celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2005 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 13, No. 3; August 2005


Phillis Wheatley: Young Revolutionary Poet by Kathryn Kilby Borland and Helena Ross Speicher. Illustrated by Cathy Morrison. Bobbs-Merrill, 1968; Patria Press, 2005 (1-882859-47-2) $14.95

Volume 10 in the "Young Patriot" series, which reprints the "Childhood of Famous American Series" (they'll always be "the orange biographies" to me) tells the story of how Phillis Wheatley was purchased at a slave auction by the kindhearted Susannah Wheatley. Growing up as one of the Wheatley family, Phillis became a voracious reader and a well-known poet. This is clearly a somewhat sanitized account: aside from describing Phillis as a "small black girl," race is virtually ignored and Phillis is generally referred to as a servant rather than a slave. But as usual with this series, the plentiful dialogue and interesting details of the fictionalized account keep it engrossing in a way nonfiction children's biographies too seldom match. (8-12)

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen (Previously titled The Sunita Experiment) by Mitali Perkins. Little, Brown, 1993; 2005 (0-316-69943-8) $16.95

The "Sunita Experiment" is Sunita Sen, a thirteen-year-old girl whose ordinary case of adolescent angst has been further complicated by the arrival of her Indian grandparents for a year-long visit. Suddenly her mother is wearing sarees all the time, there's curry for dinner every night, and Sunita isn't allowed to have boys over anymore. As she tries to juggle her connections to her Indian culture with her desire to fit in, it's no wonder that Sunita feels like a "wild new experiment," a jumble of different elements mixed all together. Will she ever learn that something different can also be something special?

This is a perceptive and insightful book that will strike chords in most readers. Sunita's alienation from the white-bread world of her peers is sympathetically but intelligently drawn, making it clear that although prejudice against her does exist, many of her problems fitting in stem from her own insecurities. Her growth from intolerant conformism to acceptance of herself and others is well-drawn and believable.

It's interesting to note that although most of the book is told in a fairly standard and commonplace narrative voice, there are several passages scattered throughout it--usually in the form of reminiscences of Sunita's grandfather--which are quite different, mature and beautiful. These provide a special window for seeing into and appreciating Indian culture, but they can also be seen as metaphors for Sunita's discovery that she can be both ordinary and unique. Note on this edition: Perkins has updated the ending, out of concern that the original played too much into stereotypes about "exotic" women from other cultures. (9-13)

Sheep Out to Eat by Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin, 1992; 2005 (0-618-58339-4) $5.95 board

Now available in board book format: In one of their funniest adventures yet, the five sheep from Sheep in a Jeep stop in a tea shop, where their table manners leave a great deal to be desired. When the sheep accidentally add pepper to their tea and cakes, the resulting sneezing fit makes a shambles of the tea shop and they sheep are asked to leave. Luckily, just outside of the shop they discover a much more comfortable place to eat lunch--the lawn--and after smacking their lips, they happily leave tips. Written in Shaw's usual succinct and clever rhyme, with Apple's lighthearted, expressive illustrations, this is just as much fun as the previous books. * (2 & up)

Also now available in board: Sheep Trick or Treat

King Bidgood's in the Bathtub written by Audrey Wood. Illustrated by Don Wood. King Bidgood's in the Bathtub: The Musical composed and performed by Carl and Jennifer Shalyen. 1993; Harcourt, 2005 (0-15-205578-9) $17.95 book and CD

Like all good picture books, King Bidgood's in the Bathtub is a wonderful marriage of text and illustrations, incomplete without both. How can such a book be put on tape? Turn it into a musical, with songs that flesh out the story to compensate for the lost pictures. It's a clever concept, and it's fairly cleverly employed, with a variety of musical styles (an amusing 1950's be-bop, a madrigal, a round, and the ubiquitous rap) substituting for the aesthetic and educational value of the illustrations. Though it lack the more subtle humor of the book, the songs are catchy and fun, with some charming moments. (4-8)

New Books

Heir of Mystery by Philip Ardagh. Illustrated by David Roberts. Henry Holt, 2004 (0-8050-7477-5) $9.95

"The Second Unlikely Exploit" finds the remaining McNally children trying to rescue the stolen brain of their little brother Fergal, who came to an untimely end at the beginning of the The Fall of Fergal. A slight but more than slightly funny dark comedy. (8 & up)

Also available: The Rise of the House of McNally: a triumphant ending for the McNally's unlikely exploits.

Sweet Dreams, Maisy written and illustrated by Lucy Cousins. Candlewick, 2005 (0-7636-2874-3) $12.99

Less down-to-earth than Maisy's Bedtime, which focuses on pragmatic bedtime routines like brushing teeth and using the toilet, this book gives Maisy a more poetic side. As the moon rises and the stars begin to shine, Maisy and her lovey Panda enjoy the view, then toddle off to bed. As Maisy sleeps, with little black cat cozy on her blanket, the book instructs the "silver moon and twinkling stars" to "shone your light on Maisy." The illustrations have a an extra touch of pretty too, with glowing night colors added to the usual chunky shapes and childlike dark outlines, and sparkly letters on the cover. (2-5)

Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candace Fleming. Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Atheneum, 2002 (0-689-83152-8) $16.00

Reminiscent of The Tale of Peter Rabbit--if it had been written from McGregor's point of view--this tale of Man vs. Bunny is equally delightful in its own right. Mr. McGreely has dreamed for years of planting a garden, and finally one Spring he hoes and sows and watches his garden grow. But his dreams of crisp, fresh veggies are ruined by three hungry bunnies. As Mr. McGreely gets angrier and angrier at the devastation of his garden, he builds more and bigger structures around it--but the bunnies always find a way through. Until one day he builds such a huge, enormous thing around his garden, the bunnies can't possibly get in. Or can they?

Fleming uses a combination of repetitive and cumulative prose that makes the story simply sing when read aloud, and Karas' lively illustrations give it great expression and charm--especially the last page, which shows Mr. McGreely sitting on the grass and moodily gnawing a carrot along with the three happy gnawing bunnies. Adults who choose to can find lots of lessons here about the futility of escalation, the benefits of sharing, and the drawbacks of trying to overcontrol nature... or they can simply share a terrific story. * (2-8)

The Isabel Factor by Gayle Friesen. KCP Fiction, 2005 (1-55337-737-0) $16.95

Forced to face her summer gig as a counselor-in-training on her own, when her fearless and dynamic best friend Zoe breaks her arm, Anna learns some uncomfortable but ultimately empowering lessons about how she relates to people. A sharply written, involving story. (12 & up)

The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman. Dutton, 2004 (0-525-47182-0) $15.99

Shusterman is known for his deft mixing of suspense and pathos; here he shows he can also add humor into the mix, with delicious results. Narrated by fourteen-year-old Anthony (Antsy), a classic Brooklyn wiseass, this is the... transparenter-than-life story of Calvin Schwa, a boy who blends into the background so perfectly he's, in Antsy's words, "functionally invisible." What Antsy doesn't know is how much Calvin, aka the Schwa, fears he will disappear altogether one day. Even an overabundance of stock character can't keep this story from being both odd and hilarious, and ultimately very touching. (13 & up)

Now (or Again) in Paperback

The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House by Mary Chase. illustrated by Peter Sis. Knopf, 1968; 2003 (0-375-82572-X) $15.95; Dell Yearling, 2005 (0-440-41956-5) $5.50 pb

It seems that every adult has that one children's book: the book that you will never quite forget and always yearn to identify. It may be a plot, a character, or barely an image, but something about that book made it stick. This was mine. And though the helpful folks at rec.arts.books.childrens helped me identify it years ago (under its original title, The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden), and I subsequently bought a lovely musty-smelling discard from the Salem library, with the original title and illustrations, I'm thrilled to see it finally in print again.

The heroine, Maureen Swanson... well, she's not much of a heroine, for starters. In fact, she's a rude, obnoxious bully. But Maureen meets her match when she sneaks into a deserted house and sneers at the portraits of seven lavishly dressed women on its walls. There is an old magic lurking in the Messerman mansion and Maureen will pay for her rudeness--and for taking home the feathered bracelet she found in the house.

What was it about this book that so stuck with me? Aside from the memorable nastiness of the main character, it was mostly a barely defined sense of creepiness. Rereading it today, I see that in fact the creepiness is in some ways quite subtle, a cold, shivery kind of covert menace. Even understanding, or guessing, more than Maureen does, the reader is still never quite sure what is really going on and what the consequences might be.

It is, even now, a one of a kind story. Get your copy now, while they still smell good.

The Wizard's Dilemma by Diane Duane. Harcourt, 2001 (0-15-202551-0) $17.00; Harcourt, 2005 (0-15-205491-x) $6.95 pb

As the fifth book in this series opens, things have taken a rather depressing turn in Nita and Kit's wizard partnership; although no longer separated geographically, they now seem to have trouble connecting, with difficult issues of age, sex, and what other people think clouding their once-strong bond. When trouble arises over the correct way to do a spell, Kit finds himself on an off-universe assignment partnered with his dog; meanwhile, Nita is forced to face one of the biggest challenges of any person's life--which will turn out to be the biggest challenge of any wizard's life--at a time when she is particularly alone and vulnerable.

Concentrating heavily both on internal feelings and conflicts and on external adventures, much of The Wizard's Dilemma winds up giving short shrift to both. The lack of a genuine narrative connection between the subplots gives the book a slow, overstuffed feeling, and though filled with magic, it's not very magical. Once it really gets moving though, the story is increasingly powerful and gripping, with a payoff worthy of the best of the series.

Also now available: A Wizard Abroad by Diane Duane. 1997; Magic Carpet, 2005 (0-15-205503-7) $6.95 pb; A Wizard Alone by Diane Duane. 2002; Magic Carpet, 2005 (0-15-205509-6) $6.95 pb

Fourth and sixth in the series. (10 & up)

The Tower Room by Adele Geras. Harcourt, 1992; 2005 (0-15-205537-1) $6.95 trade

The line between a prison and a refuge can be ambiguous, especially for someone on the verge of adulthood. For seventeen-year-old Megan, life in the cozy Tower Room at Egerton Hall means more to her than she will realize--until she is forced to leave it.

Orphaned at age ten and adopted by an emotionally distant guardian, Megan's whole life is her boarding school, Egerton Hall. There she meets caring teachers, studies hard, and makes two special friends, Alice and Bella, who become her roommates in the Tower Room, the highest room in the house. But when Megan looks down from the tower and sees Simon Findley, a young man her guardian Dorothy has hired as a lab assistant, everything else in her life starts to seem unimportant.

Normally a crush in the all girls school would go nowhere... but Megan lives in the Tower Room, which happens to have a convenient scaffolding nearby. This leaves just two things in the way of their romance: Megan's fear that Simon doesn't really love her as she loves him, and her growing suspicion that Dorothy may also have fallen for him.

Megan narrates her story in the form of a letter, interrupting her memories of the past with painful revelations about her stressful and lonely present life. Expelled from Egerton Hall, no longer sheltered in the security of the Tower Room, she has realized that "it's easy to have love as your major preoccupation when you have no other urgent problems to think about." This could feel preachy, but Megan's story is so convincingly told, it just stands as simple truth. Happily, Geras finds hope as well as sadness in this modern Rapunzel story, showing that Megan is not doomed to either prison or exile, but has the power to seek out her own version of "happily ever after." (14 & up)

Watching the Roses by Adele Geras. Harcourt, 1992 (0-15-294816-3); 2005 (0-15-2055310-2) $6.95 trade

Who would Sleeping Beauty be if her story was told today? What would be the forces that shaped her life and caused her deathless sleep... what would be the truth behind her rescue? These are the questions asked in Watching the Roses, an exceptionally powerful fairy-tale retelling.

Alice, an English schoolgirl, has lain on her bed, seemingly asleep, since the night of her eighteenth birthday party--stricken dumb by a trauma so severe she can only cope by retreating from the world. But her retreat is not complete: in the lonely hours when no one is watching, she keeps a diary. And as she writes in soft murmurs about her friends, her school, her family history, she gets closer and closer to the events of her birthday, until she is able to release the words that keep her under a spell of silence.

Watching the Roses could stand alone as a beautifully written book about recovering from trauma, without the trappings of the fairy tale... yet they somehow add immeasurably to the story. The constant yet surprising shock of seeing parallels adds to the sense of pre-destined doom which haunts the book, especially as the reader realizes the terrible form the evil must inevitably take. Perhaps Geras overdoes the parallels slightly, occasionally straining credibility, but the overall effect of the familiar story in its new form is fascinating and utterly convincing. She has given Sleeping Beauty a soul, one which will be hard to forget. * (14 & up)

Pictures of the Night by Adele Geras. Harcourt, 1993 (0-15-261588-) $16.95; 2005 (0-15-22055-43-6) $6.95 trade

The third in the "Egerton Hall" series of retold fairy-tales follows the adventures of Bella, a beautiful girl who spends the summer singing with a seven-man rock band in order to get away from her jealous and hurtful stepmother, Marjorie. It's a time of growing up for Bella, as she finds herself involved with a member of the band who's in love with her, even as she falls in love with a stranger she'll likely never see again. But if she keeps having bizarre accidents--almost strangled by a belt and poisoned by a hair comb--she may not live to grow up anymore...

Up to a point, Pictures of the Night is a very enjoyable book, with the fairy-tale parallels once again providing a new and insightful look at a common theme of young adulthood. Especially good is the description of how Marjorie's feelings towards Bella changed over time, from treating her like a doll to be dressed to hating her as a rival. But Pictures of the Night is marred by an extremely abrupt and unsatisfying ending, which fulfills the demands of the fairy-tale ending in a half-hearted way but which doesn't resolve any of the conflicts created in Bella's story. I was also disappointed to find that Bella doesn't learn anything from her stepmother's hatred; she is only too happy to use her own beauty and to put down (as too fat, of course) a woman she is jealous of. It is all too easy to see Bella in Marjorie's place in a few years, desperately clinging to her former youth and hating the young women she sees as rivals. (14 & up)

Kate's Castle by Julie Lawson. Illustrated by Frances Tyrrell. Oxford, 1992; Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005 (1-55005-141-5) $9.95 pb

Taking a lyrical approach to the familiar "House that Jack Built" format, Kate's Castle describes a little girl's imaginative visions of her sand castle: "The is the tower of twisting shells/That twirl and swirl in spiralling curls/Way up to the tower of treasurely finds--Moon snails and agates and sea urchin spines--Kept in the castle that Kate built." By breaking the poem into short, evocative sections, rather than keeping the traditional continuous form, Lawson keeps her flowery verse from becoming overwhelming. Meticulously drawn watercolors tell two stories about Kate: one side of each spread shows a pencil sketch of what Kate is actually doing, while the other side shows a full-color portrait of the fabulous castle she sees in her mind. All of the pictures are exquisitely framed with drawings of shells and sea creatures, adding to the dreamy atmosphere of the story. (4-8)

Tribes by Arthur Slade. Wendy Lamb, 2002 (0-385-73003-9) $15.95; Laurel-Leaf, 2004 (0-440-22975-8) $5.99 pb

Since the loss of his anthropologist father, Percy Montmount Jr. has lived as an anthropologist himself: he is an observer and analyzer, keeping copious notes on the tribes and rituals of high school. His close friend Elissa joins him in noting such fascinating specimens as "The Jock Tribe, "The Gee-the-Seventies-Were-Great-Even-Though-I-Wasn't Born-Yet Tribe" and "The Madonna Cult." ("I thought they were extinct.") But what Elissa sees as fun has become a complete way of life for Percy, keeping him scarily distanced from other people--and as we slowly discover, keeping him safe from facts he is unable to face.

Tribes reminded me a little of James Deem's 3 NBs of Julian Drew, in that in both books, the nature of the protagonist's problem strongly affects his narrative. In this case, Percy's incessant use of anthro-speak is at first distancing and tiresome, but there were enough hints of underlying tensions to keep me reading. And despite ultimate revelations which make the story seem a little manipulative and implausible, this is a interesting portrait of a boy's unusual reaction to great emotional pain.

Tales from the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Weird by Vivian Vande Velde. Harcourt, 1995 (0-150200220-0) $17; Magic Carpet, 2005 (0-15-205572-X) $5.95 trade

Except for a chilling version of "Hansel and Gretel," in which the two children are far scarier than any wicked witch, this collection isn't particularly grim or weird; most of the stories are lighthearted parodies of fairy tales that create humor by either switching the usual hero/villain roles or by pointing out the incongruities such tales are prone to, such as why any prince would want to marry a princess who had thrown him against a wall in a rage when he was a frog. With fairy tale rewrites abounding, these themes and ideas don't seem all that novel or insightful, but the author tells the stories very well, with a lot of humor, a delicate touch of romance, and an obvious enjoyment of her work. This paperback edition has changed the original heebie-jeebie inducing cover to one designed for a younger audience. (8-12)

Everything Old is New Again: new editions of books widely available

The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. Illustrated by Murray Kimber. KCP Poetry, 2005 (1-55337-425-8) $16.95

This classic narrative poem gets a dazzling new setting, as a "highwayman"--now a masked bandit on a motorcycle--comes riding to visit his secret lover Bess, promising that the next day, "I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way." When the lovers are betrayed, Bess, "the landlord's black-eyed daughter," sacrifices her life to warn him that "the redcoats"--now FBI agents--await him. The new interpretation has a stylish 1930's art-deco/noir setting, primarily sepia except for dramatic touches of red; it easily overcomes any dissonance created by the change of details, and nothing of the breathless romance of the original is lost. (12 & up)

The Lady of Shallot by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Illustrated by Genevieve Cote. KCP Poetry, 2005 (1-55337-874-1) $16.95

Another beautifully designed title in the "Visions in Poetry" series. Tennyson's narrative poem about a cursed woman in a tower has often been illustrated in lush paintings; here it's drawn in a much lighter, more intimate, yet sophisticated style; some images evoke the mood of a "New Yorker" cartoon. The Lady herself is believably "half sick of shadows," as she stands, trapped, in front of the window she is forbidden to look out of--rather than a fairy-like creature, she is the image of a vital woman whose true abilities have gone unused. Cote expands this idea throughout the book, visually suggesting that the Lady's death is actually a rebirth; the panels of her gown transform to ethereal wings, with which she flies away, free from her tower at last. It's an unusual and potentially valuable interpretation. (12 & up)

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