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. 4, October 2002

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

The Saturdays; The Four-Story Mistake; Then There Were Five; Spiderweb for Two written and illustrated by Elizabeth Enright. Henry Holt, 2002 (0-8050-7061-3; 0-8050-7060-5; 0-8050-7062-1; 0-8050-7063-X) $16.95 each

I remember how astounded I was, years ago, to discover that the Melendy books had fallen out of print. True, they weren't big award winners, but among readers, they're generally much better remembered and better loved than Enright's Newbery winner Thimble Summer. And to me, these stories about a large family and their adventures are the books that define the classic, non-fantasy, family story.

There are lots of reasons to remember these books with affection. They're written with great warmth and humor. They're filled with interesting stories and episodes. Best of all, they have wonderful characters: each of the four Melendy children (they acquire an adopted fifth in the third book) is a unique and likeable person. I always empathized most with the dreamy and impulsive Randy, who's always getting into ridiculous situations--falling out of a boat in the Central Park lake or accidentally leaving the family's mail to freeze under a sheet of ice. Then there's Rush, an essentially kind-hearted older brother with an occasionally wicked sense of humor, Oliver, the stolid and forthright youngest and Mona, who as the eldest is the most interested in "growing-up," yet still enjoys being one of the family. Despite the differences in their ages--Mona is thirteen in the first book, Oliver is six--the four often play and have adventures together, just as you'd expect from an ensemble family story. (The help of kind and imaginative adults is also often involved.) Yet all four are also filled with different creative desires and talents, which make them stand out as memorable individuals.

But I think what makes the Melendys seem like the quintessential literary family is that the books strike a perfect balance between realism and idyll. Fun and exciting things are always happening to the Melendys, but against a background of everyday security and a rather more controlled upbringing than is common today: their loving housekeeper Cuffy may bake cookies a lot, but she also makes them eat their beets and scrubs their hair till their skulls ache. Likewise, the Melendys are all fond of one another and enjoy being together--but that doesn't mean they never squabble or tease each other.

In an introduction originally published in an omnibus edition of the Melendy books, Enright writes: "Wishing has played a large part in these stories too, as you can see. The Melendys have and do all the things I would have liked to have and do as a child." It's the way the Enright puts that element of wish fulfillment into such a believable framework that makes these books so enchanting. In many ways, the Melendys are an archetype of the best possible kind of family having the best possible kind of childhood. Because the characters are so well drawn and human, we can believe in the stories: they represent something that seems both wonderful and real.

The Melendy books were finally reprinted in paperback around five years ago, but don't miss this chance to get these good quality hardcovers, which include the original illustrations by the author and quirky new covers by Tricia Tusa.

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

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge by Hildegarde H. Swift. Illustrated by Lynd Ward. Harcourt, 1942; 2002 (0-15-204571-6) $16.00

Based on real structures in Manhattan, this is the story of a proud lighthouse that starts to feel small and unnecessary when a great bridge with a great beam of light--The George Washington Bridge--is built right next to it. But when a thick fog rolls in, the great gray bridge tells the little red lighthouse, "Quick, let your light shine again. Each to his own place, little brother!" The little lighthouse saves the day and from then on stands bravely once again besides the towering bridge: "though it knows now that it is little, it is still VERY, VERY PROUD."

This is a sweet story with a sympathetic, comforting message--although it's confused a bit by the fact that the lighthouse can't actually light his light by himself, but needs help from a man. (You could do some interesting deconstruction of the story as a tale of man the conqueror.) The illustrations are discreetly anthropomorphic: striking landscapes in shades of dark blue and white portray a beautiful but challenging environment, where the grasping hands of fog can threaten friendly boats.

This sixtieth anniversary edition captures the look and feel of the original, with cream colored paper, a slightly rough book jacket and gorgeous illustrated end-papers. It's not entirely a facsimile edition, however, because it's actually the first printing of the illustrator's original watercolors, instead of the the three-color picture he created for the book.

Also available: The Little Red lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge Gift Set by Hildegarde H. Swift. Illustrated by Lynd Ward. Harcourt, 2002 (0-15-204574-0) $16.95

A smaller edition of the book, paired with a charming nightlight that pictures the little red lighthouse.

Reprints: Reviews

The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope. Illustrated by Evaline Ness. Houghton Mifflin, 1958; 2001 (0-618-15074-9) $5.95 pb

Peggy, a lonely girl stuck on her family estate with an irascible uncle, learns lessons about courage, intrigue and romance from a group of friendly ghosts. This mix of revolutionary war drama and gentle ghost story has dated more than I realized the last time I read it, and will have some feminist readers gritting their teeth, but its dashing vision of honor in love and war still has a great deal of appeal. The original illustrations, angular, sharply contrasting black & white drawings, are included.

The Skull of Truth by Bruce Coville. Illustrated by Gary A. Lippincott. Harcourt Brace, 1997; 2002 (0-15-204612-7) $17.00

In the third "Magic Shop" book, a boy named Charlie finds his way to Mr. Elives' shop and is irresistibly drawn to an item that's not for sale: a human skull. To his own astonishment, he steals the skull--but that's nothing to his astonishment when its eyes begin to glow and it starts to talk to him.

The skull turns out to be none other than Yorick--Coville just can't seem to stay away from Shakespeare!--and he's really more annoying than frightening, always cracking bad jokes and keeping Charlie up at night. But one aspect of owning the skull is far more than just annoying: it forces Charlie, and anyone near it, to speak nothing but the absolute truth. Soon Charlie has badly hurt the feelings of a sick friend, seriously offended that school bully and learned some uncomfortable secrets about his family. Even when he tries to put Yorick to good use, by forcing a developer who wants to destroy his favorite swamp into full disclosure, the result isn't quite what he expected. Truth turns out to be much more complicated than Charlie ever thought.

The Skull of Truth gets a little crowded with subplots, including the history of Charlie's reputation as a liar, his friend's cancer, and his favorite uncle's unexpected "outing" at an all-too-truthful family dinner. But Coville juggles everything skillfully, tying most of the subplots together for a poignant and thought-provoking ending. Like the previous "Magic Shop" books, this is a fast-paced, easy read that also fulfills a longing for more meaningful themes.

Reprinted for the 20th anniversary of the "Magic Shop" series, with a new cover and an afterword by the author.

Also available: The Monster's Ring. Illustrated by Katherine Coville. 1982; 2002 (0-15-204618-6) $16.00. Revised and expanded edition of the first Magic Shop Book. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. Illustrated by Gary A. Lippincott. 1991; Harcourt, 2002 (0-15-204614-3) $17.00. Jennifer Murdley's Toad. Illustrated by Gary A. Lippincott. 1992; Harcourt, 2002 (0-15-204613-5) $17.00. All with new afterwords by the author.

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones. 1981; Greenwillow, 1996; 2002 (0-06-029887-1) $16.99

This ghost story by popular fantasy writer Jones is one of her strangest books--sometimes horrible, sometimes funny, but always unexpected. Sally is a ghost, but she doesn't know why or how. In fact, she doesn't even know for sure she is Sally, just that she seems to have once belonged to a family of four very odd, morbid and imaginative sisters named Sally, Charlotte, Imogen and Fenella. And somehow, whatever happened to her is connected to Monigan, a goddess the sisters invented to worship, who has taken on a life of her own. As Sally's ghost--if it is Sally's ghost--discovers the extent of Monigan's power over them, she realizes that the future of the sisters' and their friends has already been affected by their sacrifices to the malicious goddess--and it will take even more sacrifices to break her power.

It took me quite a while to get into this story: none of the characters are initially very likeable and the plot seemed less confusing than simply pointless. However, once the underlying reason for the girls' odd behavior became clear--they are outrageously neglected by their parents--the characters became more understandable and the twists of the plot started to become compelling. Interestingly, the plot actually reaches its climax in the second-to-last paragraph; that might explain why I found myself thinking that this might have made a better short story or novella. But though the book could certainly benefit from a tighter, more focused style, patient readers with a taste for the uniquely British style of fantasy will find it rewarding.

Also reprinted: Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow, 1994; 2002 (0-06-029888-X) $16.99; Witch's Business by Diana Wynne Jones. Dutton, 1974; Greenwillow, 2002 (0-06-008782-X) $15.99. Jones' first children's book, originally published in Great Britain as Wilkin's Tooth.

Reprints: News

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson. Illustrated by Donna Diamond. 1977; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-440184-7) $5.95 pb

Twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the Newbery Medal winner.

Fantastic Mr. Fox; George's Marvelous Medicine; James and the Giant Peach; The Twits by Roald Dahl. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1970; 1981; 1961; 1980; Knopf, 2002 (0-375-82207-0; 0-375-82206-2; 0-375-81424-8; 0-375-82242-9) $15.95 ea.

Latest reprints of Dahl's children's books in attractive matching editions, with covers and endpapers by Blake.

Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. 1973; Houghton Mifflin, 2002 (0-618-21620-0) $15.00

Jeanne Houston's memoir of growing up in an internee camp for Japanese Americans, with a pertinent new afterward that notes "In the wake of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center... we saw an unfortunate readiness, on the part of many, to assume that all Americans of Middle Eastern background were suddenly suspect... It was a hauntingly familiar rush to judgement."

The Guest written and illustrated by James Marshall. 1975; Houghton Mifflin, 2001 (0-618-12845-X) $15.00; (0-618-12844-1) $4.95 pb

Another sweet and silly friendship story by the author/illustrator of the beloved George and Martha books.

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet; Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron. 1954; 1956; Little, Brown, 2002 (0-316-12540-7; 0-316-12541-5) $7.95 pb ea.

First and second in the series, with new covers by Kevin Hawkes.

New Books: Reviews

Sparks by Graham McNamee. Wendy Lamb Books, 2002 (0-385-72977-4) $15.95

"The only nice thing they said about me was I have a strong imagination. But what good is that? They never test you on making things up."

Because of his poor reading comprehension and memorization skills, Todd spent most of last year in "Special Needs" class. But this year he's made the big leagues: "the real fifth grade with the normal kids." It's a hard struggle trying to keep up with the normal kids, and it doesn't help that they're always calling him names like Mr. Retardo and Gump. Todd really misses his best friend Eva from Special Needs, but he can't afford to hang out with her anymore: "People will think I'm still Brain-Dead." But when a class assignment about an exploited pygmy shows Todd that his strong imagination actually is good for something, he realizes it's not much fun being "normal" when you can't share your success with your best friend. Written by a former slow learner, this is an insightful look into the heart of a "slow" kid, as he learns to conquer his fear of looking stupid and to have some faith in his own abilities. McNamee shows great tenderness and understanding of his characters, making the story real and endearing.

Tribes by Arthur Slade. Wendy Lamb, 2002 (0-385-73003-9) $15.95

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.

New Books: News

Earthborn by Sylvia Waugh. Delacorte, 2002 (0-385-729964-2) $15.95

Companion to Space Race.

Falcon and the Charles Street Witch by Lulu Gray. Houghton Mifflin, 2002 (0-618-16410-3) $15.00

Sequel to Falcon's Egg.

The Girls Take Over by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Delacorte, 2002 (0-385-32738-2) $15.95

It's the girls' turn again, in the eighth book about the year-long feud between the Hatford boys and the Malloy girls.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande Velde. Harcourt Brace, 1995 (0-15-200221-9) $17.00; Harcourt, 2002 (0-15-216669-6) $5.95 pb

Vivian Vande Velde's Dragon's Bait was an entertaining and romantic look at a relationship between a human girl and a far-from-human boy. Companions of the Night uses that pattern again, but this time with a tenser, more explosive awareness of what the differences between human and non-human can really mean. The result is a breathtakingly suspenseful story which is also an intriguing exploration of moral ambiguity.

Kerry Nowicki is very much in the wrong place at the wrong time when she goes to an all-night laundromat and runs into three men carrying a gagged and bloodied figure. But what she assumes is a drug deal gone wrong is actually something much more bizarre and horrifying: the men claim that their prisoner is a vampire, and they're planning to videotape him as he dies at sunrise. Terrified for both of their lives, Kerry seizes a chances to rescue the prisoner, whose name is Ethan. But their escape is only the beginning. . . because the three men were right. And now Kerry is also suspected of being a vampire, her family is in grave danger--and her only chance to save their lives and hers seems to be to keep helping the possibly amoral, certainly attractive, and totally unknowable Ethan.

In many ways a classic hostage story, Companions of the Night is utterly gripping, as both Kerry and the reader try to understand what Ethan truly is and how far--if at all--she can trust him. With the mythical sensual power of vampirism beginning to invade her dreams, her choices become even more difficult. Is it safe to follow her feelings? Or is she, as a vampire hunter claims, being "seduced by the glamor of evil"?

Through its taut and subtly erotic story, Companions of the Night raises questions about the unexpectedly slippery slope between good and evil, human and inhumane. The ending satisfyingly combines a realistic uncertainty about moral absolutes with a clear and forthright message that, nonetheless, there is always a choice.

Dealing With Dragons; by Patricia C. Wrede. 1990; 1991; Harcourt, 2002 (0-15-2045660X; 0-15-204565-1) $5.95 pb ea.

Books one and two of "The Enchanted Forest Chronicles."

The Giver by Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin, 1993; Laurel-Leaf, 2002 (0-440-23768-8) $6.50 pb

The thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching 1994 Newbery Medal winner.

The Good Liar by Gregory Maguire. Clarion, 1999 (0-395-90697-0) $15.00; HarperTrophy, 2002 (0-06-440874-4) $5.95 pb

After the German army occupied France in World War II, some of the French resisted and some became collaborators. But as Marcel Delarue remembers, "many more of the French people, my family among them, appeared merely to live out the war hoping to squeak through unnoticed and unharmed." Growing up in a small village in occupied France, Marcel and his brothers Rene and Pierre are aware of some privations, but otherwise the war doesn't interfere much with their childhood pursuits--especially their favorite game of seeing who can lie the most creatively and plausibly. When Marcel meets a friendly German soldier, who reminds him a little of his absent father, there doesn't seem any real harm in spending time with him; he's even proud of keeping such a big secret, a splendid "extended lie." But things in his village aren't exactly as Marcel thinks they are, and to his horror, he learns that his secret friendship could be a dangerous one.

Stories about childhoods lost through war aren't new; what makes The Good Liar so interesting is that it shows the precise moment in which a child passes from ignorance to awareness, suddenly forced to comprehend "too much doom for a child to imagine." Marcel is not exactly a hero, in the sense that, say, the characters in Lois Lowry's Number the Stars or Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic are, but in a way, that makes his story more meaningful; his newfound understanding, with its accompanying confusion and ambiguities, is a very believable and sympathetic portrait of what it's like for ordinary kids to face terrors: "innocent, stupid, trusting, lying, needy, loving kids.... Like you."

Through the simple device of having an adult Marcel write his story at the request of three contemporary schoolchildren, Maguire easily draws readers into this book, despite the foreign tone that might otherwise have made it less accessible. It reads like being told a story by a favorite uncle: somehow both romantically far away, and very close to home.

Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times...and What the Neighbors Thought by Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. HBJ Children's Books, 1993; Harcourt, 2002 (0-15-216436-7) $12.00 pb

Gilbert and Sullivan composed their operettas mainly by mail. Sergei Prokofiev was once evicted for playing the same chord on his piano 218 times in a row. Igor Stravinsky wrote a piece of music called "Do Not Throw Paper Towels in Toilet." These and other fascinating facts are found in Lives of the Musicians, a collection of biographical profiles of musicians ranging from Vivaldi to Woody Guthrie. Although the choice of subjects is boringly traditional (mostly classical composers, mostly white, mostly men) the treatment is anything but conventional, focusing on unusual traits or events, in an effort to make the subjects come alive for the reader. The result is quite entertaining.

The Wizard's Dilemma by Diane Duane. Harcourt, 2001 (0-15-202551-0) $17.00; Harcourt, 2002 (0-15-202460-3) $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 Alone by Diane Duane. Harcourt, 2002 (0-15-204562-7) $17.00. Sixth book in the series; Diane Duane's Box of Wizardry. Harcourt, 2002 (0-15-204582-1) $18.95. Boxed set of the first three "Young Wizard" books in paperback, reprinted to match the look of the newer books. These are more attractive than the previous Harcourt edition, but seem to be on lesser quality paper.

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

Bearsie Bear and the Surprise Sleepover Party written and illustrated by Bernard Waber. 1997; Houghton Mifflin, 2002 (0-618-12541-8) $4.95 pb

The cumulative story reaches new heights of silliness as Bearsie Bear plays host to an ever increasing number of chilled animals who want to share his warm bed. Each new animal visitor sets off a dialogue that brings both repetition and surprise to the story (especially Porkie Porcupine.) The result is a satisfying and very funny read. (3-8)

It's a Baby's World written and illustrated by Amanda Haley. Little, Brown, 2001 (0-316-34596-2) $12.95

This cheerful book word book concentrates on the familiar sites of a baby or toddler's life. Each two page spread in pen &ink and watercolor shows items and scenes from a part of the day, from waking up, to lunch time, to going to bed. Lots of different ways of doing things are shown: some babies sit in high chairs, others at the table; some splash in the sink, others in the big tub. Different kinds of families are shown too, though they tend to look pretty much alike, with big round heads and beaming half-circle smiles. It's nice to see a baby waking up in bed with mommy and daddy, as well as a hugely smiling baby standing up in his crib, but I wish the book showed a baby breastfeeding, not just one having a bottle. (10 months-2)

The Mommy Book; The Daddy Book written and illustrated by Todd Parr. Little, Brown, 2002 (0-316-60827-0; 0-316-60799-1) $14.95 each

As you might expect from the author of It's Okay to Be Different, these cheerful picture books show all different kinds of mommies and daddies: "Some mommies have short hair, some mommies have big hair." "Some daddies wear suits, some daddies wear two different socks." (How nice to see my son's daddy immortalized!) The things all mommies and daddies have in common? They like to watch you sleep, they love to kiss and hug you, and they want you to be who you are! Not exactly multicultural, these childlike, super-bright, and boldly-outlined illustrations show people of all different colors; I think the purple kid with the yellow and red spiked hair, at the end of The Daddy Book, is my favorite. (1-4)

Peek-a-Who? written and illustrated by Nina Laden. Chronicle, 2000 (0-8118-2602-3) $6.95 board book

A simple premise and a sophisticated design combine for a book that both babies and adults can enjoy. Each spread asks "peek a" on one page, while the other page has a cut-out keyhole, revealing a hint of what you will find when you turn it: a cow is peek a moo, a train is peek a choo-choo, and the final page is a good quality mirror for peek a you! Brilliant, strongly contrasting colors decorated with little flecks make the book eye-catching but also give it a distinctly fashionable style, almost as if each page was based on a shirt from the Gap. (8 months-2)

Spider on the Floor by Raffi. Illustrated by True Kelley. 1993; Knopf, 2002 (0-375-82220-8) $6.99 board book

Illustrator Kelley faced a challenge here: to turn a fairly uneventful song about a spider crawling up a woman's body into an entertaining picture book. Kelley met the challenge with verve, adding a hilarious layer of action to the song : each new step entangles yet another creature in the spider's web, in addition to the woman herself. At the end we discover the spider has been entangling people and creatures for some time, including an aggrieved dinosaur. The song is easy to sing, even if you don't know the actual tune--I find "it you're happy and you know it" works quite well--and there's lots of silliness to enjoy. (10 months-3)

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