celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2003 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 editor@windowsill.net with comments or questions.

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Vol. 11, No. 1; January 2003

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

The World of Henry Orient by Nora Johnson. 1958; Green Mansion Press, 2002 (0-9714612-0-1) $12.95

I don't think "young adult" books were a recognized genre when The World of Henry Orient was first published, but it makes sense that this novel about two thirteen year old girls has been reissued in that category. I do wish, though, that it had been given a less childish looking cover, because it is quite a sophisticated story, worthy of a broad range of readers.

Narrated by 13-year-old Marian and set at an unspecified time in New York City, this is the story of her magical yet troubled friendship with a musically gifted girl named Val. When Marian first meets Val, she only knows of her as "the one who goes home early every day," an odd fact that (like the divorce of Marian's parents) has kept her from ever quite fitting in with the rest of their classmates. It turns out that the reason Val leaves early every day is to see a psychiatrist: a shocking occurrence in their social circles. But Marian soon discovers that "neurotic" Val has a way of making life intense and interesting; as just one example of the power of her personality, at one point she decides that Marian's mother's name should be Wimpole and from then on no one, including Marian, ever calls her anything else.

The most exciting thing Val ever does it to fall hopelessly in love with Henry Orient, a concert pianist who despite being neither very great nor very attractive, somehow grabs her imagination. The two girls begin a serious program of research (and what might today be called stalking) to find out everything there is to know about Henry. In hindsight, Marian realizes that Val's devotion to Henry represents all that is most special about her friend: her love of the world of music, her vivid imagination, and her capacity to appreciate unconventional people. But there are other forces pushing at Val, powerful forces that want her to become a "normal" girl and to leave behind the world of Henry Orient, the world of childhood, and the world of Marian and her family.

In some ways The World of Henry Orient is specifically an indictment of the ugly and dangerous ideas of a particular time; we see that in Marian's reflection about Val, "I shared her fate; it was my world as well as hers, we would grow up into it at the same time, and it was shocking to see how it was already treating another of my generation." But despite some very dated elements (such as the girls' use of "Oriental" code terms for Henry like "Fu Manchu, Cherry Blossom or junk",) the story remains vivid, resonant and powerfully poignant. Marian's fearful, almost superstitious view of psychiatry certainly seems archaic now, but the calm assertion of Val's psychiatrist that it's far more important that Val be with a mother and father than with the people who actually love her still rings painfully plausible today. Wimpole's advice to Val, that "you'll have to grow up before you can find your kind of people, the kind who appreciate you for what you are... It's a question of finding your niche, and until then, being patient" has lost none of its value. And Marian's view of Val as "up against a world that apparently could not accommodate her" is as heartbreaking now as it was 45 years ago.

Reprints: Reviews

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski. Illustrated by P.J. Lynch. Candlewick, 1995 (1-56402-320-6) $15.95; 2002 (0-7636-1930-2) $12.99

Christmas is the perfect time for Scrooge stories, and this original tale about a bitter, lonely woodcarver who learns how to care about people again is a poignant, beautifully told variant of the theme. Jonathan Toomey is always called Mr. Gloomy by the village children, for he seldom smiles and never laughs, drowned in the pain of having lost his family. But when he carves a very special set of Christmas figurines for newcomers to his village, the widow McDowell and her son Thomas, Jonathan finds his heart warming in their gentle company. Then he must carve the final figures, Mary and Jesus, but he can't seem to do it--until he takes the picture of his wife and baby from out of its hidden drawer and uses it as a model: "The baby's arms were reaching up, touching the woman's face. The woman was looking down at the baby, smiling." Once again able to remember his family with joy, Jonathan happily goes to the Christmas service with his new friends, and no one ever calls him Mr. Gloomy again. Wojciechowski's rhythmic but comfortably lifelike and homey narrative makes even this very long picture book a pleasure to listen to, as well as to read, and Lynch's rich, carefully detailed paintings sympathetically capture the many complex moods and emotions of the text.

Reprints: News

Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? by Martin Waddell. Illustrated by Barbara Firth. Candlewick, 2002 (0-7636-1929-9) $15.99

The tenth anniversary edition of this gentle bedtime story comes with a gold-embossed jacket and a frameable print of the book's cover.

Ed Emberley's Drawing Book of Weirdos written and illustrated by Ed Emberley. Little, Brown, 2002 (0-316-23546-6) $15.95; (0-316-23314-5) $7.95 pb

Showing how to draw such Halloween favorites as bats, skulls and Frankenstein, this picture book combines two books previously published twenty years ago, now in full color.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Author: a True Story written and illustrated by Helen Lester. Houghton Mifflin, 1997; 2002 (0-618-26010-2) $4.95 pb

The cover illustration of this book, showing the author tossing page after page of notes out of the shower as she washes, sets the mood for this fresh and joyful picture-book autobiography. Lester writes a short, engaging story about growing from a three-year-old, scribbling hundreds of useful lists for her mother, who never once said "No thank you, dear, I have enough," into a published author, "the first author I had ever met." Even after overcoming a learning disability, writing stories was sometimes very HARD as a child, and continues to sometimes be very HARD as an adult--yet Lester's love for her craft could not be more clear. Sprightly, unsophisticated pen & ink and watercolor drawings enhance the humor of the story; although Lester writes disparagingly of her skill as an illustrator--"my pig" is a simple creature made mostly of circles, while "my illustrator's pig" nonchalantly balances a refrigerator on one trotter while riding a bicycle with the other--it's easy to be fond of her self-portrait of herself as a rosy-cheeked, smiling, enthusiastic toddler who grows into a rosy-cheeked, smiling, enthusiastic adult.

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