Book: The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina
Author: Kara LaReau
Illustrator: Jen Hill
Age Range: 8-12
The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina is the first of a new apparent series of illustrated chapter books written by Kara LaReau and illustrated by Jen Hill. I hope it's a series, anyway, because it's a fun book featuring unusual characters.
The Bland sisters, Jaundice and Kale, live on their own in Dullsville. They lead a very quiet, predictable life, eating the same food every day and reading from a single book. Their parents left on an "errand" several years earlier and have not returned. But the girls, who only dimly remember their parents, are managing just fine. Right up until the day that a female pirate comes to the door and kidnaps them. Kale and Jaundice end up dragged along on an adventure that is not at all comfortable or predictable, but that young readers are sure to find entertaining.
The tone of The Jolly Regina reminds me a bit of Maryrose Wood's Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, in which a relatively prim person is surprised to find herself in the midst of unlikely and dangerous circumstances. I found the Bland sisters also to be a sort of fun house image of Pippi Longstocking. Like Pippi, they are self-sufficient and happy to live alone without a parent. Unlike Pippi, they are utterly dull and not even a little bit brave. When something seems perilous, they simply close their eyes and (never successfully) wish the situation away. Here's a snippet:
"Jaundice and Kale pride themselves on their exacting routine. After breakfast (plain oatmeal with skim milk, a cup of weak, tepid tea on the side) they tend to their business of darning other people's socks, which takes the better part of the day. Each allows herself one ten-minute brea, during which she eats a cheese sandwich on day-old break and drinks a glass of flat soda while gazing out the window, watching the grass grow.
The Bland Sisters look forward most to the evenings, when they entertain themselves by reading the dictionary to each other, then staring at the wallpaper until they fall asleep." (Page 3, ARC)
The vocabulary in The Jolly Regina is quite advanced for what a book with short, heavily illustrated chapters. I'd put this one more in the middle grade than early chapter book camp. Each chapter begins with the definition (and a short sketch) of a word that will be used in the chapter, such as "paraphernalia", "vehemence", and "anthropology". Other rich words, like "fiasco" are used in the text but not necessarily defined.
There's also a fair bit of wordplay that almost borders on inappropriate - I think that it will make young readers giggle and feel mature. For instance, a pirate ship manned by men is called the Testoroso, while the female-crewed ship is the Jolly Regina. There are a lot of references to "booty" in the context of the male/female battle (of words and swords) between the two ships. We learn that "the crew of the Jolly Regina were not only pillagers and plunderers. They were also ruthless depantsers" and that "Cap'n Ann had the biggest booty ye ever laid eyes on! The Bland Sisters tried to imagine this, with mixed results."
It is, of course, nice to see that the strong characters in this book (pirate captains and such) are all female, without the book having any hint of sparkly pink that could turn off male readers. This is a book featuring rat stew and pirates marooning people on deserted islands, albeit with the added humor of a singing ship's cook, and puns like "Captain Ann Tennille".
Also worth noting are various hints that the sisters are (or at least Kale is) on the autism spectrum and/or have OCD. Here are a couple of hints:
""Hmm," Kale said. "I seem to recall crying whenever our mother tried to coax us into venturing outside. The sun always felt so harsh and the flowers seemed too fragrant, and the laughter of other children hurt my ears."" (Page 46, ARC)
"Kale sighed. She was enjoying counting sand, as it gave her the same feeling she had when she watched the grass grow at home. She felt peaceful, almost sleepy, as if she were not really thinking, or using her brain at all." (Page 131, ARC)
I think it's a triumph that LaReau was able to create two heroines who are smart but also intellectually quirky, and who are determinedly NOT interesting, without making the book itself the least bit boring. I especially appreciated the Bland Sisters' choice at the end of the book.
The illustrations in the advance copy that I read were not complete, but there's enough to suggest that they add humor and action to the story. I flagged quite a number of passages and illustrations as I went through, and certainly laughed aloud on more than one occasion. I think that The Jolly Regina is a fun addition to the ranks of not-so-realistic (in a good way) illustrated fiction for middle grade readers. I hope to see future books in the series. Recommended!
Publisher: Amulet Books (@AbramsKids)
Publication Date: January 10, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
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