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.

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Vol. 10, No. 2, May 2002

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

Ballet Shoes; Dancing Shoes; Theater Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. Ballet Shoes illustrated by Diane Goode. Bullseye, 2002 (0-679-84759-6; 0-679-85428-2; 0-679-85434-7) $4.99 ea. pb

Okay, I don't know for sure that these books have been hard to find, but they've definitely been scarce before, so I'm going to make a big deal out of it. Also, the quote above is from Skating Shoes, so it only seems fair.

Streatfeild's "shoes" books aren't really a series, though some characters do show up in more than one book. Few of Streatfeild's books kept their original British titles in America, getting renamed to connect them with the very successful Ballet Shoes (I guess we're just lucky that Thursday's Child wasn't renamed Orphan Shoes.) But the shoes books do have a thematic link: all are about children discovering special talents. And often these talents lead to early starts on professional lives. It's very exciting to read about children actually working, especially in such interesting jobs: dance and theatre in these three books, skating, tennis and the circus in others. The background detail is fascinating, but not romanticized: one of the most interesting aspects of these books is that some of the children wind up thrust into work that they aren't suited for and don't enjoy, the downside of growing up in a professional environment. But all in the end discover something right for them.

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

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. Illustrated by Garth Williams; illustrations watercolored by Rosemary Wells. Afterward by Peter F. Neumeyer. HarperCollins, 2002 (0-06-000698-6) $29.95

This "50th Anniversary Retrospective Edition" of Charlotte's Web is an oversized cloth book (unfortunately glued, rather than sewn,) with a paper inset of the original cover on the front in lieu of a dust jacket. The end covers show a large picture of Charlotte's web. The book is rather interestingly customizable: a Newbery Honor sticker on the front can be peeled off (mine seems to want to peel of its own accord,) and the usual box of information/barcode on the back is also removable.

Inside, this edition features bright, large print and the original illustrations, now watercolored by illustrator Rosemary Wells. (The full color pictures are also available in a special paperback edition, ISSN 0-06-441093-5, as is a colored edition of Stuart Little, ISSN 0-06-441092-7). I'm basically neutral about the colored illustrations: although I sort of disapprove of them on principle, and don't see any real need for them, they are nicely done, using placid, pastoral colors, and generally don't seem to detract from the originals. (The combination of the coloring and the larger size do tend to highlight some hasty looking background work in scenes at the fair, however.)

An afterward by Peter Neumeyer includes some lovely photographs, pictures of Charlotte's Web covers from other countries (almost sure to make you truly appreciate Garth Williams, if you didn't already,) and some intriguing backstory about how the book was written and illustrated, including fascinating looks at White's first drafts for the opening.

The Magician's Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver Chair; The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes. HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-447110-1; 0-06-447104-7; 0-06-447163-3; 0-06-447105-5; 0-06-447107-1; 0-06-447109-8; 0-06-447108-X) $5.95 pb each

The success of the "Harry Potter" books with adult readers has encouraged new, more "mature" looks for many classic fantasy books; this is the first time I've seen the "Narnia" books with covers that aren't based on Pauline Baynes' illustrations and to my own surprise, I really like them. A collage style blends realistic portrayals of characters or objects with more surreal images for a look that is mysterious, striking and evocative. Aslan the lion's face is blended into each cover, thematically linking them. Unlike previous mass market paperback editions, this set also includes full illustrations.

Also available: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. HarperLargePrint, 2002 (0-06-008240-2) $20.00. An unillustrated large print paperback, with the new cover.

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. Illustrated by Fred Marcellino. 1970; Harpercollins, 2000 (0-06-028935-X) $16.95

Is The Trumpet of the Swan really so beneath Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little as a work of literature? It always seems to be treated like a bastard cousin, and Peter Neumeyer notes, in his essay on White in Children's Books and Their Creators, that "with the striking exception of John Updike... most critics responded cooly to the implausible swan who flies through the world encumbered with a trumpet and a slate on which to write." More implausible than human giving birth to a mouse or a spider who spins words? But I can't be objective here, since not only is The Trumpet of the Swan one of my favorite books, but I dislike Stuart Little so much that I can't imagine why anyone would think it better than Trumpet, though obviously most do. Still, John Updike is not bad company

I suspect the reillustration of The Trumpet of the Swan by a Caldecott Honor illustrator was designed to give it more status; who knows, maybe if Garth Williams had been the original illustrator, it would have been received more "warmly." Not that the original pictures by Edward Frascino are at all bad, but just the fact that reillustration of The Trumpet of the Swan does not seem completely incredible shows that they lack Williams' genius. Oddly enough, the new illustrations are not that stylistically unlike the old: in both books, the natural elements (the swans and their background) are given beauty and grace, while the human characters tend more towards silliness and caricature. Some of the illustrations, particularly Louis the swan's first attempts to play his trumpet, actually look like homages to the originals. I don't know if it will help The Trumpet of the Swan get the recognition I think it deserves, but this is a perfectly acceptable new edition, with the plus of far more illustrations than before and some fun new touches, like Louis wearing dark glasses when he plays trumpet in a nightclub.

In addition to the new hardcover edition, the reillustrated Trumpet is available in paperback (0-06-440867-1), in a "special edition" paperback that matches the style of the colored editions of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little mentioned above (0-06-441094-3), and as part of a box set of the three paperback books (0-06-44964-3.) I would recommend the hardcover and "special edition" over the standard paperbacks: the cheap paper and black & white ink make the sepia-toned illustrations look much less distinct.

Reprints: News

Don't Make Me Smile by Barbara Park. Knopf, 1981; Random House, 2002 (0-375-81555-4) $4.99 pb

Familiar but likeable story about a sensitive boy going a little nuts after his parents decide to divorce.,

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow, 1985; 2002 (0-06-029885-5) $16.95; The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones (0-06-029886-3) $16.96

Latest reprints of Jones' books.

Gentlehands by M.E. Kerr. 1978; HarperTrophy, 2001 (0-06-447067-9) $5.95 pb

Reprint of the Christopher Award winner.

Round Building, Square Buildings, and Buildings That Wiggle Like a Fish written and photographed by Philip M. Isaacson. Knopf, 1988; 2001 (0-394-89382-4) $19.95

A simply written book about the features and concepts behind architecture, lavishly illustrated with gorgeous color photographs.

New Books: Reviews

The Adventures of a Nose by Viviane Schwarz. Illustrated by Joel Stewart. Candlewick, 2002 (0-7636-1674-5) $14.99

When I first looked at The Adventures of a Nose, I was irresistibly reminded of an article I once read about rejected picture books which featured this unpublished gem of a beginning: "Fred was a carrot. An unhappy carrot." But though I did find it hard to take seriously this tale of an unhappy nose having trouble finding his place in the world (could the fact that the nose bizarrely has legs and feet be part of its problem?), I was captivated by the illustrations. The mixed media pictures, whose soft textures and sharply defined lines have a distinctly European flavor, show that anywhere the nose goes, he fits in: whether he's under two clouds in the sky or between two wheels of a train, the nose always becomes part of a wonderful face.

The Autobiography of Meatball Finkelstein by Ross Venokur. Delacorte, 2001 (0-385-32798-6) $14.95; Dell Yearling, 2002 (0-440-41709-0) $4.99 pb

It's hard enough being a fat kid, but when you're a fat, vegetarian kid named Meatball, bullies really see you coming. But when "world-class, award-winning bully" Rufus Delaney forces Meatball Finkelstein to become a cannibal, Meatball discovers that eating meatballs gives him a super power--one that might just foil a dastardly plot against kids everywhere, saves his parents' health food store, get the girl, and even put Rufus in his place once and for all. A very likeable first-person narrative keeps this story fresh, although its blend of wry humor and whimsical fantasy doesn't always mesh well. Or perhaps I just enjoy wry humor more than whimsical fantasy.

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson. Illustrated by Nick Sharratt. Delacorte, 2001 (0-385-72916-2) $15.96

Ten-year-old Mandy White is a "miracle baby," the child of an older couple who thought they'd never have children. The other kids in her school don't find her so miraculous though, and Mandy is constantly teased for having grey-haired parents who baby her. Then she meets Tanya, a fourteen-year-old foster kid who gets to be as grown-up as she--and Mandy--wants to be. Tanya wears "great clacky high heels" and lots of make-up, but she also has a nurturing and lonely side, and both she and Mandy find something they need in each other. There's only one problem: Tanya likes to shoplift, and her idea of fun could destroy their friendship.

I've never really gotten into Jaqueline Wilson's books; their first-person narratives always seem to be trying too hard. But from the opening of this story, a harshly believable scene of the kind of schoolyard torment "nice girls" specialize in, Mandy's situation grabbed me. The complex portrait of Tanya, a smart, creative and caring girl who has been badly shortchanged by life, is even more compelling. Although I found the ending disappointingly pat on one hand and painfully unresolved on the other, I appreciated the overall subtlety of the narrative, which introduces several intricate themes without ever betraying Mandy's point of view.

Trouble At Betts Pets by Kelly Easton. Candlewick, 2002 (0-7636-1580-3) $14.99

I don't review realistic middle-grade fiction much any more, but for some inexplicable reason, this title really caught my eye! The narrator of the story is Aaron Betts, a fifth-grader who loves art, animals, and the routines of his daily life, especially helping out at his parents' pet shop. But his orderly life is shaken up when his teacher assigns snooty rich kid Sharon Trout to tutor him in math--and that's just the start. His neighborhood is changing for the worse, his parents are running out of money, and in some strange manner, animals are disappearing from the pet shop!

I enjoyed this book more as a slice of life than as a mystery. Unlike many children's books with a first-person narrator, this one doesn't seem to be desperately trying to sound "real" and what it occasionally sacrifices in plausibility, it makes up for in interesting characters, particularly as Aaron and Sharon grow unexpectedly into friends. The background of a struggling, working class neighborhood is also refreshing. The story goes a little off the wall by the ending, which rather weirdly and hurriedly solves the mystery, leaving other issues unresolved. The author is reportedly already at work on a sequel, and though I can't help thinking she should've finished this one first, I look forward to meeting the characters again. We Bettses have to stick together.

Monsieur Eek by David Ives. HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-029529-5) $15.95

When I read that this story was set in a town called "MacOongafoondsen," I had an uneasy feeling that it was going to be pretty heavy on the whimsy. Luckily, the silliness is well leavened with humor, satire and some kindly and heroic characters.

MacOnngafoondsen in 1609 is an isolated town with a population of just 21 people, including Barbara the Carpenter and Luigi the Carpenter's Husband, Akmed the Cobbler and his wife Peaches (think about it), fifteen-year-old Flurp the Town Fool (who in the classic tradition of town fools, is one of the smartest people in town), and thirteen-year-old Emmaline Perth, who wishes she could see some of the outside world--where there are cities with over a thousand people in them!--and most of all, wants to do something significant someday.

Her chance comes when a ship washes ashore, carrying no passengers except a small, naked, extremely hairy creature, who says nothing but "Eek!" The town's mayor and bailiff (who have agendas of their own), immediately conclude that he is a Frenchman and a spy, to be "given a fair trial, found guilty, and shot until you are dead." And so Emmaline finally finds something significant to do: she will be Monsieur Eek's lawyer. And with the help of Flurp--and of another unexpected arrival to town--she will make MacOnngafoondsen a different and better place.

Filled with amusing minor anachronisms--the differing town factions put bumper stickers on horse carts reading "EEK OUT!" and "EEK'S A GEEK!"--and running gags--"What curious habits that French have," says Emmaline, describing Monsieur Eek's tendency to hang upside down from the rafters--the satire and humor of this book aren't particularly subtle, but it rarely feels heavy-handed. And though it's fun for readers to be in on the joke, the laughs are never mean.

Visiting Langston by Willie Perdomo. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. Henry Holt, 2002 (0-8050-6744-2) $15.95

Someone once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture; I often think of that when reading children's nonfiction. This picture book does its best to pay tribute to poet Langston Hughes in a more meaningful way, combining a lyrical text inspired by his simply worded, resonant poetry, with sophisticated collage illustrations based on historical photographs. It is far more evocative than informative, and all the better for it.

New Books: News

The Body Eclectic edited by Patrice Vecchione. Henry Holt, 2002 (0-8050-6935-6) $16.95

A sophisticated collection of poems and prose pieces dealing with thoughts and feelings about bodies. Topics are as diverse as elbows (Minnie Bruce Pratt), scars (William Stafford), and semen (Paublo Neruda).

Flight of the Raven by Stephanie S. Tolan. HarperCollins, 2001 (0-688-17419-1) $15.95

Follow-up to Welcome to the Ark.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

The Cay by Theodore Taylor. 1969; Dell Yearling, 2002 (0-440-41663-9) $5.50 pb

Lirael by Garth Nix. 2001; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-000542-4) $6.99 pb

Sequel to Sabriel.

Petunia written and illustrated by Roger Duvoisin. 1950; Dragonfly, 2002 (0-440-41754-6) $6.99 pb

Paperback edition of the recent reprint.

Puppies, Dogs, and Blue Northers by Gary Paulsen. Harcourt Brace, 1996; Dell Yearling, 2002 (0-440-41875-5) $4.50 pb

Squire ("Protector of the Small" #3) by Tamora Pierce. Random, 2001 (0-679-88916-7) $15.95; 2002 (0-679-88919-2) $4.99 pb

In the third book in the "Protector of the Small" series, Keladry struggles to prove herself as a squire and win her knight's shield, despite menacing conservative opposition and the distraction of her first experiences with sex. Although less narratively solid then the first book, this is an absorbing, surprisingly down-to-earth magical adventure.

The White Fox Chronicles by Gary Paulsen. Delacorte, 2000; Laurel-Leaf, 2002 (0-440-41248-X) $5.50 pb

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

A Box of Animal Crackers written and illustrated by Jane Dyer. Little, Brown, 2002 (0-316-19687-8) $12.95 board books

Someone must have be tickled when they thought this one up: a boxed set of board books, taken from Jane Dyer's lovely book Animal Crackers. At first glance, these illustrated poems and rhymes, now divided into Bedtime, Nursery Rhymes and Animal Friends, immediately evoke a very old-fashioned aesthetic, with text and pictures stylishly interwoven, and many classic images such as boys in nightshirts and smiling moons. Closer inspection however, shows that along with old favorites like "Winken, Blynken, and Nod" by Eugene Field, the books include African and Brazilian lullabies and poems by authors like William Carlos Williams--and the babies drawn floating on clouds come in many colors. The mix of old-fashioned charm and modern values works beautifully; neither seems soppy or overdone. Dryer's watercolors are very attractive: sometimes soft and dreamy, sometimes bright and glowing, with each piece of text illustrated in a distinct, appropriate style. (6 months & up)

Also available: Talking Like the Rain edited by X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy. Illustrated by Jane Dyer. 1992; Little, Brown, 2002 (0-316-38491-7) $9.95 pb

After Animal Crackers has been outgrown, this is an ideal follow-up, 90 pages of funny, cozy or wondrous poems for children, set amidst exquisite but inviting illustrations. As in Animal Crackers Dyer's watercolors gently mix illustrative styles, with nods to both classic and contemporary modes, and provide a variety which feels seamless. A must for a home library. (4 & up/7 & up)

Fiddle-I-Fee adapted and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Little, Brown, 1994 (0-316-82522-0) $5.95 pb; 2002 (0-316-75861-2) $5.95 board book

Simple repetitions and droll animals noises have made this nonsense song a traditional favorite. The appealing illustrations for this version--light watercolors, which though obviously contemporary, have some of the flavor of old-fashioned Mother Goose characters--add a bit of a story to the song, showing a child going to feed the many farmyard animals, who all end up following behind in a whimsical parade: stepping over stones in a brook, walking on top of a fence and finally hitching a ride back to the farmhouse, for a very silly feast. A nice book to sing along with; glimpses of each animal in the illustrations, right before it's introduced in the text, also encourage active participation. (2-6)

Good Driving, Amelia Bedelia by Herman Parish. Illustrated by Lynn Sweat. William Morrow, 1995; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-008092-2) $3.99 pb

A short drive in the country can only lead to chaos when Amelia Bedelia is doing the driving, cheerfully misunderstanding every instruction she given: told to look for a fork in the road, she naturally expects silverware; told "bear left," she swerves to the right (to avoid the bear on the left, of course.) Written by the nephew of Amelia Bedelia's original creator, Peggy Parish, this new title features somewhat more sophisticated wordplay than I remember from the earlier books; perhaps beginning readers are more sophisticated these days, as well. It's certainly just as funny, and Amelia Bedelia's genial character shines through. Sweat's illustrations are a little bland, but effective and comfortably familiar. (6-8)

Lullaby Lullabook by Maribeth Boelts. Illustrated by Bruce Whatley. HarperGrowingTree (0-694-01593-8) $5.95 board book

Human mothers sing lullabys, so what do animal mothers sing? Naturally, they sing lulla-purrs, lulla-coos and lulla-neighs. Written in short verses, with a focus on gentle, cozy words, this sweetly soothing book is just right for bedtime. This appears to be a revised edition (shortened, and possibly in somewhat different form) of Lullaby Babes, which was published by Albert Whitman in 1995. Thankfully, the illustrations, which I originally described as "chunky, glistening caricatures" have been redone by a different illustrator; I'm not sure the naturalistic browns and whites and softened realism style of the new pictures will attract the newborns the book is now marketed for, but they certainly are much more suited to its tone, as well as more attractive. (1-3)

Maisy's Train; Maisy's Fire Engine written and illustrated by Lucy Cousins. Candlewick, 2002 (0-7636-1781-4; 0-7636-1780-6) $4.99 ea. board book

Maisy the mouse is on the move and having adventures: taking her friends on a trip to the countryside in a train, and helping to rescue a cat from a rooftop in a fire engine. As usual, these brightly colored books are filled with action and sound, but always stay on a small child's level. They struck gold at our house: my seven-month-old actually looked and listened when I read them aloud, instead of grabbing to put them in his mouth. (6 months-2)

Mrs. McNosh Hangs Up Her Wash by Sarah Weeks. Illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott. HarperGrowingTree, 1998 (0-694-01076-6) $9.95; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-000479-7) $5.95 pb

How interesting could a story about hanging up the wash be? Very interesting, and very funny, when the hanger of the wash is Nelly McNosh, who seems to feel that everything is happier hanging from a line. With a garbage can, two sleepy bats (upside down, of course) and the day's mail hanging, Mrs. McNosh's clothesline is a sight--particularly when she hangs herself up for a rest. Lively, light watercolor illustrations give this book a friendly feel, while the gradually increasing absurdities make it hilarious to read aloud. (3-6)

Tyler on Prime Time by Steve Atinsky. Delacorte, 2002 (0-385-72917-0) $14.95

On a visit to his television writer uncle, twelve-year-old Tyler tries to fulfill his dream of getting a part on a sit-com, despite his overprotective mother and the disapproval of his controlling father. A sympathetic main character and plenty of insider detail about the acting process and the sit-com world make this an enjoyable read.

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