out-loud moments and even more snickering-to-myself moments when reading these two remarkable books. Marissa Moss first wrote about Max in 2003, but I could not find out where or in what format. He may have made an appearance in one of Amelia's Notebooks. Either way, I think the time is ripe for his reappearance. With the rising popularity of graphic novels and manga in general, as well as the phenomenal success of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, a very funny journal of middle schooler Greg Heffley, the shelves at the book store definitely have room for a book series that is rich visually, humorous and thoughtful. Bravo Marissa Moss!
The Max Disaster books will not be available for purchase until May 12, but, when they are published they will be sold simultaneously in hardcover (for $15.99) and in paperback (for the very reasonable, considering all of the color illustrations, $6.99). I think that, in a time when books for young readers like The Magic Tree House and Junie B Jones, which were previously released initially in paperback for a reasonable $3.99 and are now coming out exclusively in hardcover for $11.99, this is a bold and smart move on the part of the publisher.
Stink series by Megan McDonald with illustrations by the superb Peter H Reynolds.
The Fog Mound Trilogy brilliantly written and illustrated by Susan Schade and Jon Buller.
And, for those of you who home school or have kid's interested in history, don't miss Marissa Moss' excellent historical books on time periods raging from Ancient Rome to the Great Depression.