Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The New Novel for Middle Graders, Adam Rex's Cold Cereal Tastes Great, Even in Milk (And it Goes on Sale February 7).

When I was a young kid, my family used to visit my older sister and her husband who were in grad school at the University of Michigan. I don’t have too many memories of that time, except for one particular trip when we went to Battle Creek, Michigan and took the old Kellogg’s cereal tour. I think I have such strong memories about this because of the cartoon characters associated with the brands—Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, and Snap, Crackle and Pop to name a few.

It seemed that if marketed a cereal to kids, they needed a mascot. Quarker Oats had Captain Crunch, and General Mills (sometimes the division is called Big G) had their own assortment—Trix the Rabbit, Lucky the Leprechaun, Sonny the Cuckoo who loves Cocoa Puffs.

Sometimes the cereal mascots were original, other times they were licensed from cartoons, like Fruity Pebbles. In the sixties, Hannah Barbera cartoons were linked to a lot of the Kelloggs lines, while Casper the Friendly Ghost shilled a sugar coated version of Ralston’s Chex. And Post had a whole series of cartoons around their brands, from Linus the Lionhearted for Crispy Critters to the Honeycomb Kid for to a postman named Lovable Truly for Alpha Bits. I think the only mascot from that period which continued on was Sugar Bear.

So you can only imagine the mythology of breakfast cereal looms large over 20th century American history, pop culture division. But in the new novel Cold Cereal (which goes on sale February 7) by Adam Rex, cereal mythology merges with Arthurian legend to create a three-part middle-grade series, and it’s about as crazy as Sonny the Cuckoo.

The story follows two sets of kids. Scott (it’s short for “Scottish”, don’t ask) and Polly have moved to Goodborough, New Jersey, where their mom has just gotten a job at the lab of Goodco Cereals. Their dad John is long out of the picture, having found fame under a new stage name, Reggie Dwight*

The kids in this old-fashioned company town are kind of mean; the only two willing to give Scott the time of day are the twins Erno and Emily. They don’t look like twins though—Emily is both paler and weaker than her brother, picked on by the other kids. They live with their step-father Mr. Wilson, who apparently keeps them busy with clever competitions. And once a week they get a visit from their eight-foot tall housekeeper, Biggs.

The stage is set when Scott starts seeing apparitions—first a unicorn, then rabbit man, and finally a leprechaun. And then that leprechaun tries to steal Scott’s backpack while on a field trip to New York. And it turns out he is not a leprechaun but a churichaun, a near relation and he goes by Mick. And Mick tells Scott about a diabolical plot. Goodco, formerly the Goode and Harmliss Cereal Company, keeps magical creatures in captivity, squeezing their magic into every box, just like they say on the commercials.

And needless to say, with every discovery, things turn out to be worse and worse. And I don’t want to give too much away, but the diabolical plot within the plot does have to do with Arthurian Legend. It makes me want to go back and read Le Morte d’Arthur or something. It also reminds me why it’s so sad that everything past 1923 can’t be the inspiration for future novels of this sort without jumping through the red tape of permissions.

Adam Rex’s novel is at the same time serious and zany, sometimes quite dark and other times silly. I read the book early, before all the illustrations were in place. I can’t wait to see what the finished novel looks like—I loved the raw illustrations that were included for some of the plates, particularly the cartoon commercial storyboards that pepper the narrative.

There’s one other influence in the book, and folks who know me well remember that it’s one of my favorite books of all time. At one point, Harvey the rabbit man is spotted reading Half Magic in Biggs’s treehouse. Readers of Edward Eager’s septet of novels know that there was almost always a sighting of a book by Eager’s inspiration, E. Nesbit, with a discussion of magic and its rules. And sure enough, the characters explain some magical rules to our young heroes soon after. “If we didn’t have rules we’d be gods” as Mick notes.

Though I have a lot of questions that will not be answered until volume two, not likely to come out until early 2013, I still feel satisfied—it’s a fun story that will as likely inspire a kid to read more about Arthur as it will get him to ponder the likelihood that Lucky the Leprechaun not only exists, but is doing hard labor somewhere in Minnesota.

Adam Rex, who is also known for his novels The True Meaning of Smekday, the picture book Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and the teen novel Fat Vampire, as well illustrating the Brixton Brothers series, is coming to town this coming Friday, February 10. Alas, there was not time for him to do a public event—this time it’s schools only. I tell you this for two reasons.

One, we can still get you a signed copy of any of Mr. Rex’s novels. Just email me before the 10th.

And two, we are always on the lookout for more schools to host our events. There is no cost for the event but there are some requirements. We’re generally looking for 150-plus kids, and while there is no sales requirement, we generally need to sell 50 hardcovers or 100 paperbacks to make it worthwhile for the publisher’s visit. And we do have some schools that can sell double that, so there is stiff competition for these slots. We sell the books in book-fair style, with a form that goes home beforehand. Some schools buy copies for classroom libraries, or offer copies to students as a scholastic reward, or subsidize the cost with grants. In any case, the cost of this visit is a fraction of what it would be if the school organized it on their own. Interested in making a proposal? Contact us at your convenience.

*Turnabout is fair play, Mr. John.

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