Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Amelia Rules! (three volumes) by Jimmy Gownley

One of the more surprising finds during my Eisner reading last month was the fourth volume of Jimmy Gownley's young readers series Amelia Rules! -- I'd thought it was minor and soaked in sentimentality (before I'd actually read it), but found it was better-written and more interesting than that. It's still an all-ages series about cute kids and the imaginative scrapes they get into in a mostly idealized small town, yes, but there was an unexpected emotional depth to the characters, so I wanted to check out the rest of the series.

It turned out that local libraries had all three of the earlier books, so I ran through all of the earlier stories in less than a week...and now I'm not quite as impressed by Amelia Rules! as I was at first. Part of that is because Gownley has been improving as he's gone along, so the first volume has the most obvious and heavy-handed of the stories. And when I jumped immediately from the fourth volume from the first, I went from his best Amelia Rules! stories to the least of them.

The Amelia of the title is Amelia Louise McBride, a girl of about ten whose parents have just gotten divorced as the series begins. Her mother has moved herself and Amelia back to her old home town in Pennsylvania from their home in New York City, and moved in with Amelia's aunt Tanner. The divorce is handled well; it never becomes as thuddingly obvious thematically as I suspected it might.

So Amelia is settling into a new town, and making new friends -- they keep accumulating as the books go on (which makes a much richer, more realistic picture of childhood than the typical "here's me, my two best friends who are always with me, the one comic relief and one bully" cast of too many entertainments for kids. There's Reggie, whom Amelia sort-of likes, and Rhonda, who also likes Reggie in that mostly secret way of grade-schoolers. And then there's Pajamaman, who is Reggie's sidekick, who never talks, and who always wears pajamas. (He's also the token really poor kid, and -- unlike the rest of the unpopular main cast -- friendly with the cute blonde girls at school, so he gets to be a whole constellation of "wacky friend" cliches.)

The first book is made up of short stories, as Amelia meets these new kids, starts at Joe McCarthy Elementary -- where the "school sucks! teachers are all evil morons, amirite?!" nudging gets tired very quickly -- and talks to the audience a lot. It does reach the level of true emotion, particularly by the end, but there's a lot of sentiment to wade through first.

The second book adds family members (dead ones, mostly) for Amelia, continues the love triangle, and has Amelia and Rhonda actually become friends instead of just loathing each other. The pretend-superhero stuff continues -- Reggie is obsessed with being a superhero, and drags all the rest along with him -- and the kids find their arch-enemies in a similar group of kids from across town who dress up as ninjas. Luckily, they're not just a joke; they actually become characters and continue to be important. We also learn more about Tanner's very unlikely past.

And then the third volume is one long story, in which Amelia meets even more new people, almost moves again, and finishes up fourth grade. Gownley also steps up his writing here; the focus is more tightly on the characters and their dialogue really rings true. (He manages to make the head ninja, Kyle, both a button-pushing little jerk and a sympathetic character, for one.)

Amelia Rules! is not the masterpiece some of the quotes on the book would have you believe it is. It's not the second coming of Peanuts in particular; Gownley is writing about essentially authentic kids (though they have a freedom of movement and action that real kids haven't had most places in the US for a generation or more, or never really had except in stories), and using them to write about the events in kids' lives. It's more of a book for adults looking back at their childhoods than for current kids, since the iron law of kids' books is that kids only read about people older than they are, and these kids are pretty young. For older grammar-school kids or tweens willing to flout that iron law, though, they could find some very enjoyable comics stories.

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