October 08, 2013

How to Curse in Hieroglyphics

by Lesley Livingston and Jonathan Llyr
Illustrations by Stephen Burley
Puffin Canada
248 pp.
Ages 8-12 
October, 2013
Reviewed from galley copy

The title is fun, the fluorescent cover is dazzling and How to Curse in Hieroglyphics is entertaining as a rollicking adventure teeming with mystery, B-movies, graphics, humour and action!

Twelve-year-old cousins and B-movie fans Tweed Pendleton and Cheryl Shumacher live with their grandfather, Jefferson "Popcorn" Pendleton a.k.a. Pops, in Wiggins where he owns and runs the Starlight Paradise Drive-In.  Though the girls are responsible and diligent, they may have a reputation for too much imagination because of their regular game of "Action!" that has them playing movie scenes and chasing monsters.  That and the story they told about "The Incident" that left them as five-years-old sitting on a rock, the survivors and only evidence of a family plane trip in which their parents and siblings, and pilot and plane, all disappeared.  Luckily, even though the babysitting jobs seem to be infrequent, Pops has asked them to try their hand at programming for the drive-in, while he works at reopening the adjacent mini-golf course.

But the girls recognize the competition they'll have when Dudley's Traveling Curiosity Show comes to town and sets up across the road, especially with its posters claiming to have the sarcophagus of an Egyptian princess, Zahara-Safiya.  With the help of their 14-year-old friend, Pilot Armbruster (whose father had piloted the awol plane seven years earlier), the girls undertake a mission to scope out the carnival, along with their eleven-year-old annoyance, Artie Bartleby. 
Everything goes awry when Artie tosses "B. Ruth's ball" (Bob Ruth, not Babe Ruth) and cracks the green stone in a decorative scarab beetle embedded in the sarcophagus.  Some purple smoke and a whirlwind later, Artie is missing, the girls are babysitting 15 cats for the school librarian and Colonel Dudley, the proprietor of the carnival, is freaking out because the sarcophagus is empty.  Tweed and Cheryl's game of Action! becomes a real scenario in which they must herd four toddlers turned minions, deal with a transformed, lisping, scaly and tailed Artie, and thwart a curse to bring about a satisfying "The End" for all.
Readers in the middle-grades (Grades 4 to 6) will chuckle with the sparring dialogue between the kids and their verbose claims when trying to impress adults.  They call Arnie "Shrimpcake" and describe him "as annoying as a mosquito in a dark room" (pg. 122) while reassuring Miss Parks that she could "leave the precious shnookumses" in their capable hands (pg. 62).  Their commando gear consists of  
"two sets of hockey shoulder-pads rescued from outside Wiggins' only skating rink, a welding mask (Cheryl), a pair of cardboard 3D glasses with one blue lens and one red lens (Tweed), and a gear bag full of 6 cans of Day-Glo Silly String, a homemade crossbow and quiver stocked with two dozen spongy suction-cup Nerf arrows, a couple of coiled lengths of bubblegum-pink skipping rope, a dodge ball, a whiffle bat, collapsible poles with green nylon fishing nets attached to the ends, and a bag of Double Stuf Oreos with the word "BRIBES" written on it in black magic marker." (pg. 132)
It's so nice to meet pre-teens who still seem like kids.  Tweed and Cheryl are what all tweenies should be: creative, friendly, and fun-loving.  They're not concerned with looking older than their years or being the most popular or attracting boyfriends.  Even Pilot at 14 isn't playing at impressing anyone.  Maybe that will happen at 15 or maybe never.  In the meantime, all readers will enjoy the kids' exploits as literary entertainment, with some graphic storyboarding and scripting worthy of a favourite family movie.

Actor and author Lesley Livingston has always created books that are well-seasoned with wit and clever repartée (see these reviews of her Wondrous Strange series, Starling, Descendant, Once Every Never, and Every Never After) and it would seem that she has found a writing partner in actor and space geek Jonathan Llyr, who apparently wore a rubber turtle shell on his head on SPACE (Kevin A. Boyd, 2010).  How could middle-grade readers with a taste for geek, history, paranormal or adventure all rolled up in laughs not love this story?  I suspect they'll all be waiting (as we all do with Lesley Livingston's books) for the sequel to How to Curse in Hieroglyphics, hoping to learn the details about "The Incident".  Fortunately, How to Curse in Hieroglyphics has been identified as The Wiggins Weird, Book 1 so we know there's more to come.  Yeah!

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Remember: the book launch for How to Curse in Hieroglyphics is on October 19, 2013.

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