celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

(ISSN 1078-8697)

Copyright 2007 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 15, No. 3; November 2007


Growing Vegetable Soup written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert. Harcourt Brace, 1987 (0-15-232575-1); 1990 (0-15-232580-8) $6.00 pb

Although I've always enjoyed this book and it's companion, Planting a Rainbow, I don't think I ever fully appreciated it in its small board book edition. Now as a lap-size board book, it is bolder, brighter and more beautiful than ever.

This story offers basic information on gardening with a lovely touch of imagination. The unseen narrator describes the whole process of how he and his dad "grow vegetable soup," starting with their tools, going on to planting the seeds and sprouts, and ending with picking or digging up the vegetables and cooking them. The simple, direct text is accompanied by labelled illustrations of everything that's used, from the soil to the soup bowl. Ehlert's signature collage illustrations make each item colorful and distinctive, and give the little seedlings and growing plants their full measure of charm. If you've only seen the small board book edition, do yourself a favor and check out this edition, or the original picture book. (2-6)

New Books

Mother Goose Numbers on the Loose illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Harcourt, 2007 (978-0-15-205676-6) $17.00

A string of anthropomorphic numbers merrily beboppin' across the end pages sets the tone for this deliciously nonsensical Mother Goose collection. All of the rhymes include numbers, from the well-known "Baa baa black sheep" to more obscure verses like "1-ery, 2-ery, tickery, 10," but it's not really a counting book--in fact, young children who truly want to count may find some of the longer numbers a bit frustrating. (Four and twenty very thin hairs in a wig, for example.) Mostly this book is about imaginative images and movement: the strange, often masked characters cavort across the pages almost as if in a whimsical parade. A clock strikes its own bell, fish strut in boots, potatoes dance in fezzes, the four-and-twenty blackbirds willingly trot into the pie. Except for a few bright splashes, the color scheme is largely muted, as if to keep all the attention on the odd inhabitants of this friendly world. The effect is very engaging, for both young and adult readers. * (2 & up)

The Baker's Dozen written and illustrated by Dan Andreasen. Henry Holt, 2007 (978-0-8050-7809-1) $16.95

I was drawn to the cover of this book, an apple-cheeked-and-chinned baker exuberantly juggling cupcakes. He just looks so darn happy about it. And happiness continues to be the theme throughout, as the baker takes "great care to make one cream eclair," "in the oven bakes two German chocolate cakes," and "in tins the perfect size bakes three cherry pies," all the while loving his job with all his heart. No, the rhyming text is not particularly scintillating, but it's adequate. There are a few cute visual touches here, like the baker's smiling chef-hatted clock, which beams and occasionally licks its lips, but the main point of the pictures is the baker's joy as he creates and dallies with his sweet treats, from the one eclair to the twelve small cupcakes he juggles. Thirteen is the number of customers he greets, and a chart at the end of the book shows the progression of the numbers, from the one eclair, to thirteen eager little boys. Fun for anyone who knows how to truly appreciate food. (2-6)

The Twelve Days of Christmas: a Pinata for the Pinon Tree by Philemon Sturges. Illustrated by Ashley Wolff. Little, Brown, 2007 (978-0-316-82323-4) $16.99

The author and illustrator of She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain teamed up to offer another sunny Southwestern spin on a popular song. This time the animal town of Reederville (pop. 43) is preparing for Christmas, and "mis amigos" brings such goodies as eleven Two stories happen simultaneously: a bear prepares Bozochitos (the New Mexico state cookie), while watching the townsfolk decorate a village Christmas tree; a large starred pinata goes on top. At the end of the song, as the gaily dressed townsfolk lower and strike the pinata, the bear displays a tray of finished Bozcohitos, shaped liked the elements of the story. (A recipe is also included.) Throughout, we see numerous details of New Mexico culture, both around the tree and in the bear's home: a lovingly decorated altar is in honor of Sturges, who passed away in 2005.

The changed, still very singable lyrics make this book fun for readers who know the original song, and the wealth of detail in the illustrations has a lot to offer for teachers or librarians covering a Southwestern theme. (Especially if cookie baking is involved.) However, the animal-people illustrations may limit its appeal with older children. The book has also been criticized for inappropriately using Kachina figures, which are sacred to several Native American tribes. (3-6)

Gizmo by Barry Varela. Illustrated by Ed Briant. Roaring Brook, 2007 (978-1-59643-115-7)$16.95

A text that evokes Dr. Seuss on speed and steroids and frantically busy illustrations collide joyfully for this offbeat book. Professor Ludwig von Glink wakes up one fine spring morning convinced "that a particular arrangement of pulleys, pendulums, sprockets, and gears suspended/by a network of wires would produce movement that never ended." It doesn't quite work out that way, but his failed perpetual-motion machine is so entertaining that the professor decides to expand on it, with "ramps, slides, buttons, lenses, switches, notches and nodes, nubins and niches," to the delight of his family and the folks who "came from far and near/to wonder and marvel and listen and point and gasp and laugh and cheer." When the extravagent gizmo that was once the von Glink's home comes to the attention of the City Buildings and Permits Inspector, it seems doomed, but the Director of the City Contemporary Art Museum saves the day, demanding the house be "declared a landmark, a treasure, a historic site-- anything to save it from the dynamite." And so, "after a close shave, the Professor's Gizmo was saved. Although any practical purpose it may have served remained opaque: It was a case of art for art's sake."

It's hard to give a true sense of the textual style of Gizmo without quoting the entire thing, because it's such a mad mix of constantly varying rhythms and rhyme schemes, with some rhymes coming fast, others taking what seems like forever to complete themselves; paradoxically, it flows wonderfully and is surprisingly easy to read aloud. The erratic movements of the text are complimented by bustling, jagged-edged line drawings that fill each page with active people, big machines, and the fascinating gizmo, with its springs and sprockets and endless moving parts. Boldly proclaiming the value of whimsy, creative experimentation and things that exist "simply to amuse," Gizmo easily justifies its own existence. (4 & up)

Now (or Again) in Paperback

What Do Illustrators Do? written and illustrated by Eileen Christelow. Clarion, 1999 (0-395-90230-4) $15.00; 2007 (978-0-618-87423-1) $6.95 pb

This companion to What Do Authors Do? is another fun and friendly look behind the scenes of the creation of a book. As two illustrators get to work on separate versions of "Jack and the Beanstalk," their pets, Scooter the dog and Leonard the cat, chat with each other and comment on the process, from the initial plan of what scenes to illustrate to the design of the cover. The helpful pets also demonstrate perspective, style, and--oops!--getting stuck in "the gutter." Christelow's informal watercolors and lively characters make both the business side and the creative side of illustrating understandable and entertaining. Readers may be surprised by how much thought and effort have to go into "just" drawing pictures, but will also inspired by seeing that "real" artists make rough sketches, traces, and mistakes. (5-8)

Jeremey Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville. Harcourt, 1991; Magic Carpet, 2007 *978-0-15-206252-1) $5.95 pb

Jeremy is a sixth-grader with a few problems: he's short for his age, so not only do girls think he's adorable and chase him, but he can't do much about the inevitable teasing that ensues. He's also a talented artist whose art teacher hates him. But these problems seem insignificant next to the difficulties that occur when he stumbles upon a curious shop and buys an even curiouser ball--which turns to be a dragon's egg. A still-fertile dragon's egg.

As Jeremy struggles to keep his newly hatched Dragon, Tiamat, fed and secret, his life gets pretty complicated. But it's worth it to have a pet who can share your thoughts and take you flying. It especially seems worth it when he learns he's not going to be able to keep Tiamat forever.

Beneath the trappings of lighthearted fantasy, this is a moving story about love for a pet, and the tools we use to cope with loss. (8-12)

Journey Between Worlds by Sylvia Louise Engdahl. 1970; Putnam, 2006 (0-399-24532-4) $17.99; Puffin, 2007 (978-0142-408-28-5) $7.99 pb

First off, let me say this book has a terrific cover. In the publicity for its reissue, Engdahl has emphasized that it's a romance, presumably not wanting people to expect something similar to her serious YA science fiction novels, and the Manga-looking drawing of a girl in stylish space gear, rather dejectedly holding a bouquet of roses, couldn't say "science-fiction chick-lit" any better.

Journey Between Worlds is the story of Melinda, who having graduated high school expects to marry her boyfriend, settle down in her home town, and never budge again. Her plans take a detour when her father gives her a ticket to Mars as a graduation present--and when her boyfriend's obnoxious reaction to the idea convinces her to use it. Melinda doesn't expect much from the primitive, colonial world of Mars; she can't even understand why anyone would live there by choice. Even when she begins to have feelings for Alex, a returning "Martian" she meets aboard ship, she can't imagine giving up life on Earth to be with him... can she?

Originally published in 1970, this is the last of Engdahl's six YA novels to be recently reprinted, and it remains her slightest work. In an afterward, she mentions making small changes for the 2006 edition, mainly to update views about women, marriage and careers. Nonetheless, the first-person narrative retains a squeaky-clean 1960's feel, like Beany Malone or Up a Road Slowly in space.

But there's also an older tradition being followed here, that of books like Christy or Mrs. Mike, about a young woman leaving behind the comforts of "civilization" to become a pioneer. The heart of Journey Between Worlds is the belief that exploration is necessary to the human spirit, as well as to mankind's ultimate survival. Engdahl wrote about this same theme in her other YA books, in ways I personally find more compelling... but there's nothing wrong with also delivering the idea with a bouquet or roses. (12 & up)

Broken Chords by Barbara Snow Gilbert. Front Street, 1998 (1-886910-23-5) $15.95; 2007 (978-1-59078-534-8) $9.95 pb

The process of finding out what we truly love is one of the most important parts of discovering who we truly are--but sometimes finding out what we don't love is just as important. This thoughtful novel offers a sincere, accessible look at what it means to be an artist and what it means to be yourself.

They never use the word "prodigy" in her house, but the fact is that Clara (named for pianist Clara Schumann) has been studying piano since she first climbed on the piano bench at the age of three, and started playing Mozart's "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star theme." Now, at seventeen, she is just weeks away from the final of the Nicklaus competition; winning will mean a scholarship to Juilliard, a debut concert, and almost certainly a career as a concert pianist. But even amid her preoccupation with the competition, Clara doesn't want to give up everything else in her life, sneaking out against her parents' orders to play a tiny part in a school production of "The Nutcracker." Then a slip during dance rehearsal makes Clara fall on her wrist, an injury that will stop her playing piano until just two weeks before the final.

With a big space in her schedule where lessons and three hours of practice a day used to be, Clara suddenly has time for new things: movies, her first football game--and Marshall, an attractive fellow competitor whose struggle to afford piano study has him living in his practice cubicle. As she sees the passion that drives Marshall to play, against all obstacles, Clara begins to wonder if something is lacking in herself. And for the first time, a terrifying, almost blasphemous thought drifts into her head: "Was this what ordinary life would be like? If she didn't play?"

Concentrating on the important relationships in Clara's life, with her demanding mother, her resentful little brother, the admiring Marshall and her loving but enigmatic piano teacher Tashi, Gilbert skillfully weaves many small threads into a solid thematic whole, showing how Clara begins to understand the important decision she has to make. Although the air of the story is often a touch ornate and romantic, with a mystic Russian folktale as an underlying motif, it is grounded in reality; the bittersweet ending is strong and satisfying, leaving us sure not only that Clara made the right decision, but that she made it for the right reasons. (12 & up)

The Gentleman Outlaw and Me by Mary Downing Hahn. (Originally titled The Gentleman Outlaw and Me--Eli.) Clarion, 1996 (0-395-73083-X) $14.95; Clarion, 2007 (978-0-618-83000-8) $5.95 pb

For this book, Hahn left her usual suspense genre to explore the old west, and proved that she's as much at home with card-sharks and horse thieves as she is with sinister strangers. Our heroine is twelve-year-old Eliza Yates, a spirited girl with a sassy tongue, who narrates the story of how she become Elijah Bates, the boy confederate of the notorious Gentleman Outlaw. Neither of them, however, was exactly what they seemed.

Eliza's adventure begins when she and her beloved dog Caeser run away from her harsh relatives, to find the father who went west when she was five. Disguised as a boy, she saves the life of Calvin Featherbone, a refined young man who claims to be an experienced outlaw. His friend Miss Nellie draws a different picture of him, however: "Some folks think they know it all, but talking like you swallowed a dictionary don't mean a thing if you aint got common sense." And Eli soon discovers the truth of her words, as Calvin--who's as stubborn as he is conceited--gets her into one dangerous get-rich scheme after another.

There's nothing especially original about this plot, but it certainly doesn't seem stale. With a relish in her story that is highly infectious, Hahn spins a lively, funny tale, with lovable characters, a strong sense of place and an enjoyable dash of romance. (9-13)

The Old Willis Place by Mary Downing Hahn. Clarion, 2004 (0-618-43018-0) $15; 2007 (978-0-618-89741-4) $5.95 pb

Diana and her brother Georgie live near the spooky Old Willis Place, bound by a set of rigid "rules" to always stay hidden and alone. With no one to talk to but each other, the two amuse themselves by spying on and teasing the estate caretakers that constantly come and go. But when a new caretaker arrives with a daughter about Diana's age, the urge to make a friend becomes irresistible. Will breaking the rules lead to a horrible punishment--or might it be the means to their rescue? Equal parts scary and sad, this is a compelling ghost story with an unexpectedly tender message of redemption.

Curses, Inc. and Other Stories by Vivian Vande Velde. Harcourt Brace, 1997 (0-15-201452-7) $16.00; Magic Carpet, 2007 (978-0-15-206107-4) $6.95 pb

Witches of all types are the subject of this batch of stories, including a Creole plantation slave with a deadly interest in reading lifelines, a boy witch who simply can't follow directions and a very modern witch who sells curses from her own web site. The mood also varies, from bluntly humorous to chillingly creepy and genuinely haunting. Imaginative and fun, this is a solidly entertaining collection. (10 & up)

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