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. 3, July 1, 2002

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

(Review reprinted with permission from The WEB: Celebrating Children's Literature.)

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden. Macmillan, 1961; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-440938-4) $4.95 pb

One of Godden's most beloved doll stories is once again available, although sadly, unillustrated.

Dolls and children have this in common: dolls are not asked if they want to live somewhere, and "children are not asked either." So Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, two little Japanese dolls, are not asked if they want to live with strangers in frightening, unknown England--and neither is eight-year-old Nona Fell. Only half an orphan (with a father still alive in India), and with a nice aunt and uncle to live with, Nona still feels as miserable as any homeless orphan could be. Her cousins--Anne, Tom and Belinda--laugh at her clothes and her sing-song voice, she doesn't like the strange food or understand their strange games and she's always cold. "Nona is a good name for her," says Belinda. "All she does is say 'No' all the time."

Then the parcel arrives from San Francisco containing Miss Happiness and Miss Flower--as Anne is too old for dolls, one each for Belinda and Nona. Belinda isn't interested in the unusual dolls--"they're not even new"--but Nona almost immediately feels a kinship with these fellow strangers in a strange land. She feels the dolls' longings for familiar things ("As I have told you before, wishes are very powerful things, even dolls' wishes") and their discomfort in Belinda's ordinary doll's-house. And scared, miserable little Nona sets out to make the dolls happy--even though it means braving loud streets, talking to frightening strangers and asking for help.

Soon almost everyone is helping Nona in her quest, with Tom actually building a Japanese doll's-house for her and new friends contributing furnishings for it. But as Nona starts to come out of her shell and become part of the family, Belinda feels more and more left out. And Belinda has a power over Nona that only she remembers--one of the dolls rightfully belongs to her. Can she actually be mean enough to destroy Nona's dream?

How Nona learns to fit in in her new home, take care of her dolls and even become friends with Belinda makes for a wonderfully satisfying story, with the details of the building and furnishing of the Japanese doll's-house a special delight. (Appendices describe in detail how it can be done.) Godden's unique style is especially effective in this story, with unexpectedly inserted dialogue crisply establishing or completing the mood of a passage. Fans of the rough, obstreperous but somehow lovable Belinda will also enjoy the sequel, Little Plum, which I hope will also be reprinted soon.

Reprints: News

Paddington Takes the Test by Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Houghton Mifflin, 1980; 2002 (0-618-18384-1) $15.00

New Books: Reviews

Creature Comforts by Barbara Collopy O'Halloran. Photographed by Betty Udesen. Houghton Mifflin, 20020-618-11864-0) $17.00

One has a Banky, one has a Binky, two have a Blankie and at least four have a Blanky. This moving photo essay focuses on the love people have for their special security objects. Black and white photographs of children and adults holding, playing with or caressing their blankies, doggies and monkeys are paired with brief commentary by them (and sometimes by their parents) about what the object has meant in their lives. A few of the contributors are well known--the lead singer of "The Presidents of the United States of America" has a free-thinking stuffed rabbit named Chickey--but the most touching stories are those of children who needed loveys more than most: seven-year-old Zoe, adopted in China by a woman who didn't know her language, but wrapped her in Binky and carried her everywhere, and nine-year-old Shane, who shares his chemotherapy experiences with Doggie. "Doggie is on maintenance too... that's why Doggie has no hair." I don't think this is as powerful a book as it could have been: many of the elaborately posed photos have an artificial, deliberately artistic flavor that distances the contributors from the readers. But the words are thoughtful and touching, certain to spark memories of particular loved objects.

Simon Says By Elaine Marie Alphin. Harcourt Brace, 2002 (0-15-216355-7) $17.00

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.

New Books: News

The Woman Who Won Things by Allan Ahlberg. Illustrated by Katharine McEwen. Candlewick, 2002 (0-7636-1721-0) $14.99

Lighthearted, silly sequel to The Man Who Wore All His Clothes.

The Bagpiper's Ghost by Jane Yolen. Harcourt, 2002 (0-15-202310-0) $16.00

Books 3 of the "Tartan Magic" series.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

The Time Bike by Jane Langton. HarperCollins, 2000 (0-06-028437-4) $15.95; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-440792-6) $5.95 pb

The sixth book about the Hall family is a disappointing muddle of themes from the previous books, particularly The Diamond in the Window and The Swing in the Summerhouse. Once again the Halls foil an attempt (singularly implausible) by Mr. Preek and Miss Prawn to steal their home; once again Eddy's friend Oliver causes trouble by using a magic device and breaking it; once again the broken magic causes someone to be supernaturally stranded; once again, Eleanor learns (singularly implausibly) not to value conformity. None of that would really matter if anything else in the book made it worth reading, but though Langton's familiar plot elements are well represented, the qualities that make her books wonderful--loveable characters, charismatic language, glorious ideas--are sparse at best, making this a very tired and pointless rerun.

The Wizard's Map; The Pictish Child by Jane Yolen. Magic Carpet, 2002 (0-15-216365-4; 0-15-216359-X) $5,95 ea. pb

Books 1 and 2 of the "Tartan Magic" series.

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

And So They Build written and illustrated by Bert Kitchen. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-502-0) $5.99 pb

This captivating picture book shows many of the unusual shelters created by birds, animals and insects around the world, including round clay enclosures built by the gladiator tree frog, soil buildings shaped like huge mushrooms built by cubiterme termites, and leaves actually sewn together by the aptly named tailorbird. The straightforward but refreshingly non-simplistic text explains why each animal needs its particular kind of shelter and how it creates it; the exquisite drawings, reminiscent in their realistic beauty of Audubon's art, show the animals at work in their natural settings. Seeing the animals building their amazingly sophisticated structures is simply awe-inspiring, for children and adults alike.

Beany (Not Beanhead) and the Magic Crystal by Susan Wojciechowski. Illustrated by Susanna Natti. Candlewick, 1997 (0-7636-0052-0) $15.99

In the follow-up to Don't Call Me Beanhead (reviewed volume 2, number 127), perpetual worrier Beany has managed to calm down a bit. It helps that she's been given something very special, a magic crystal with one potential wish. Beany is tempted to use her wish lots of times--like when she discovers that the "caring and sharing" trophy she won isn't rightfully hers... and when she loses the class hamsters... and especially when her best friend Carol Ann tries to style her hair for the school photos. But somehow, it's never quite necessary to use a wish--until Beany discovers someone else who needs one even more than she does.

As in the first book, the strong point of this story is Beany's narrative voice, intimate, vulnerable and believable as she reveals her love-hate relationship with Carol Ann, her hate-hate relationship with bully Kevin Gates, and her own private foibles. Her escapades are also true-to-life and funny, although some readers may find the ending more mushy than satisfying. (7-11)

Fireman Small written and illustrated by Wong Herbert Yee. Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (0-395-6897-2); 1996 (0-395-81659-9) $4.95 pb; 2002 0-618-21619-7) $9.95 pb and tape

As "the only firefighter this side of the bay," Fireman Small naturally works night and day. Every time he pulls the covers over his head to get to sleep, RING-A LING-DING! sounds the alarm, calling the dauntless fireman to rescue a cat up a tree, save a bunny down a well and even to put out a fire

. Terse sentences, quick rhymes and clever repetitions keep this text racing forward in an absolutely irresistible way, leaving readers on the edge of their chairs waiting to discover how each small adventure comes out. The accompanying watercolor illustrations, drawn in a style which is somehow both orderly and oddball, are almost equally delightful, especially the teeny-tiny boots and pants the aptly named Fireman Small leaves at the end of his bed, ready to be jumped into at a moment's notice; the other characters, all animals, are also charmingly goofy. (3-6)

How Many How Many How Many by Rick Walton. Illustrated by Cynthia Jabar. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-656-6) $6.99 pb

This cleverly crafted, exuberantly illustrated counting book makes learning about numbers a joy. Told in lilting rhyme, it asks "how many?" for items from 1 ("He is nimble. He is quick. How many jump the candlestick?") to 12 ("Holidays are almost here. How many months make up a year?"), while twelve happy children, each in charge of a different number, frolic through the brightly surreal scratchboard pictures. The different number examples are chosen to begin with the safely familiar and then expand to slightly more complex groups children will enjoy learning, such as how many legs ants have and how many reindeer pull Santa's sleigh. When the book is done, a list at the back reveals twelve extra groups to look for in the pictures, like the three blind mice jazz band found in the garden of the three bears. Both children and adults will love this one.

Park; Shopping; Car; Home written and illustrated by Pierre Pratt. Candlewick, 2001 (0-7636-1391-6; 0-7636-1392-4; 0-7636-1390-8; 0-7636-1394-4) $4.99 ea. board books

One of the pleasures of reading board books aloud is discovering what inspires you as a reader. These four books, which describe "the very busy life of Olaf and Venus," have the simplest possible text, one noun per illustration. But quite a bit of story can be hung on that noun and picture, giving Olaf the elephant and Venus the mouse some delightful times together, with each adventure ending in some water play and a good snooze The pictures, which look like pastel crayons, show each item first against a white background, and then in context, being enjoyed by the friends; the look is colorfully bright, yet soft and relaxed. (6 months & up)

So Much by Trish Cooke. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. Candlewick, 1994; 1997 (0-7636-0296-5) $6. 99 pb

So Much is larger than the average picture book, probably so it can contain an overflow of exuberant warmth. Mom and the baby are sitting around doing nothing when the relatives start coming over--and every relative wants to squeeze or kiss or even eat the baby, because they love him SO MUCH! Then they all sit and relax until the next relative comes--until finally Daddy arrives, and his surprise birthday party can begin! With a strong Caribbean feel to the lively, rhythmic text, So Much is a joy to read aloud. The illustrations are vibrant and affectionate, reflecting the Carribean flavor of the story in the family's clothing and hairstyles. Oxenbury also has some fun by illustrating the "doing nothing" sections of the book in white and sepia, with only the baby's bright red overall standing out like a beacon against his brown skin; it's almost startlingly effective in capturing the feeling of a hot, lazy afternoon, waiting for a party to begin.

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