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story.lead_photo.caption "Spark and the League of Ursus" by Robert Repino (Quirk Books, April 21), ages 9-12, 208 pages, $16.99 hardcover. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Celia Storey)

TITLE: "Spark and the League of Ursus"

BY: Robert Repino (Quirk Books, April 21), ages 9-12, 208 pages, $16.99 hardcover.

STORY: The best middle-school chapter books ever written can move adults who read them as readily as they will affect a child, and sometimes more so. This is not one of those books. But it starts from a promising premise: Teddy bears and other toys are only pretending they're inanimate (just like in "Toy Story"), and the bears, in particular, are a secret warrior society of children's guardians.

Charming as that notion is, the circumstances in this story are not cute: kids abducted from home. A monster with confusing intentions and a huge buzz saw. Slashing violence. Disembowelment of a stuffed toy ...

The teddy bear ... uh ... let's say "species" is also an ancient, magical League of Ursus. Its members have the power to repel child-stealing monsters. They have manifested as bears since Teddy Roosevelt inspired the creation of the popular stuffed toy; earlier, the society manifested as something else.

All we know about the league is what our heroine, Spark, has learned from Reginald, an elderly teddy belonging to the 13-year-old brother of the 11-year-old girl that Spark protects. Reginald has trained Spark the way Mr. Miyagi trained the Karate Kid.

Short tale made shorter, children vanish, stolen by a very unhappy, hideous monster with a very sad past. Meanwhile Reginald has disappeared. When the monster comes for her girl, Spark springs into action. She recruits other toys as her comrades, and they do their predictable best. Spark breaks some rules. A blowhard superhero doll behaves like a coward but redeems herself; a timid sock monkey rises to the challenge. A mischievous, agile panda named Lulu uses her power for good.

There are portals opening and closing, looming malevolence, screams, swords, confusing rooms, string, assault, battery, a bully created by hurt feelings, resurrection, worried but clueless adults and ... a happy ending.

Reginald and Spark belong to two cool children who make videos using their toys as action figures. It pains me to say that these kids seem more real than our heroes, which are toys, but this is the case.

Read to Me is a weekly review of short books.



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