That Inkling represents the father’s spirit instead of the son’s is a stirring choice. Ethan conceals Inkling from his father at first — literally, protecting a piece of his father’s soul from him, until Ethan crumbles under the pressure. “A secret was a heavy thing to carry around for so long,” he laments, “and day by day it only got heavier.” Ethan is a stand-in for every child who must take on the role of parent to sustain a family. But part of what Ethan has to learn is that his father’s failings aren’t his own; the more Ethan tries to parent Inkling, the more it metastasizes. When the monstrous blotch is finally devoured, we feel Ethan’s relief, his father’s soul no longer his ward.
Ethan’s father is known only as Dad, but in Christopher Healy’s A PERILOUS JOURNEY OF DANGER & MAYHEM: A DASTARDLY PLOT (Walden Pond Press, 384 pp., $16.99; ages 8 to 12), Mom has a name: Cassandra Pepper, a manic, stargazing inventor in 1883 New York, who seems to be less mother to her 12-year-old daughter, Molly, and more ball-and-chain. Molly’s father is dead, but his ghost looms large: He had “promised his beloved Cassandra she would never have to give up on her dream” of rivaling Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla. After her father’s death, then, Molly quits school and becomes her mother’s assistant, refusing “to let her father become a liar.” Determined to showcase Cassandra’s flying contraption at the World Fair, only to be thwarted by the all-male Inventors’ Guild, Molly soon uncovers the dastardly plot of the title, a death machine targeting the entire city, which Molly and her mother must team up to defuse.
With the help of allies, including a Chinese boy named Emmett (“We don’t have the best reputation around here,” he sighs, fully aware of anti-immigrant sentiment), Molly tracks down the suspected assassins. One by one, the clues point toward famous inventors — Alexander Graham Bell, Edison himself — which gives young readers a chance to meet and exonerate each one before the chase begins again. But amid Healy’s whip-smart banter and well-hewed cameos (including appearances by several unsung female inventors), a thorny question takes hold. Unlike Ethan, who struggles valiantly to not be his parents, Molly is her mother’s proxy. Indeed, Molly exists so purely to serve Cassandra’s hopes, Cassandra’s dreams, Cassandra’s future, that even mother and daughter are left wondering at book’s end: What does Molly want?
Molly has much in common with Mel in Matt Phelan’s illustrated KNIGHTS VS. DINOSAURS (Greenwillow, 160 pp., $16.99; ages 8 to 12), a squire for the knight Bors, “a brute in shining armor” who initially has no clue his liege is a girl. At King Arthur’s Round Table, where the pair are in service, knights act as their squires’ exclusive guardians, which means Mel’s parents are out of the picture and Bors is, essentially, her dad. Testing knight and squire — along with the rest of Arthur’s knights — is a forest full of Jurassic beasts. Whether jousting with a triceratops or facing down a T-rex, Mel should come with a halo: She’s thoughtful, sensitive and wise, “always thinking, planning, preparing.” Parenting her seems to require little more than staying out of her way. Not that Bors seems equipped for the role, insisting a female squire is an affront to his dignity and the natural order, where “Might Makes Right.”