Austin writers tackle gaming, bullying in two new books


Once your child moves past kindergarten, the alphabet books tend to move deeper into the shelf or get remanded to Goodwill. Certainly by mid-elementary school, the choices skew more chapter book than letter-centric.

Enter “Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!: A Gamers’ Alphabet,”Austinite Chris Barton’s new cross-generational picture-book dive into gaming argot that’s as equally appropriate for parents as it is for the children for whom it will (theoretically) be purchased.

Barton, who recently wrapped appearances at the Texas Book Festival and BookPeople, has written books for audiences young (the New York Times-bestselling “Shark Vs. Train”) and young adult (2011’s “Can I See Your I.D.?: True Stories of False Identities”). He bridges those demographics and beyond with “Attack.”

In Barton’s mind, “E” is for Easter egg — not the holiday symbol, but the hidden surprises developers sneak into games for players to discover. “K” is for Kart Racing, and “R” is for RPG, or role-playing game. Each entry includes text explaining the references: “Cheat codes are tricks (sort of secret, but not really) for making the game easier. Or more fun. Or — as the name suggests — not entirely fair.”

Illustrations from Joey Spiotto, who has worked on several video-game projects, echo the games themselves, from pixilated characters reminiscent of “Wreck-It Ralph” to dreamy Hobbit-esque maps. You’ll find yourself sneaking peeks to drop casually into conversation during those moments when your pre-teen looks up from his, well, RPG. (Ages 6 and up)

Unfortunately, bullying also bridges many age groups. With R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder” already a fixture in many classrooms, the time is ripe for books that can explore this topic in an inventive and non-didactic way. Austin’s K.A. Holt offers a genre-bending option in “Rhyme Schemer,” written entirely in free verse.

“Schemer” introduces us to 7th-grader Kevin, a boy you probably won’t like very much. His assessment of his fellow classmates on the first day of school is anything but charitable:

“Giant John

“A parade float of himself.

“Freckle-Face Kelly,

“like a painting

“by that one guy

“who drank too much beer

“and went crazy.”

It would be easy to despise Kevin, even with the backstory of how he’s been ridiculed by his “King Kong jerk” of a brother and ignored by his swamped-at-work parents. But when one of Kevin’s targets snags his journal filled with poems, the bully becomes the victim — and Holt’s novel twists into a distinctive tale of transformation.

Holt, whose 2010 “Brains for Lunch” was a zombie novel in haiku, also is fresh off the Texas Book Festival and BookPeople (as well as a viral blog post earlier this fall about the intense scrutiny she faced when her son was playing in their front yard unsupervised).

How she shepherds Kevin through his coming-of-age journey is a series of events we won’t spoil here. But you don’t need to know the particulars to appreciate how she uses the stream-of-consciousness quality of free verse to offer readers humor and heartbreak in an authentic voice that’s pure middle school.

“Do you think Kevin is a stupid loser?

“That’s what the note said

“in perfect handwriting

“though the paper was so wrinkled

“it looked like my Easter shirt

“wadded up at the bottom of my drawer.”

Fans of series like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” who might not naturally be drawn to poetry will find “Schemer” accessible and entertaining. And those who appreciate wordcraft will enjoy Holt’s metaphors illuminating everyday existence. (Ages 10 and up)

Flanagan event

Recovered from October’s breakneck pace of book events and festivals? Good, because here’s one to mark on your calendars for next month: John Flanagan, the Aussie author of the blockbuster “Ranger’s Apprentice” series, comes to Austin Dec. 5 in connection with “Scorpion Mountain” (Philomel/Penguin, $18.99), the fifth book in Flanagan’s Brotherband Chronicles series. Flanagan’s event begins at 6 p.m.; wristbands will be required for the signing portion and will be available with the purchase of a book beginning at 9 a.m. on Dec. 5 at BookPeople. Visit www.bookpeople.com/events or call (512) 472-5050 for more information.



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