Sunday, February 5, 2023

Ben Braver and the Vortex of Doom

Ben Braver and the Vortex of Doom
by Marcus Emerson
Ages: 10+

If you're joining this trilogy late, like me, don't worry; you'll catch up quickly. Ben, surname Braver, is a middle-school-aged kid with no superpowers (just imagine), who for some reason is enrolled at a secret school for super-powered kids. The reason apparently has something to do with the late headmaster, Donald Kepler, being able to see the future and knowing that Ben is fated to save the school. Or maybe the world. But as this installment opens, Ben and his best friends are sitting in the back row of Headmaster Kepler's funeral, after the old fellow sacrificed his life – sort of – to save Ben from an explosion. Things immediately start going awry as, first off, the kid version of Kepler – Donnie to friends and family – crashes his own funeral, then a group of superkids-gone-bad show up demanding to have Donnie handed over to them so they can kill him. Or, you know, they'll destroy the school.

Ben and his buddies Penny and Noah are naturally swept up in things. Things such as a time-travel caper, an encounter with an alien that (in a different timeline) nearly wiped out the human race, and an opportunity to experience superpowers that quite literally goes to Ben's head. Like, in the form of a telepathic squid from Alpha Centauri. He takes superheroing lessons from a guy who does good without actually using his superpowers. He learns tough lessons on friendship and team work. He learns to drive a UFO. He helps fight a climactic battle in the middle of Times Square. And he becomes part of a larger team that includes a ghost, a goat (actually a person who changed into a goat but couldn't change back), and his own bully, who may not be so bad after all.

It's a hilarious, weird, thrilling tale that's about 2/3 narrative and 1/3 illustrations – but I had to be careful not to let my eyes slide too easily across the illustrations, because many of them actually carry the storyline forward with action and dialogue. At the climax, there are six full pages of illustration in a row that could almost have been a fold-out, full of movement and action, worth studying in detail. The characters, both in letters and in pictures, are drawn with quirky detail and with heart, making me laugh, cheer, shake my head at their mistakes and (in at least one scene) get a bit choked up. All around, it's a well-done piece of entertainment. So, while the embarrassing number of unread books in my apartment militates against seeking out more titles by this author, I'd definitely grab one if I happened across it at the bookstore.

Marcus Emerson is the author of many middle-grade-level hybrids of chapter books and graphic novels, for which I'm sure there must be a word but I haven't learned it yet. Other titles of his include 12 "6th Grade Ninja" books, two "Dodge Ball Wars" books, two "Recess Warriors" books, four "Secret Agent 6th Grader" books, nine "Kid Youtuber Books" and of course the "Ben Braver" trilogy, of which this is the third book. The first two are The Super Life of Ben Braver and Ben Braver and the Incredible Exploding Kid.

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