celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2005 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 13, No. 2; June 2005

"Giggerty-geggerty, I can't wait!": long-awaited reprints

The Alley by Eleanor Estes. Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. 1964; Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-204918-5) $5.95 pb; The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode by Eleanor Estes. Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. 1972; Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-204916-9) $5.95 pb

These reprints of very hard-to-find books have already been remaindered, so you might want to grab them while you can. In truth, they're not Estes' best work--The Alley, in particular, is slow-moving to the point of tedium for older readers--but they have a memorable magic in their setting, a long alley formed by two streets of houses, where backyards would normally be. (I've heard of co-housing groups that have formed using this same principle.) It's a perfect place to play with other kids, and though seemingly safe is occasionally--as the children in these stories discover--quite mysterious. (7-10)

Switch on the Night by Ray Bradbury. Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. 1955; Dell Dragonfly, 2004 (0-553-11244-9) $6.99 pb

Bradbury's story/poem about a boy who's afraid of the Night is paired here with some truly inspired illustrations. Heavily influenced by the work of M.C. Escher, they show the boy, pale as milk, endlessly pacing the rooms and stairs of his home; the uses of repeting images in odd perspectives shows vividly how frightened, lonely and restless he is. When a girl named Dark appears and teaches him about all the beautiful things that come with night, the pictures move to glowing images of frogs and crickets that seem to be made of stars. Bradbury's story is long, but the many repetitions make it easy to read aloud, and though the wan, almost Camille-esque little boy and Dark's ludicrously huge, mushroom-like Afro marr the illustrations for me, they are, for the most part, brilliant and beautiful. (3-6)

Hands written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert. Harcourt Brace, 1997; 2004 (0-15-205107-4) $14.95

Everything Ehlert's art is about seems to be summed up in this autobiographical picture book, a wonderful celebration of all kinds of work done with hands. A child describes how she (or he) works with her parents, building things in her dad's workshop, sewing with her mom, working with both of them in the garden. When her father sets up a card table, she has her own place where she can work with her hands, because she knows that when she grows up, she wants to be an artist and "join hands with my mom and dad." Ehlert departs from her more impressionistic collage art here, using mostly photographs of actual objects combined with fanciful touches: you can "open" the child's paintbox to see the colors within, or lift the lid of an old box labeled "screwdrivers." Many of the pages are shaped, including the last three, in which a gardener's glove represents the mom, a workglove the dad, and a small paint-splattered hand the child. (3 & up)

How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell. Illustrated by Emily McCully. 1973; Dell Yearling, 2005 (0-440-44545-0) $5.50 pb

As Billy struggles to eat a worm a day for fifteen days to win a bet, his opponents try increasingly desperate and sneaky methods to make him lose. A combination of amusing grossness and good story have kept this a perennial favorite. (8-12)

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Illustrated by Nocola Bayley. 1894; Candlewick, 2005 (0-7636-2317-2) $19.99

This exquisite, slightly oversized edition of the classic story of Mowgli is perfect for family reading. Large, readable type is set on mutedly colored pages, accompanied by a recurring flower motif and numerous illustrations. Most of the pictures are squares in full color, but some are delicate pencil drawings, attractively incorporated into the text. Mowgli and his animal companions are drawn with great delicacy and expression, giving the pictures far more immediacy and intimacy than usual for such an elaborately produced book. Truly gorgeous. * (4 & up)

A Collection of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. Illustrated by various. Candlewick, 2004 (0-7636-2629-5) $22.99

Going in a completely different direction from the new edition of The Jungle Book (though they do match in size, and excellent readability), this is a glorious mix of illustrative styles, with a different illustrator for each of eight stories. Louise Voce uses comic watercolors for "the Elephant's Child," showing a wobbly Elephant's child and a rather frantic looking Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake. Christopher Corr gives bold color and primitive shapes to the story of how the Rhinoceros got his skin. And Satoshi Kitamura, creator of the splendidly exhausted hero of Cat is Sleepy, here shows the original grumpy Cat. (4 & up)

New Books

Whales on Stilts! by M.T. Anderson. Illustrated by Kurt Cyrus. Harcourt, 205 (0-15-205340-9) $15

Absurdist self-referential humor hits Stratenmeyer Syndicate-type series books with a voooeeeep--KPCHKWOW! as ordinary-girl Lily begins to suspect that her father's office is home to a dastardly plot to conquer the world. (Her father, of course, thinks they are only making harmless stilts for whales.) Luckily Lily has the help of her friends Katie (star of the Horror Hollow series and Jasper (star of the Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut series) to help her defeat the laser-eyed Whales.

Although at times the parody seems laid on with a trowel (after a number of pointless personal meanderings, I found myself wondering if Anderson's actual satiric target might be "Lemony Snicket"), there's no lack of laughs here. The order forms for Horrow Hollow and Jasper Dash books stuck in the middle of the story are great, and I particularly loved one chapter which, coming after ten chapter titles in a row that end in exclamation points, is simply entitled "!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Even better, half of the chapter turns out to be one extended, digressive footnote. Even better, the digression is far more interesting than the actual chapter is.

Whales on Stilts is supposedly the start of a new series called M.T. Anderson's thrilling tales, but I wouldn't think there's enough depth here to sustain an actual series. (Then again, I didn't think it of the Lemony Snicket books, either.) (8 & up)

Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young and Latino in the United States edited by Lori Marie Carlson. Henry Holt, 2005 (0-8050-7616-6) $14.95

A companion to 1994's Cool Salsa, with poems in English and Spanish by writers including Gary Soto, Luis J. Rodriguez and a number of young students. (12 & up)

Fold Me a Poem by Kristine O'Connell George. Illustrated by Lauren Stringer. Harcourt, 2005 (0-15-202501-4) $16

From waking up a piece of paper by folding it into a Rooster, to "hearing papery whisper-thumps" as he lies in bed at night, a little boy spends a day creating a fantastic world of origami animals and shapes. This interconnected collection of short poems--some in recognizable forms like haiku, others free-form--shows that words, like origami paper, can create something more solid and alive than the sum of their parts. In the painted illustrations, inventive posing gives expression to the seemingly faceless origami animals, while still keeping them utterly plausible as pieces of folded paper. * (3 & up)

Technically, it's Not My Fault written and illustrated by John Grandits. Clarion, 2005 (0-618-42833-x) $15.00

A peek into the mind of a boy named Robert reveals some strange territory, like an overfull pet cemetery, a highly convoluted wrestling match between a boa constrictor and an octopus, and and the twisting, turning Autobiography of Murray the Fart as he passes through a straw in a can of Coke into Robert's small intestines. Labeled concrete poems, these short pieces don't actually have a strong relationship to poetry: the emphasis is less on words than on play; little on sound and much on sight. Grandtis, a book designer, makes some wonderful pictures with his stories: firecrackers exploding into fluttering words, pasta spelling out "I hate linguini" on a plate, blades of grass turning into ouches as they're cut. Very fun. (7 & up)

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. Knopf, 2003 (0-37-92400-0) $15.95; 2005 (0-37-583299-8) $8.95 trade

Novels about gay teenagers have certainly come a long way since the days when any gay character invariably would up dead in a car crash. Levithan took on the challenge of writing the mainstream YA novel in which the characters are regular teens who are also gay; in doing so, he created a lovely and moving world that may not be quite reality, but gives an idea of what reality could be.

The narrator, Paul, starts his story with a description of his school life than many kids--gay or straight--would envy. From becoming third grade class president with the campaign slogan, "Vote for Me... I'm Gay!" to declining numerous pleas to run for student council president in order to direct the school musical ("I won't bore you with the details, but let me just say that Cody O'Brien was an Auntie Mame for the ages,") he has had no problem being a popular success in a high school and town so open and progressive, they make Santa Cruz look like Salt Lake City.

Into this perfect gay life comes the potential perfect boyfriend, Noah. But the course of true love never did run smooth, and Paul's romance is complicated by the problems of his friend Tony, whose gay life is far from perfect, the virtual disappearance of his friend Joni, who has been sucked into a boyfriend vortex, and the attentions--welcome or unwelcome?--of his ex, Kyle. When he finally realizes what he truly wants, Paul has to poetically navigate the "fine line between love and stalking" to win back the boy of his dreams.

Kind of like Gordon Korman's hilarious Don't Care High crossed with a Romanovsky and Phillips song, Boy Meets Boy is romance as sweet and tender as it gets, and high school almost as funny. * (12 & up)

The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart. Delacorte, 2005 (0-385-73206-6) $15.95

What could be worse than losing your boyfriend? Losing him to your best friend. Then losing your best friend. Then losing the respect of just about everyone you know. Then having panic attacks about it. In this wryly funny story, fifteen-year-old Ruby--Roo--describes a series of personal and social debacles so humiliating and sad, I was almost having panic attacks along with her. Yet it's not at all a heavy book; the first-person narrative keeps both teen breeziness and teen angst in intelligent proportions, making Roo's plight plausible, entertaining and sympathetic. (14 & up)

My Daddy is a Giant by Carl Norac. Illustrated by Ingrid Godon. Clarion, 2005 (0-618-44399-1) $16

"My daddy is a giant... when the clouds are tired, they come and sleep on my daddy's shoulders" says a little boy--comparatively, a very little boy. Kids will enjoy the silliness of this hyperbolic ode to dads, while the dads themselves will find plenty to make them feel mushy, no matter how big they might be. Godon's illustrations use strong outlines and largely bare backgrounds to keep the focus on the relationship between the gigantic dad and his son, who plans to be a giant too, when he grows up. (2-4)

Reading Makes You Feel Good written and illustrated by Todd Parr. Little, Brown 2005 (0-316-16004-0) $15.99

Parr brings his usual exuberantly positive attitude to this paean to reading. Reading makes you feel good because... you can learn how to make pizza, find your favorite animal at the zoo, or make someone feel better when they're sick (by reading Parr's The Feel Better Book of course.) Best of all, you can do it anywhere: in a bathtub, or a bookmobile, or even underwater, if you're an octopus! Parr fills his boldly colored, whimsical pictures with fun words and signs and titles to read. (1-4)

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Simon Says By Elaine Marie Alphin. Harcourt Brace, 2002 (0-15-216355-7) $17.00; 2005 (0-15-204678-X) $6.95 trade

As I searched my mind for ways to approach a review of Simon Says, I found myself thinking of Jules Feiffer's The Man in the Ceiling. Superficially they're not anything alike, but in the same way that The Man in the Ceiling is an expression of what it means to be an artist, wrapped in a children's book, Simon Says is an expression of what it means to be an artist, wrapped in a YA problem novel. That could be taken as either damning with faint praise or praising with faint damn--and truly, I'm not entirely sure which way I mean it.

Simon Says is an ambitious and ultimately fascinating book. It opens with a prologue which frames it as a thriller or a mystery, and in a sense both of those judgments are correct, but the mystery and thrills of this book are definitely not typical.

"Simon Says" is the name given by sixteen-year-old Charles to the rules by which he lives his life. "Simon says... be like the other kids." "Simon says...keep your art separate." Charles is a painter, but he has never found anyone capable of appreciating his work. And so, though he continues to paint, he hides both his art and himself from everyone, showing them only the Charles they want to see. (If he had had a copy of The Man in the Ceiling as a child, perhaps this whole story would be different.)

As the book opens, Charles is entering a prestigious high school for the arts--not really to be taught, but to meet Graeme Brandt, a seventeen-year-old student who has already published a successful novel Charles thinks he'll find in Graeme the secret he's looking for, "someone who could show you how to have it both ways--how to be who you are, and how to paint what you have inside you and be able to show everybody." But the Graeme he finds is not at all who he expected, and their world views will collide with devastating results.

I would hate to have Simon Says ghettoized as a "gay teen" book, but one of its most intriguing themes is the parallels Alphin draws between art and sexual identity. Three important male characters in Simon Says have some sexual feelings towards other boys, but while one is as intrinsically and openly gay as he is intrinsically and openly an artist, another serves expediency in his relationships just as he does in his art, and the third experiences sexual feelings where he feels emotional connection. It's a much more honest depiction of the variety of human sexuality than usually found in young adult literature--perhaps in most literature--and it serves as a very apt metaphor for artistic expression, because hiding ones sexuality is just another form of playing the game.

Overall, I think Simon Says is powerful and wonderfully imagined--and yet I can't quite get past the writing. Charles' narrative uses constant parenthetical asides as a device to express his raging thoughts; it makes the book feel rushed, and diminished my belief in Charles' integrity and maturity as an artist--it's hard to picture him slowing down for long enough to paint. And then, it is very difficult to describe powerful works of art in a meaningful way, a problem Alphin hasn't completely overcome. The reader has to take an awful lot on faith, because the author seems to be struggling towards something she can't entirely express in words.

Still, both what it attempts and for what it achieves, this is a very rewarding book.

Wizard's Holiday by Diane Duane. Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-204771-9) $17.00; 2005 (0-15-205207-0) $6.95 pb

In the seventh book of the wizard series, Duane seems to have decided to give readers, as well as her characters, a vacation from the angst of the recent books. The mood starts and continues in a low-key tone in which even the potential loss of Earth's sun never seems all that worrisome. As young wizards Nita and Kit go away on a wizard's exchange program and deal with the Lone Power's attack on an apparently idyllic alien race, Nita's sister Dairine tries to cope with some very peculiar "exchange students" back on earth. Far too much time of the narrative is spent doing what someone who wrote for a Star Trek series once described as "tech teching the tech," with long, tedious descriptions of the ins-and-outs of spells that make magic seem far from magical, but the culture clash situations do make for some amusement.

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