Thursday, August 28, 2008

Vet Cadet: Trickster by Laurie Halse Anderson

Children's librarians are of two minds about series fiction. Some regard most of them as ho-hum, pedestrian little novels which have the virtue of luring the lazy or timid reader with their familiar characters and plot lines. But then there are the BIG series, Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, even the Misty books by Marguerite Henry, which have sustained a fictional world over many well-written sequels.

So when a Newbery Honor author like Laurie Halse Anderson (for Fever 1793) turns up with fair-sized paperback line of pet-centered stories, the hope is that the books will be well-written, with believable plots and creditable characters. Her new Vet Volunteers series meets these expectations solidly.

For example, a recent entry in this set, Trickster #3 (Vet Volunteers) offers, for a refreshing change, a boy who loves horses and riding. Volunteering at a neighborhood veterinary clinic during the summer after a not-so-great fourth-grade year, David Hutchinson is an energetic, brash, and sometimes impulsive kid who is eager to find a way to return to horseback riding, in which he excelled before his parents divorced and his dad moved far away.

We're on cleaning duty today at Dr. Mac's Place, the veterinary clinic across the street from my house. I always knew I'd end up working here. I'm close by, I'm great with animals, and people love me. It took a few years of pestering Dr. Mac, the vet, but she finally caved in.

When a nearby stable owner offers riding lessons in return for barn work by Dr. Mac's vet volunteers, David falls in love with Mr. Quinn's newest horse, a flashy quarter horse named Trickster. Trickster has a minor leg wound from a transporting accident, and David, who has been out of favor with Quinn since he got himself and his mount lost on a trail ride the year before, offers to walk Trickster twice daily until his wound heals.

Quinn reluctantly agrees to give David another chance, but when David's habit of lazy shortcuts and thoughtless actions causes a horse to run away with a novice rider and results in a serious re-injury to Trickster's leg, Quinn has no choice but to bar him from further contact with the stable's horses, especially his favorite.

Typically, David can't manage to stay away from the stable, and when he sneaks out late at night to check on Trickster, he finds Dr. Mac, Quinn, and the other hands in the middle of a mystery epidemic threatening all the horses, and David realizes that he may have a vital clue to the nature of the illness.

With a just-right mix of adventure and personal insight for the main character, this set looks to have strong appeal to the animal-absorbed elementary readers who have made Ben Baglio's British series Animal Ark so very popular. Like Baglio's novels, each features a different animal, from endangered sea mammals in Manatee Blues #4 (Vet Volunteers) to lost kittens, Homeless #2 (Vet Volunteers) Each novel features a different member of Dr. Mac's Vet Volunteers, an intelligent and diverse group of five kids brought together by their love and desire to care for animals.

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