celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2002 Wendy E. Betts. Reproduction for personal and non-commercial use is permitted only if this copyright notice is retained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission. Mail with comments or questions.

All reviews by Wendy Betts unless otherwise noted. For info and archives, see

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Vol. 10, No. 1, March 2002

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

The Diamond in the Window; The Swing in the Summerhouse; The Astonishing Stereoscope by Jane Langton. HarperTrophy, 2002, (0-06-440042-5; 0-06-440124-3; 0-06-440133-2) $5.95 pb ea.

The first three in what is now called "The Hall Family Chronicles," are still my favorites, Newbery award for "the Fledgling notwithstanding. These are some of the best "magic with a purpose" books of my childhood, stories about how the Hall children (and sometimes the Hall adults), undergo mystical adventures that shape their thoughts and feelings about events in their everyday lives. Strong senses of place and time, and other atmospheric details, draw readers into the fun--and often frightening--adventures, while the sharp, insightful characterizations make the resulting revelations seem powerfully meaningful.

My pleasure at seeing these in print again is dimmed by the discovery that they're missing Erik Blegvad's illustrations. Still, I suppose beggars can't be choosers. And a hint to HarperCollins: Jane Langton writes wonderful realistic stories, too. Let's get the Grace Jones books back in print!

Gypsy Girl by Rumer Godden. 1972; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-440937-6) $5.95 pb

A renaming of The Diddakoi, a story about a defiant half-gypsy girl slowly finding friends in a hostile community. Not quite as magical for me as Godden's doll books, but an interesting, empathetic picture of people facing culture clash.

Take Note: books of special interest to children's book enthusiasts

The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Ayme. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins, 1951; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-440556-7) $6.95 pb

This book may be best remembered as one of the first appearances of Maurice Sendak's illustrations, but it is enjoyable for its own sake, a quirky, sometimes satirical collection of fables about two little girls, their stern Father and Mother and the very human animals on their farm. The stories are somewhat meandering, but the mood is invitingly cozy and there are some delightful flashes of humor, such as when a cow, invited into the house, fascinatedly examines a cheese and a bowl of milk, murmuring: "I see... Now I understand!" Sendak's black & white drawings are much less distinctive than his later work but have a lighthearted expressiveness in keeping with the mood of the stories.

Reprints: Reviews

A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Harper, 1952; 2002 (0-06-023405-9) $15.95

The girls may all be wearing skirts but nothing else has dated about this warm and joyful book in 50 years. (Sendak was even ahead of his time: one of his skirt-wearing girls is climbing a mountain.) This "first book of first definitions" tells it like it is, with childlike insouciance: dishes are to do, cats are so you can have kittens, a lap is so you don't get crumbs on the floor. Sendak's sassy children dance across the pages, happily demonstrating the wonders of these simple things. (But $15.95 for this tiny book? I guess money is to fritter.)

Also available by Krauss and Sendak: Charlotte and the White Horse. 1951; HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-028640-7) $12.95; Open House for Butterflies. 1960; HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-0286369) $12.95; I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue. 1956: HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-028634-2) $14.95

The Long Secret written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh. Harper & Row, 1965; Delacorte, 2001 (0-385-32784-6) $15.95; Dell Yearling, 2002 (0-440--41819-4) $5.99 pb

Many people have fond childhood memories of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, but I've found that fewer remember the sequel and even fewer remember it fondly. It seems to be considered as very inferior to the first--just a dumb mystery story. But The Long Secret has value in its own right and it's worth rediscovering.

It suffers, of course, in comparison to Harriet; almost anything would. Harriet the Spy is exceptionally good; I consider it the first and possibly still the only real novel for children. And The Long Secret commits a cardinal offense for a sequel: it uses the original character in a secondary role and in an unflattering way, promoting as lead one of the stranger and least sympathetic characters from the first book. It irritates readers to see Harriet as a loud and obnoxious person, after they invested so much emotional energy in her in the first book.

The real problem, though, is that Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret were just not written for the same age group. People tend to read sequels right away and for child readers, it just doesn't work here. The ages of the characters are the same--Harriet is eleven in both books and the main character of The Long Secret, Beth Ellen, is twelve--but the two books feel so different, I had to check to see that Harriet wasn't supposed to be nine or ten in the first book. Part of what makes The Long Secret so complex and interesting it that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what age it's meant for; I was fifteen, I think, before I first began to really appreciate it and I'd loved Harriet the Spy since I was eight or nine. There's some very broad satire in The Long Secret, which children can't be expected to understand; and there are issues of class which are difficult even for adults. There are also some complex philosophical theories presented. Still, the essential difference between the two books is that the main conflict in Harriet the Spy is clearly a child's conflict, although it's given much more weight and dignity than children's problems generally are (part of what makes it such an excellent book.) The conflict in The Long Secret, on the other hand, is the problem of not being able to be a child and that makes everything confusing.

Beth Ellen Hanson is not a typical person to have a "lost childhood." Her background is extremely wealthy and sheltered; she isn't forced to assume adult responsibilities in the usual sense. But a false emotional maturity has been forced upon her by her grandmother's insistence that she "be a lady," and by her extreme shyness. Beth Ellen has become a master of hiding what she feels, and no one really knows her; even the reader doesn't really know her until the end of the book. There are hints throughout: Beth Ellen's drawing are almost always of violent images, and she is very manipulative in the way she expressed negative feelings, by "going blank"--pretending she doesn't know what's going on--which is the only method she seems to have for dealing with irritation and anger.

Expressed over and over in the book is Beth Ellen's feeling that she is not allowed to be a child. One of the few things she actually likes about Harriet is that Harriet does let her feel like one: "She liked feeling like a child. Most of the time she felt like a troll." When the conflicts in Beth Ellen's life begin to escalate, she feels this even more strongly: "I never was a child and now I'm really not. I'm going from a troll to an old woman." Beth Ellen screams this line in one of the most startling scenes in the book, in which conflicts overwhelm her and she finally looses control.

In a sense, The Long Secret is a coming-of-age story, but with an unusual approach. Although Beth Ellen is becoming physically mature--she starts to menstruate in the course of the book, and has a crush on a man, which Harriet, a little younger, finds incomprehensible--her coming-of-age means being able to be the age she truly is, to be a child. Which also means, to be her own person, no longer stifled by her grandmother's lectures on being a lady or her controlling mother's attempts to force her into her own image.

Louise Fitzhugh was a pioneer is exploring, in children's book form, the terrible things adults do to children that have nothing to do with "child abuse" in the ways we usually think of it. She would explore this theme again, perhaps more successfully, in the book Nobody's Family is Going to Change. The Long Secret is flawed: it's uneven, the satire is sometimes overly broad, and its many different plot elements can be confusing; nevertheless it is a powerful book that will strike a chord in many people, if they can catch it at the right time.

Like the recent reprint of Harriet the Spy, this is the "classic edition," redesigned, but with the original cover illustration by the author.

Also available: Sport by Louise Fitzhugh. Delacorte, 1979; 2001 (0-385-32785-4) $15.95; Dell Yearling, 2002 (0-440-41818-6) $5.99 pb

This book focuses on Harriet's close friend Sport, with Harriet only in a very minor role. Sport is used to looking after his impoverished writer dad and having to be the one who watches the family budget, but just when a kind new stepmother and a fabulous inheritance finally give him a chance to relax and enjoy being a kid, his socialite mother decides it's time to take him--and his inheritance--back into her life.

Sport was Fitzhugh's last book, published posthumously, and it has a distinctly unfinished feeling to it. The last chapters in particular seem rushed and the ending is very abrupt. Oddly enough, considering it was published fourteen years after Harriet, it also is the most dated of Fitzhugh's books, mainly because she wanted to have her characters swear a lot, but didn't have either the nerve or the permission to really do it. This comes off as particularly odd and ironic considering Fitzhugh's upfrontness about racism; after chapters and chapters of kids saying "blank" and "fizz," it's startling to run into "nigger." I have never found Sport a very interesting book and it's frustrating that its theme never had a chance to really develop and gel, but as always, Fitzhugh's take on the inner life of children shows insight, eloquence and humor.

Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. Knopf, 1982; 2002 (0-375-81556-2) $15.95

Irreverent, bloodthirsty, scatological and even a touch racy, these rewrites of well-known fairy tales are definitely not just for children anymore. With surprise endings and some unusual moral lessons--Cinderella learns that a decent man is better than a prince; Jack (of the beanstalk) learns the value of daily baths; Snow-White and the Dwarfs learn that gambling's not a sin--provided that you always win--these cleverly rhymed verses are very funny. Ironically, Dahl's postmodern versions may in some ways be closer in spirit to the originals than the sanitized versions that have been popular for so long. Blake's pen & ink and watercolor illustrations combine the perfect amounts of wistful naivete and sly wit to accompany the verses.

This new hardcover "collector's edition" seems rather oddly elegant, but attractive, with Quentin Blake characters from various Dahl books gracing the endpapers. A short interview with Dahl is included. The copyright page notes that this is a revised edition, but unfortunately does not specify what has been changed.

Also available in the collector's editions (and also revised): Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. Knopf, 1974; 2002 (0-375-81425-6 $15.95

Reprints: News

A Box of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Illustrated by Brett Helquist. HarperCollins, 2002 (0-06-029809-X) $29.85

Boxed set of hardcovers of the first three titles in the "Series of Unfortunate Events."

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes. HarperTrophy, 2001 (0-06-623850-1) $19.95

This 767 page paperback wouldn't be my first choice for reading the "Narnia" books, especially since it puts The Magician's Nephew as the first book but perhaps in one of those desert island situations... It's not too uncomfortable to read, despite its size, but one small illustration per chapter leaves it looking a little bare.

The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones. Dutton, 1974; HarperCollins, 2002 (0-06-029883-9) $16.95; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-447350-3) $5.95; A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones. Dutton, 1987; HarperCollins, 2002 (0-06-029884-7) $16.95; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-447351-1) $6.95 pb

Latest of the reprints of Jones' work, available in both hardcover and paperback.

Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera and Bill Cleaver. 1969; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-447005-9) $5.95 pb

Reprint of the National Book Award finalist.

New Books: Reviews

The Great Blue Yonder by Alex Shearer. Clarion, 2002 (0-618-21257-4) $15.00

There have been a number of children's books about dealing with death and grief, but this quirky story may be the first in which the person dealing with the death is actually the one who died. Harry, a fairly ordinary English boy, finds himself in a vague sort of place known as the Other Lands after a bike accident. Bad enough to be dead, but what really disturbs him is what happened right the accident: "You'll be sorry one day when I'm dead" he yelled at his sister. "No I won't be, I'll be glad." she yelled back. Now dead, Harry realizes that he'll never be able to move on beyond the limbo of the Other Lands unless he can deal with his unfinished business and find a way to let his sister know he's sorry. Except for the unusual plot, this isn't a particularly original or excitingly written book, but Harry's plight is moving enough to make it a tear-jerker and the resolution is both sad and comforting.

Mouse Colors; Mouse Shapes illustrated by Jim Arnosky. Clarion, 2001 (0-618-01521-3; 0-618-01522-1) $5.95 e.

The plucky and inventive mouse of Mouse Letters and Mouse Numbers is back, once again eloquently demonstrating concepts without speaking a word. Whether he's falling from his paint cans and unexpectedly mixing the color green or stylishly spinning a square in the air to turn it into a diamond, the intrepid mouse always triumphs. Very clever and fun.

You Hear Me?: Poems and Writings by Teenage Boys edited by Betsy Franco. Candlewick, 2000 (0-7636-1158-1) $14.99, $6.99 pb; Things I Have to Tell You: Poems and Writings by Teenage Girls edited by Betsy Franco. photographs by Nina Nickles. Candlewick, 2001 (0-7636-0905-6) $15.99, $8.99 pb

I'm longing to quote from these books, but I can't find anything that would really serve as a sound bite, to convey the power of each piece and the impact of them taken as a whole. These writings about love, loneliness, body image, death and the ineffable emotions of growing up are a side of teenagers most of us rarely get to see; they made me feel very old at first, because I've managed to forget that young people can think so fiercely. There are a very few cliches here, amidst a blossoming of creative and passionate images that can tear a heart open with empathy.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

The Boys Start the War and The Girls Get Even by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Dell Yearling, 2002 (0-440-41841-0; 0-440-41842-9) $4.99 ea pb

The first two books of this light-hearted series are a hilarious account of the fiercest feud since the Hatfields and Macoys: the Hatfords and Malloys. When their best friends the Bensons move away, the four Hatford boys hope there'll at least be a new family of boys in the Benson house. To their horror, the new family is all girls: Eddie, Beth and Caroline, or a Whomper, a Weirdo, and a Crazie, as the boys elegantly dub them. Josh, Jake, Wally and Peter come up with the brilliant plan to get the Bensons back by making the Malloys leave, and their first step is to throw every dead animal they can find into river by the Malloy house. When the girls respond by faking a death scene for Caroline and scaring the boys into the middle of next week, the war is on!

Alternating between the boy's and the girl's side of the story through the thoughts of Wally and Caroline, both of whom are sensitive enough at heart to be sympathetic characters, Naylor shows how the boy-girl war escalates, partly out of pig-headedness and partly out of the sheer joy of thinking up tricks. "I hope the Bensons stay in Georgia long enough for us to do everything we've planned to do to the Malloys and then come back" says Wally in book one. But chances are the Bensons will be gone for years before the two families get tired of tormenting each other.

Written in a good-natured spirit that keeps the feud from ever getting too nasty, with a strong feeling for how children think and the imaginative games they love, these books are entertaining reading and often laugh-out-loud funny. (The first is much better than the second, which is too much of a rehash.) Readers will appreciate the non-moralistic tone, although the more thoughtful of them will probably realize that the two families could have even more fun together if they made friends. (8-12)

Boys Against Girls by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Delacorte, 1994 (0-385-32081-7) $14.95; Dell Yearling, 2002 (0-440-41123-8) $4.99 pb

The Hatford boys and the Malloy girls have now feuded their way through three books and both they and the author seem a little tired. Fans of the series will probably still enjoy this lighthearted romp--particularly the gleeful ending--but they may find the rivalry has lost some of its sparkle.

Also available: A Traitor Among the Boys and A Spy Among the Girls. 2002 (0-440-41386-9; 0-440-41390-7) $4.99 pb ea

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. Delacorte, 1999; Dell Yearling, 2002 (0-440-41328-1) $5.99 pb

First paperback edition of the Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award winning book.

145th Street by Walter Dean Myers. Delacorte, 2002; Laurel-Leaf, 2001 (0-440-22916-2) $5.50 pb

Short stories, set on one dangerous but neighborly street in Harlem, with a stock of characters, specialized vocabulary and mix of humor, sentiment and sadness that sometimes calls to mind Damon Runyon.

Ordinary Miracles by Stephanie Tolan. Morrow, 1999 (0-688-16269-X) $16.00; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-380-73322-6) $5.95 pb

It can be hard growing up as a PK, a "preacher's kid," especially when you realize that other people question beliefs that are integral to your way of life. But PK Mark Filkins has an extra hurdle on the road to self-identity: he's spent his whole life feeling like the shadow of his twin brother Matthew--"as if he was the real kid and I was the copy." When Mark becomes friends with Dr. Colin Hendrick, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, he finds that the friendship not only helps him separate from his twin, but opens a doorway to a new world of ideas about the nature of life. A clash of values seems inevitable, but the crisis unexpectedly comes not from Colin's secular beliefs, but from the fact that he is fatally ill, a problem which Mark confidently looks to God to solve.

This companion to Save Halloween! (reviewed volume 5, number 9h) is another caring, respectful look at an adolescent discovering religion's meaning in his life. Tolan works hard to keep things balanced: Colin is a sympathetic character whose views are intelligent and resonant, particularly when he tells Mark that for him heaven is "when we feel we're doing what were were somehow always meant to do, being our best selves in the best-possible way." But Mark's family--one of the few positive portraits of fundamentalists in mainstream children's literature--also has wisdom to share when Mark needs it most. Some readers may feel that Tolan cheats at the end, in order to reconcile science and faith, but in context it works. This thoughtful book again makes the touchy subject of religion accessible, by showing its importance to people we grow to care about.

The Scrambled States of America written and illustrated by Laurie Keller. Henry Holt, 1998 (0-8050-5802-8) $16.95; 2002 (0-8050-683`-7) $6.95 pb

Probably the most outrageous introduction to geography ever devised, this story makes the states of America pretty hard to forget. It all starts when Kansas gets bored of sitting in the middle of the country all the time: "We never GO anywhere. We never DO anything, and we NEVER meet any NEW states." So Kansas and his best friend Nebraska hold a party for all the states, a wonderful evening of singing, dancing and regional delicacies like Georgia Peach Pie, California Fruit Salad and New York Cheesecake. All the states have a great time--Nevada and Mississippi even fall in love--so they're thrilled when Idaho suggest switching around so they can all see a new part of the country. But soon problems develop: Florida freezes in the North while Minnesota gets a terrible sunburn, and all the states that took California's place are kept up at night by an annoying rumbling sound. (Only Nevada and Mississippi--soon to become MRS.issippi--are happy.) So soon the States are on their way back home, biking, driving or flying back to their rightful places; Colorado hikes, while New York, of course, takes a taxi.

Absurd ideas never stop coming in this book, with each personification of the different states sillier than the last. Through numerous little asides, each goofily smiling, cartoonish state takes on a distinctive shape and likely personality. (Although the California Cheese Advisory Board wouldn't be too thrilled with the lactose intolerant California.) By the time we see listings of each "character" at the end, along with a few state facts, they feel like old friends. The last oddball scene shows features from different states visiting each other: my favorite is the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota touring the Grand Canyon.

Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. Illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet. Doubleday, 1998 (0-385-32239-9) $16.95; Dragonfly, 2002 (0-440-41210-2) $6.99 pb

Looking through her window, a little girl sees a brick wall, trash and broken bottles. On her front door, she sees the word "die." Walking to school she passes a woman sleeping on the sidewalk. "Mommy said that everyone should have something beautiful in their life. Where is my something beautiful?" she wonders.

And so the girl searches through her neighborhood for something beautiful, something that, "when you have it, your heart is happy." And she finds many things that are someone's something beautiful: the delicious fish sandwiches from Miss Delphine's Diner, Mr. Lee's gorgeous array of fruits, Georgina's happy dance on the sidewalk, old Mr. Sims' smooth stone, carried for years in his pocket, and the infectious laugh of Aunt Carolyn's baby. When the little girl gets home, she picks up the trash around her stoop and scrubs the word "die" off her door, planning for the day when she can make her world even more beautiful. And when her mother comes home from work, she learns that she too is someone's "something beautiful."

Something Beautiful is an excellent example of the best kind of "realistic" picture books, one in which realism doesn't equal despair. Just as the little girl's ugly and scary neighborhood is shown to also have a warm and positive side, Something Beautiful sympathetically affirms the truth about the soul-crushing effects of living amid ugliness while also celebrating the efforts each person can make to make a difference. It's a combination of empathy and encouragement that inspires and heartens. The illustrations are somewhat less successful than the text: ironically, their bright glossiness makes everything, even piles of trash, look tidy and attractive. Their strong point is the expressiveness of faces, from the little girl's depression as she gazes out onto ugliness, to the luminous joy she discovers in the people living around her.

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

I Love You As Much... by Laura Krauss Melmed. Illustrated by Henri Sorenson. Lothrop, 1993 (0-688-11718-X) $14.00; HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-002022-8) $12.95 board book

Picture books celebrating parental love have become very popular in recent years--with parents, at least. This tender bedtime story is clearly designed to tug at a mother's heartstrings, but will appeal to many children as well, using easy rhyme and simple metaphors to describe the love of animal mothers for their children: "Said the mother goat to her child, 'I love you as much as the mountain is steep'. Said the mother whale to her child, 'I love you as much as the ocean is deep.'" The book ends with a human mother holding an infant, saying, "Now sleep, child of mine, while the stars shine above--I love you as much as a mother can love." Soft-focused drawings attractively combine dreaminess with exquisite detailing, but both the illustration and the text may be a little sophisticated for very young children. This is a notebook-paper sized "lap" edition, a good choice of size for the low-contrast illustrations. (1-4)

Lots and Lots of Zebra Stripes written and illustrated by Stephen R. Swinburne. Boyds Mill, 1998 (1-56397-707-9) $15.95; 2002 (1-56397-980-2) $8.95 pb

There's a surprising amount that can be learned from patterns in nature: geometric shapes, principles of symmetry, life-cycles. But this gentle little primer doesn't push a lot of facts; instead the straightforward text and eye-catching photographs merely encourage readers to observe different patterns, inevitably sparking curiosity and appreciation. It's a book that cries out for interaction between a reader and a child, because there are so many questions to discuss: Why are spider webs spiral? What shape are the blocks on a giraffe? Why do tree stumps have rings? The questions arise naturally from the mysterious loveliness of the patterns, and even readers who learn nothing else will be easily convinced that "patterns make our world a beautiful place." (3-8)

Nursery Classics written and illustrated by Paul Galdone. Clarion, 2001 (0-618-13046-2) $22.00

Sometime after our son was born, my husband tried to tell him the story of the three bears and found he couldn't remember how it went. Luckily, this book was waiting on my review shelf. It collects, in their entirety, four of Galdone's cheerfully illustrated nursery books: "The Three Little Pigs," "The Three Bears," "The Little Red Hen" and "Cat Goes Fiddle-i-fee." These are the lively, cumulative versions many of us grew up with, with the familiar phrases like "he huffed and he puffed," and "'Not I,' said the Cat. 'Not I,' said the dog," that make them so much fun to tell and to listen to. A must for any parent with a bad memory. (5 & up)

Snuggle Wuggle; Crunch Munch; Wiggle Waggle by Jonathan London. Illustrated by Michael Rex. Harcourt Brace, 2002 (0-15-216594-0; 0-15-216600-9; 0-15-216588-6) $5.9b ea, board books

These three books ask how different animals, eat, walk and hug, each time answering the question with an appropriate rhythmic sound: "How does a bunny hug? Snuggle Wuggle, Snuggle Wuggle." "How does a cat eat? Lippity-lap, lippity-lap." The accompanying pen & ink illustrations are equally simple, using lots of white space and limited colors per page, as they show animals walking, eating and very sweetly hugging their offspring. These are a lot of fun to read aloud; my five month old doesn't really take in the pictures yet, but he enjoys listening to the different sounds. (He also likes to put them in his mouth and go drooly-booly, drooly-booly.) (6 months & up)

Strawberries are Red; What is Black and White? written and illustrated by Peter Horacek. Candlewick, 2001 (0-7636-1461-0; 0-7636-1460-2) $4.99 ea. board books

These color-themed board books are simple and direct, but include a design element that make them particularly fun: both books have die-cut pages that turn into a visual surprise on the last page. The watercolor and crayon illustrations are vividly outlined and colored, possibly evoking questions in older children, who may notice that the white snow is really white and blue. (1-4)

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