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 with comments or questions.

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Vol. 11, No. 2; March 2003


The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush. Harcourt Brace, 1953; Odyssey Classics, 2003 (0-15-204737-9) $5.95 pb

There's something so intimate and adorable about the idea of tiny people, cozily enjoying the scaled-down comforts of a doll's house or ingeniously making furniture out of human cast-offs, that it's interesting to reflect how few of the stories about them actually are cozy. The mice in the "Miss Bianca" stories face vicious cats and bloodhounds; the dolls in The Dolls House constantly face the peril of unloving human hands. Although small people can also be perceived as quite frightening, it's not surprising that the tendency of children's literature is to see them as vulnerable.

The Borrowers uses that perceived vulnerability to great effect, creating a suspenseful and utterly enthralling story. The small people in this story are literally small people, rather than dolls or animals, but they live like parasites on humans, "borrowing" everything they need to live from them and converting it, with a great deal of ingenuity, to their own uses. They never think of this as stealing because "Human Beans are for Borrowers--like bread's for butter." Nonetheless, they have a great--and justified--fear of the humans that supposedly only exist to provide for them. This story describes the inexorable and terrifying chain of events sparked when one of the Borrowers makes the ultimate mistake--he is "seen" by a Human.

This was actually my first reading of The Borrowers: somehow it never caught my interest as a child, although I was usually fascinated by books about small people or miniature civilizations. I might have found the framing device confusing, and perhaps the names of the characters put me off--names which were, indeed, chosen to seem odd: "Homily, Pod and little Arrietty...even their names were never quite right. They imagined they had their own names--quite different from human names--but with half an ear you could tell they were borrowed." The crowded, somewhat fussy line drawings also never grabbed me, despite having some of the same charming use of big-to-small detail as Garth Williams's for the "Miss Bianca" books. Reading it for the first time now, I didn't completely take the characters of the book to my heart: either it's too late to really love them or I never could have. But it is a beautifully structured, carefully and consistently imagined story, as well as breathlessly exciting and often funny. I certainly admire it as a work of art.

All five of the "Borrowers" books have been reprinted for their "fiftieth anniversary," with a bonus short story "Poor Stainless" included in The Borrowers Aloft. The covers are very much in the style of the original illustrations.

The Complete Adventures of Big Dog and Little Dog written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey. Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-204798-5) $15.00

Previously published as five board books,the adventures of the irrepressible Big Dog and Little Dog are now available in one picture book. Providing an accessible introduction to story, these short, repetitive tales feature two very easily identified characters: Big Dog, obviously, is big, and Little Dog, naturally, is little. Short and sweet, these books nonetheless pack a lot of humor; the text plays straight man to the illustrations, uncomplicated pen & ink and watercolors, which show that the simplest actions of the two dogs almost always leads to utter chaos.

Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge. Coward, McCann & Geohegan, 1964; Penguin, 2001 (0-14-230026-8) $5.99 pb

Family stories which are also fantasies are quite common, but Linnets and Valerians is one of the odder hybrids: at once a family story, fantasy, mystery and romance, with intriguing dashes of religion, witchcraft, mythology and magic realism. The result is a mystical, enchanting story which is truly one of a kind.

The Linnets are a family of four children--Robert, Nan, Timothy and Betsy--who've been left with their grandmother while their father is away with his regiment. When their Grandmama, "a very autocratic old lady, a grandmother of the type that was be met with in 1912...but is now extinct," locks the children up as a punishment, they resourcefully escape and "borrow" a pony and cart, which takes them to the country home of a severe, elderly gentleman who claims to detest children--and who turns out to be their own uncle. The children--who fall immediately in love with his comfortable old house, his servant (the other-worldly Ezra Oake, who communes with bees), and even the gruff, elderly gentlemen himself--are only too happy when he offers to let them stay, even though the price is that they must be Educated. But though their new home is wonderful, the world outside it is strange and sometimes frightening: a world in which spells can work, a statue of Pan can come to life, and a cat can grow to the size of a tiger.

The inhabitants of this world are also strange and sometimes frightening. There's Lady Alicia Valerian, whose husband and son both disappeared thirty years ago, and who has lived in strict seclusion ever since. There's poor, mute Daft Davie, who retreated from the mockery of others to a cave on a mountain. And there's Emma Cobley and her throng, who somehow seem to be behind these tragedies. It is to up brave, quick-thinking Robert, loving Nan, sensitive Timothy and sturdy little Betsy to solve the mysteries that surround them and defeat the evil that's been poisoning so many lives.

Though it was written in 1964, Linnets and Valerians reads far more like a book from an earlier time, and not everyone will appreciate its sometimes mawkish portrait of adult-child relationships or its rather self-conscious lack of class-consciousness, reminiscent of E. Nesbit at her worst. But its magical quality also seems to belong to another era and I think perhaps the flaws and virtues are inextricably connected--you couldn't have one without the other. I, for one, am glad to accept it on its own terms and simply enjoy the beauty, humor and delight of this story.

Also available: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Penguin, 2001 (0-14-230027-6) $5.99

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; Voyager, 2003 (0-15-204573-2) $8.00 pb

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.

The Shadow Club by Neal Shusterman. Little, Brown, 1988; Puffin, 2002 (01423-0094-2) $5.99 pb

Stories have been written about school status from seemingly every possible viewpoint: from that of successful kids, that of in-between "ordinary" kids, that of social outcasts or academic failures. The Shadow Club discovers a previously ignored group: the second-bests, kids who by most people's standards are popular or talented or otherwise successful, yet suffer deep humiliation from always coming in second to someone else.

Best friends Jared and Cheryl know well how it feels to be second best. Cheryl's only talent is for singing and she is consistently upstaged by her small, cute, cousin Rebecca; Jared, a runner, can never quite beat Austin Pace--who never stops rubbing it in. When Jared and Cheryl begin playing a game of imaginary revenges, they find that it only feeds their resentment--and the Shadow Club is born, a group of seven second-best kids who can help each other with small revenges because no one would ever suspect them. Because they're all "good" kids.

At first the practical jokes are fun (and very funny). But then a second round of pranks begin: vicious, even dangerous pranks--and it's no longer the Shadow Club who's doing them. Someone is on to the Shadow Club; someone knows their secrets. And as their tension and fear of discovery grows, the "good" kids discover just how far terror and rage can take them...

When first published, The Shadow Club was one of the most disturbing psychological thrillers written for children since William Sleator's House of Stairs. Although not on the same level of excellence as that book, it vividly recreates childhood humiliation and graphically expresses the psychological processes that can turn a group into a mob. As with other Shusterman books, it is narratively rather rough and unpolished, but so magnificently plotted that doesn't seem to matter; his endings in particular are brilliantly devised, managing simultaneously to be completely surprising and emotionally authentic.

New Books

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-216705-6) $17.00

Word-loving Mattie Gokey longs for college and a life as a writer, but the threads tieing her to her home town seem to get stronger every day. There's the endless battle against poverty on her father's farm. There's Royal, who has no use for books or conversation, but whose physical presence haunts her. And there's the sacred promise she made to her dead mother, to take care of her sisters. Mattie feels as trapped as an ant in pitch. But when a strange young woman entrusts Mattie with her love letters, and is later found drowned, Mattie discovers that some traps--and some promises--have to be broken. Inspired by true events and actual letters, A Northern Light brings the beauty of insight and hope to its evocative portrayal of the often harsh, crude and heartbreaking world of rural poverty in 1906.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Calling on Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993; Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-204692-5) $5.95 pb

In the third book of this series, pesky wizards are once again causing trouble in the Enchanted Forest, this time assisted by a rabid "traditionalist" who is trying to force all magic users to conform to story-book standards of behavior. Cimorene, now Queen of the Enchanted Forest and blithely untroubled by her pregnancy, must join with Morwen, an attractive witch, Telemain, a loquacious magician, Kazul, the female Dragon King and Killer, the improbably named rabbit, on a quest to find her husband's stolen sword and save the forest.

Fans of Dealing with Dragons and Searching for Dragons will find the third volume more of the same, with the light humor, absurd situations and skewed fairy-tale conventions which are the hallmark of the series. I find that the resolutely matter-of-fact style becomes rather tedious, with far too much emphasis on conversation that doesn't advance either plot or character development; still, readers who like their fantasy funny and don't care too much about plot will probably enjoy this series.

Also available: Talking to Dragons. 1985; Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-204691-7) $5.95 pb. Although written first, this is chronologically book four of the series.

Dragon's Bait by Vivian Vande Velde. Harcourt Brace, 1992; Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-216663-7) $5.95 pb

(reprinted in part from The WEB: Celebrating Children's Literature)

When fifteen-year-old Alys is accused of being a witch by a man who wants to steal her father's tinsmith shop, an evil Inquisitor sentences her to death, staking her as a sacrifice to a dragon that's been terrorizing nearby villages. But when the dragon comes, he's something of a surprise: he can assume a human form, that of a very handsome young man. And instead of eating Alys, he offers her the chance of a lifetime: he will help her get back at the people who treated her so cruelly. With her longing for revenge overcoming her mistrust and fear, Alys agrees to accept the dragon's help--but their uneasy partnership will have dangerous repercussions for both of them. Fast-paced and lively, Dragon's Bait is a fairly lightweight look at the concept of the price of revenge, and it only superficially touches on its most interesting theme: what it means for a human to be involved with someone non-human, who by his very nature lives under a different moral code. (Vande Velde would explore this same theme much more seriously and successfully in a later book, Companions of the Night.) Still, its suspenseful and delicately romantic story makes it a very enjoyable quick read.

The Midnight Train Home by Erika Tamar. Knopf, 2000; Dell Yearling, 2002 (0-440-41670-1) $4.99 pb

The plight of children on "orphan trains" of the early Twentieth Century is the basis for this uneven but engaging historical fiction.. The book falls into roughly three sections: the first introduces the heartbreaking plight of Deirdre and her two brothers, whose impoverished mother has given up and sent them to be adopted out west. As they soon discover, the odds that they will be able to stay together are slim, and they might not even be adopted into caring families, but chosen to be farmhands and servants. The story is quite harrowing, not just for the tragedy of the main characters but for those of minor characters Aloyious and Connor, unattractive orphans whose chances of finding loving homes are bleak. As Deidre reflects, "children had no power, they had to go where they were taken and stay where they were sat, and no one asked them anything. They had no more control over what happened to them then puffballs blown along by the wind." Tamar sets the tone for the book here with solid background detail that never seems overly rich or overly explained.

The promising beginning is not entirely realized in the rest of the story; the second half, in which Deidre is adopted by an uncaring "do-gooder family" plods on pointlessly and miserably for far too long. By contrast, the third section, in which Deidre runs off to join a travelling vaudeville troupe and discovers a new family and her own "star quality," goes by much too fast; I wanted to know so much more about these characters and their lives. But overall this book is both entertaining and hopeful, as Deidre realizes that sometimes she can choose instead of letting herself get blown about by the wind."

Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher. Greenwillow, 2001 (0-688-18019-1) $15.95; Laurel-Leaf, 2003 (0-440-22938-3) $5.50 pb.

A melting-pot of genes have done well by T.J. Jones: he's smart, good-looking and athletic. But though he loves sports, his school's debasing attitude towards them is enough to keep him away from anything organized: "they pray before games and cajole you to play out of obligation, and fans scream obscenities at one another from the stands." The symbol of it all, "the Shroud of Turin for Cutter High athletes," is the letter jacket, and T.J. prides himself on not having earned one. But when a teacher asks him to put together a swim team from scratch, T.J. realizes that this could be a chance to put letter jackets on the backs of some very unexpected students: "a group of real outsiders, a group Cutter High School has offered very little to." For one of the few "people 'of color' in a part of the country where Mark Fuhrman has his own radio talk show," the chance to help other outsiders is not to be missed, no matter how strenuous--or dangerous--the opposition.

In many ways, this is the mixture as before from Crutcher; the sharp, cocky narrative voice and give-'em-hell progressive attitudes are pretty familiar. Unfortunately, so is a tendency to pile on the drama. It starts to seem that everybody in the book has been through some kind of wringer, each worse than the last; horror piles upon horror until it's hard to care much anymore. And this is at the expense of the basic story, which is a damn good story and deserves more attention. I would hate to accuse a terrific writer like Crutcher of pandering, but I miss his focus on the internal drama of sports and relationships, which seem to be getting lost in violent movie-of-the-week subplots.

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

Barnyard Dance written and illustrated by Sandra Boynton. Workman, 1993 (1-56305-442-6) $6.95 board book

Animals and animal noises are the stuff of board books, but few make them as much fun as this barnyard romp. As a fiddle-playing cow calls the steps, farm animals do an unusual square dance, with appropriate steps such as trotting with the turkey and leaping with the frog. The happy faces and graceful moves of the animals are a delight and the rhyming text never fails to get my toes tapping. (1-4)

My Food/Mi Comida written and illustrated by Rebecca Emberley. Little, Brown, 2002 (0-316-17718-0) $5.95 board book

I was so glad to get this book, because now I can get rid of our similar, but decidedly inferior, Let's Eat/Vamos a Comer. This English/Spanish word book keeps things simple, showing one food item per page; the text is merely the English and Spanish names of the item (including, I'm glad to see, the definite articles for each Spanish noun.) The cut-paper illustrations are bold and direct against white backgrounds, although a few of the foods, such as broccoli/el brecol, aren't easily recognizable. Although I wish there was a pronunciation guide, this is an accessible introduction to basic words in English and Spanish. (9 months-2)

Also available: My Clothes/Mi Ropa and My Animals/Mis Animales.

Sing-Along Songs by Mary Ann Hoberman and Nadine Bernard Westcott. Illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott. Little, Brown (0-316-93021-0) $14.95 boards books and casette

This book and tape set includes three board book adaptations of popular children's songs. The gem of the collection is The Lady with the Alligator Purse, which turns the old rhyme into a sparkling and hilarious book. As everyone knows, when Miss Lucy's baby drank all his bathwater and ate all his soap (failing to eat the bathtub only because it wouldn't go down his throat), Miss Lucy frantically called for the doctor, the nurse, and the lady with the alligator purse. The lady--whose alligator purse bears a striking resemblance to Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile--is the heroine of this version: only she knows that the cure for Miss Lucy's voracious baby is not penicillin or castor oil, but pizza! And having stuffed the baby, Miss Lucy, the doctor, the nurse, the baby's sister and assorted family animals with pizza, she cheerfully sails out, down the bannister. The zany, crowded pictures are imaginative and fun, showing the baby burping up endless pink soap bubbles, the doctor and nurse offering their nasty medicines with toothy smiles, and Miss Lucy frantically trying to talk on three phones at once.

Skip to My Lou is considerably less faithful to the original song, but also very entertaining. In this version, a boy and his dog are left to mind the farm, only to find that not only are there flies in the sugarbowl, but also pigs in the parlour and cows making pancakes in the kitchen. Despite the tremendous mess they're making of his house, the boy seems pretty happy to dance and skip to my lou with them. The ending is a little abrupt, making me wonder if something has been cut from the original picture book.

Miss Mary Mack, a much extended version of the chant, has less verve and charm than the other books, though the pictures are still engaging; one amusing scene shows the elephant on his way back from reaching the sky, just about to land on some startled fourth of July picnickers. One page has been cut for this board book version, but it is not a significant loss.

This set includes a tape of the songs being sung by Tracy Higgins; all are accompanied by some kind of om-pah instrument that makes them sound boringly alike. (1-5)

Zoe's Hats written and illustrated by Sharon Lane Holm. Boyds Mill Press, 2003 (1-59078-04206) $13.95

This concept book introduces colors and patterns through the many different hats and headgear worn by a little girl. The idea is good and there's humor here for a toddler to enjoy, such as when the "hat" is actually a purse or underwear, but I found the text, which only sometimes rhymes and scans, to be very irritating to read aloud. The thin-line pen & ink and watercolor illustrations lack visual depth to make the repetitive head shots of the relentlessly apple-cheeked heroine interesting. A book children will enjoy more than adults. (1-4)

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