I imagine that writing a successful early chapter book must be tricky. It must be accessible to young audiences, but avoid talking over their heads. It must push vocabulary, but not sound like a textbook. And above all, it must be fun, or no one will bother reading it. Barbara Park hit the nail on the head with her Junie B. Jones series (despite parents’ and teachers’ occasional objections). I can testify that Junie B. is as popular with young readers now, both boys and girls, as she’s ever been. And every once and while, someone new comes along to try and join the immortal ranks of Junie B. and Captain Underpants, and one such newcomer is Heidi Heckelbeck, star of Heidi Heckelbeck Has a Secret and Heidi Heckelbeck Casts a Spell by Wanda Coven.
Heidi Heckelbeck is going to school, the second grade, for the first time ever. Until now, she’s been homeschooled with her little brother Henry, but her parents have decided it’s time to get out in the world, so she and Henry are starting up at Brewster Elementary, and Heidi is not at all happy about it. She’s convinced school has nothing to offer her, and when mean girl Melanie calls her smelly and paints a jack-o-lantern mouth on Heidi’s self-portrait, she’s knows she’s right. But then again, there’s Lucy, with her “warm, fuzzy smile”. Maybe it’s not all bad. But when Melanie gets Heidi cast as a scary tree in the school production of “The Wizard of Oz”, Heidi thinks she’s gone too far. She’s ready for payback and ready to reveal her secret power: she’s a witch. In her second book, Heidi devises a spell for payback against Melanie, but may have second thoughts when she sees the damage the spell will cause.
Now, the problem with telling us that Heidi has a secret is, you’ve got to have some build up to the great reveal. Coven does drop a few hints along the way: Heidi has a secret book, and she eschews “girly” colors for black clothes that her brother says looks like a Halloween costume. But besides these few glimpses of something beneath the surface, Heidi’s experiences in school are a bit run of the mill. There’s a mean girl, a sympathetic teacher, new friends, etc.
In the second book, once we’re all in on Heidi’s secret, her story gets a little more interesting. There’s a quest at work in Casts a Spell, wherein Heidi must gather ingredients for her forgetfulness spell she wants to use against Melanie during the play. Heidi also deals with a new bully, though not in the best way. I expected some fallout from her decision, but there was none. Heidi acted badly, and that was that. It’s certainly a talking point for parents. Eventually, Heidi does make the right decision regarding Melanie, and learns her lesson, though we don’t really get to see another side of Melanie herself. She remains a stock villain character.
I was excited about a new early chapter book set, but I’m a little disappointed by the results. Aside from being a witch, there’s nothing really unique about Heidi, nothing that makes me smile. Her second book was a definite step forward from the first, which felt like it was nothing more than an extended prologue. I do think kids might gravitate towards Heidi, though. The words are big, the margins are wide, and illustrations by Priscilla Burris lend the text a whimsical air. I’ll give this to kids, but I’m definitely going to give them both books at once, because the first one is much ado about not a whole lot without volume two to back it up and give it some spice.
Heidi Heckelbeck Has a Secret and Heidi Heckelbeck Casts a Spell by Wanda Coven, ill. by Priscilla Burris
2012, Little Simon
2012, Little Simon