Saturday, December 05, 2015

Cousin Crisis! Don't Feed the Geckos! (The Carver Chronicles) by Karen English

It's after school, and Carlos sits down at the kitchen table to eat his Toaster Tart and eavesdrop on his mother and Tia Lupe's telephone conversation.

Carlos overhears that his cousin Bernardo is coming to stay with them all the way from Texas because Bernardo's mom--Tia Emilia--"needs a fresh start." She's moving to their town and sending Bernardo ahead.

A cousin his age moving in "for a while"--that could be good or bad, Carlos muses. He remembers Bernardo vaguely as a big, bossy kid celebrating his sixth birthday and demanding two pieces of birthday cake at the same time. Maybe having Bernardo around, sort of like a bodyguard, would be a good thing, Carlos thinks. Maybe Mami will let him go to the park or the store anytime he wants if Bernardo is with him. Then Mami interrupts these promising thoughts to tick off jobs for him to do. She tells him firmly to make room in his closet and dresser for Bernardo's stuff.

"I want you to put fresh linens on the top bunk."

"But that's my bunk, Mami," Carlos complains. His little sister Issy is smiling. Sometimes she likes to see Carlos flustered.

"He's had a hard year," Mami says. "I'm thinking Bernardo will probably prefer the top bunk--so let him have it.

Carlos frowns. No way I'm going to let that guy touch my geckos. Or my ant farm, he thinks.

And Carlos' memory is right on target. Bernardo is still big and bossy. He punches Carlos on the arm--hard! He demands to feed the geckos; he leaves his clothes all over the floor; eats all the Toaster Tarts even though Mami only allow one a day for after-school snacks, and then sneaks the empty box back in the cupboard to cover his crime. He stays up playing video games after bedtime and keeps Carlos awake. He fakes his showers most of the time, and when he brushes his teeth, he leaves the spit-out toothpaste all over the sink. He even snores.

It's even worse at school. Mrs. Shelby-Ortiz moves Carlos' best friend Richard and gives Bernardo his seat so Carlos can "help" him learn the class routine, but Bernardo only pretends to do his work. At recess, he announces to all the kids that he's good at all sports. Unfortunately he is. He gets chosen first for teams, and Carlos is picked last, not even on the same team with his friends Gavin and Richard. And after school, Mami takes him to soccer practice with Carlos, and Bernardo takes over the scoring right away and becomes the star of the team, making Carlos look even worse than he is.

Then Carlos sees Bernardo steal three pieces from the 1000-piece puzzle the class is doing, just so it can never be finished. Carlos doesn't want to be a tattletale, a curmudgeonly cousin, but he hates that Bernardo keeps getting away with everything. Carlos wonders just how much longer "for a while" is going to be!

And then one night, Bernardo claims he's done a perfect job of feeding crickets to Carlos' geckos, but in the middle of the night Carlos comes wide awake to the chirp-chirp of loose crickets from the bathroom. That's it! Carlos flips on the bedroom light. It's time for a midnight cousin showdown!

Mami comes in and Carlos unloads all his complaints, even telling about the theft of the puzzle pieces. At first Bernardo denies it all.

"Bernardo--I found the pieces in your backpack. Why?, Bernardo? Why?"

"I ... don't know." Bernardo says. "How come you just fixed it so someone would find them on the floor?"

"Good question." Carlos says.

Family loyalties are complicated, as the award-winning Karen English shows in the latest in her series, Don't Feed the Geckos!: The Carver Chronicles, Book Three (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). And when his sister Issy admits being the cause of the great cricket escape, Carlos quickly apologizes to Bernardo, and when he learns that Bernardo's father was killed in the military, he begins to understand his cousin's behavior a little better. As in her earlier books in series, Dog Days: The Carver Chronicles, Book One and Skateboard Party: The Carver Chronicles, Book Two (see reviews here) author English has great insight into early elementary students as they begin to learn how to be members of a family and school community, one with careful respect for the changing child. For young readers Karen English's easy narration and Laura Freeman's realistic but humorous drawings ease the transition from picture book to novel format with great insight and sensitivity.

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