celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

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Vol. 11, No. 4; May 2003


No More Secrets for Me by Oralee Wachter. Illustrated by Jane Aaron. Little Brown, 1994; 2003 (0-316-88209-9) $14.95

Subtitled "a book for adults to share with children," this book features four simply written short stories about children who are being sexually abused. Each story is about a different kind of situation, but all are designed to show children the importance of defending themselves and telling an adult if someone touches them and makes them uncomfortable. Line-and-crayon drawings give bare-bones illustrations to the stories. This revised edition includes some additional guidelines for adults and a list of resources at the end, including space to write names of people "I can tell."

It's certainly not great literature, but if used as a springboard for parent-child discussion, No More Secrets for Me could be very helpful. One positive aspect of the book is the different levels of seriousness of the abuse, from the first story in which a babysitter just needs to be made aware of a child's need for privacy, to the last in which a girl is being "touched all over" by her stepfather. I also like the emphasis on children's right to refuse any physical contact that makes them uncomfortable, even if it's not overtly sexual. More questionable aspects are that the adults who are told are invariably helpful, and the issue of what will happen to the perpetrators is addressed somewhat evasively; no doubt the stories were written this way so as not to make young children afraid of telling, but it leaves some unanswered questions, like "what do I do if the person I tell doesn't believe me?" This is a good start, but it's not a stand alone resource.

The People in Pineapple Place by Anne Lindbergh. Harcourt Brace, 1982; Candlewick, 2003 (0-7636-2131-5) $16.99

August Brown has a whole list of reasons to hate Washington D.C., including: "5. I don't know anyone here." "6. I don't want to know anyone here." and "7. People who are mothers shouldn't be lawyers." Of course, it's not really Washington D.C.'s fault that his mother and father got divorced and his mom is now working, but August is in no mood to be reasonable--and he's certainly not going to make friends with the sour-faced boy who's the only kid his age on the block. Then August finds Pineapple Place, a block full of fun, friendly, but slightly odd children. With his new friends April and Mike, August discovers that Georgetown can be a wonderful place to live. But it sure is annoying that nobody else besides him can see them...

This generally cheerful story makes its points about August' need for an attitude change quite pleasantly. Although it suffers from an inconsistent and illogically defined system of magic, its lively sense of place makes me wish I had had it as a guidebook when I was in Washington D.C.

Also now available:

The Prisoner of Pineapple Place by Anne Lindbergh. Harcourt Brace, 1988; Candlewick, 2003 (0-7636-2132-3) $16.99

I've never liked the musical "Brigadoon," partially because I always sympathized with its villain, the townsperson who wants to escape the enchanted Brigadoon, even though it would break the spell the entire town is under. Perhaps Lindbergh felt the same way, because this story is told from the point of view of another victim of someone else's magic: Jeremiah Jenkins, who has been the "sweet little thing" of Pineapple Place for over fifty years, and is pretty tired of it. Darker and sadder than the first book, The Prisoner of Pineapple Place is also ultimately rather unsatisfying, because, again like "Brigadoon," it raises questions it can't comfortably answer.

Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. 1988; Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-204615-1) $17.00

A Regency England in which magic is commonplace is the setting for this lighthearted romp. Separated during Kate's London Season, cousins Cecelia and Kate accidentally run afoul of several wicked magic-doers, causing many hair-raising adventures, which they faithfully detail to each other in their frequent letters. The convoluted, action-filled plot is not always ideally suited to the epistolary format, but the tone is generally amusing. I can't imagine why, having quite reasonably decided to reprint this as a book for young adults, the publishers gave it such a dreary, albeit historically accurate, cover.

This Land is Your Land words and music by Woody Guthrie. Illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen. Little, Brown, 1998 (0-316-39215-4) $15.95; 2002 (0-316-06564-1) $19.95 book and CD

"This Land is Your Land" has certainly been illustrated before, but perhaps never as honestly or as movingly as here. A tribute to Woody Guthrie, as well as an illustration of his most popular song, this book does justice to his work as a social activist by including the more sombre and usually censored lyrics ("As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/Is this land made for you and me?"), as well as images of America that include homeless people and CIO strikers. But like most of the song itself, the mood of the book is generally upbeat, showing that America is a wonderful land that can get even better, if people care enough.

Woody himself is our guide through the verses of the song, walking that ribbon of highway, seeing that endless skyway, in delicate, precise folk-art style paintings. For the many choruses, Jakobsen shows a multitude of American images, from a placid Iowa cornfield to a jewel-like Mardi Gras float; the lavishly designed pages also include framed quotes from Woody and verses of his other songs. Many events from his life are included: one of the most memorable is a scene of Woody playing his guitar, depicted accurately with its slogan, "this machine kills fascists." If there's a flaw in the book, it's that images from the past and present are mixed indiscriminately, making it difficult for us to know if we're seeing an image as Woody saw it or as it exists today. Dates would have been helpful.

This is a book that will captivate adults interested in folk music, who can enjoy playing spot the folk legend in its pages; an especially satisfying spread shows Woody and many of the folk artists he sang with (Leadbelly, Phil Ochs, Odetta, etc.), while underneath a tribute concert to him includes John Wesley Harding, Country Joe McDonald and Bruce Springsteen. (Both, of course, include Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger.) Young readers may not have the same appreciation for this historical reference, but can certainly enjoy the wealth of images and the thoughtfulness the words and illustrations engender.

This edition comes with a CD of nine of Guthrie's best loved children's songs, including "Bling-Blang" and "Riding in My Car, " sung by Guthrie and his son Arlo Guthrie; I think the older recordings by Guthrie have been overdubbed, in order to give a more consistent sound to the CD.

The Zoom Trilogy by Tim Wynne-Jones. Illustrated by Eric Beddows. The Akadine Press, 2001 (1-888173-16-5) $35.00

When I first opened this book, which collects the three "Zoom" stories (Zoom at Sea, 1983, Zoom Away, 1985, and Zoom Upstream, 1992), I didn't know quite what to make of it. I've seen other picture books that look somewhat like this one, with its meticulous, full-page, black and white drawings--but somehow I couldn't imagine any of those books starring a small, sea-loving cat. Then I tried looking at the books through the eyes of my younger self, and suddenly they made sense. The Zoom stories are unusual because, despite the sophistication of their look, they really are intended for children. They are a magical introduction to the world of literary fantasy.

Zoom is a cat who dreams about the sea. One day he discovers the dairy of his Uncle Roy, which gives him directions on how to find the sea: unexpectedly, the sea is found in the home of a woman named Maria. (In the later books, the North Pole and Egypt are also found to be in Maria's house.) Maria frees the sea water by pushing a button and cranking a crank; she lets sea gulls out of bags and crabs from pots, in beautifully illustrated scenes of a room slowly turning into seashore. Zoom has a wonderful day at sea, occasionally calling back to Maria on the shore, "more waves" or "more sun."

It's such a simple, yet such a powerful fantasy, in its making the everyday extraordinary. In less skilled hands, Maria creating the sea might have been a very big deal, with a significant underlying message about "the power of imagination"; instead, the unquestioning acceptance of the text, mirrored in the casually magical pictures, makes the point far better.

New Books

The Ballad of Sir Dinadan by Gerald Morris. Houghton Mifflin 2003 (0-618-19099-6) $15.00

When Dinadan, a nobleman's son who longs to be a minstrel, is forced to become a knight instead, he soon discovers that the truth about knightly exploits often bears little resemblance to the ballads he adores. Caught up in the vastly disappointing exploits of his brother, Sir Tristram, Dinadan still manages to hold on to his own values and become his own kind of knight. This pleasant, episodic story offers an unusual take on the Tristam and Iseult story, told in a wryly amused tone that is often reminiscent of Lloyd Alexander's work, but is more tongue-in-cheek.

Cat and Mouse written and illustrated by Jiwon Oh. HarperCollins, 2003 (0-06-050865-5) $14.99

Sometimes it seems that there's nothing new under the sun in picture books--and then along comes a book like Cat and Mouse, an offbeat story that consistently surprises and amuses. Cat and Mouse are best friends who do everything together, until one day, a cookbook clues Cat in to the fact that her dear friend would also be "the most delicious meal in the world." Knowing she shouldn't eat her friend, Cat goes far away, but too miserable to eat or sleep, she falls ill. When Mouse finds her and nurses her back to health, Cat realizes she could never eat him, and they live happily ever after.

The odd story alone would make this book memorable, but the illustration are the real star, a fantastical mix--some computer-generated--of different styles from Asian art. Cat herself is no more sophisticated than Hello Kitty--except perhaps when she is dressing up in traditional garb, or meditating, Buddha-like, on a mountain top trying to forget her hunger for Mouse, or we see her gigantic, tear-filled eyes from Mouse's tiny perspective. Several spreads use styles familiar from Japanese sequential art to cram many adventures into one page; at the other extreme, one lovely scene simply shows a "get well soon!" scroll (written top to bottom instead of left to right, of course) behind a vase of flowers.

In addition to the elements which intrigue a Western eye, much of the book is just plain funny. Cat's visions of Mouse, rolled up in sushi, decorating a cocktail and floating in a gelatin mold may be delicious to her, but they're hilarious to us.

How Angel Peterson Got His Name by Gary Paulsen. Random House, 2003 (0-385-72949-9) $12.95

"There is a fate that sometimes protects idiots," writes Paulsen, and it certainly seems so. This amusing memoir describes times that he and his friends were adolescent daredevil idiots and yet somehow lived to tell the tale. Paulsen writes in a friendly tone, straightforwardly describing the different world of his time without being overly cute, or condescending to modern readers. But it's the little touches of tall tale--Carl Peterson, breaking a speed record on skis behind a car, hears the angels singing "your cheatin' heart"--that make this story so much fun.

Pio Peep! selected by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy. English adaptations by Alice Schertle. Illustrated by Vivi Escriva. HarperCollins, 2003 (0-688-16019-0) $14.99

If you, like me, dutifully read your children English-Spanish word books, while trying to stifle your yawns, take note! This collection of traditional Spanish nursery rhymes is how it should be done, offering English speakers a chance to discover Spanish the way children first learn to love language, through delightful sounds and rhythms. Some of the longer rhymes will challenge non-native speakers reading aloud, but most of us can manage verse like "Pito, pito, colorito, donde vas tu, tan bonito?" and have a wonderful time doing it. When the Spanish pronounciation becomes too much for me, I turn to the English adaptations--very free translations that try to keep the sense and feeling of the originals, although the rhythm is often lost.

Of course, this book is not just for English speakers; Spanish speakers can also enjoy it just as a collection of traditional verse. Colorful illustrations, using images and motifs from Spanish and Mexican culture, give additional context for the rhymes, many of which are used in children's games.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham. 1955; Houghton Mifflin, 2003 (0-618-25074-3) $6.95 pb

The 1956 Newbery Medal winner.

The Cay by Theodore Taylor. 1969; Laurel-leaf, 2003 (0-440-22912-X) $5.50 pb

Circus Caps for Sale written and illustrated by Esphyr Sobodkina. Abelard-Scguman, 1967; HarperCollins, 2002 (0-06-029655-0) $15.95

A sequel to the classic Caps for Sale, originally published as Pezzo the Peddler and the Circus Elephant.

Danny and the Dinosaur written and illustrated by Syd Hoff. HarperCollins, 1958; 2003 (0-06-444002-8) $3.99 pb

In the first in this series of "I Can Read" books, a museum dinosaur comes to life to play with a little boy and his friends. Although the pen & ink and watercolor illustrations seems a little dated and unsophisticated today, they still show many funny and memorable scenes, such as the dinosaur getting his neck tangled in a high clothesline or forming a bridge with his back for people crossing the street.

Paddington Goes to Town;Paddington at Work by Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. 1968; 1966; Houghton Mifflin, 2003 (0-618-31104-1;0-618-31105-X) $4.95 pb

Paddington the bear continues his befuddled adventures.

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt. Holt, 1999; Laurel-Leaf, 2003 (0-440-23841-2) $5.99 pb

The National Book Award winner.

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

Cars at Play by Rick and Ann Walton. Illustrated by James Lee Croft. Putnam, 2002 (0-399-23599-X) $15.99

If you thought that cars were just useful machines, think again! This imaginative rhyming story shows that cars have just as much fun as people do--in their own way. They play leapfrog (via an overpass), they dress up (for parades) and some cars even swing (off of a crane.) At the last page, the metaphor dissolves into complete silliness, showing parent and baby cars enjoying a carnival together and then conking out for sleep. Children will love the brightly colored, anthropomorphic cars, licking their... um... bumpers? over a nummy snack of gas, while adults can also enjoy the sly humor of a police car playing "hide-and-seek" behind a billboard as a speeding car literally rockets past. (1-5)

The Looking Book by Mary Ann Hoberman. Illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith. Little, Brown, 2002 (0-316-36328-6) $15.95

Readers who enjoy "search and find" books will go to town with this story. As a boy named Ned takes a rhyming trip through the 28 pages of the book, in search of his missing cat Pistachio, sharp-eyed readers can find items to count on every page, notice silly details (signposts show it's 6 miles from page 6 to page 7, but 7 miles from page 7 to page 6) and even spy Pistachio, constantly on his way to the next page. The illustrations use paper cut-outs, multiple fonts and odd perspectives for a zany, stylized look. (4-8)

One Duck Stuck by Phyllis Root. Illustrated by Jane Chapman. Candlewick, 1998 (0-7636-0334-1) $15.99; 2003 (0-7636-1566-8) $5.99 pb

A joyful mix of unforced rhyme, catchy rhythm, strong repetition and singing alliteration, this counting book is particularly good to read aloud. Set in the marshes of Minnesota, it shows how an assortment of wetlands creatures, from two fish to ten dragonflies, tries to save one duck who's stuck in the deep green marsh. All the animals do what they do best--the fish try to splash the duck out, the dragonflies try to carry it away--but though each noisy action causes the duck to flinch or gyrate, he remains stuck. Finally the animals realize that together they can get the duck to gyrate his way out. Chapman's valiant efforts to illustrate the complicated resolution may fall short for some bewildered readers, but overall this is a very appealing book, with a unaffected but expressive look that's just right for the vigorous text. (3-6)

Sweater; Longjohns; Swimsuit; Galoshes written and illustrated by Kit Allen. Houghton Mifflin, 2003 (0-618-26370-5; 0-618-22996-5; 0-618-26371-3; 0-618-22997-3) $4.95 ea. board books

At first glance, these board books didn't grab me much--but they certainly grabbed my toddler. So I decided to take a closer look.

These seasonal-themed word books feature a bald, basically stick-figure child. (Not necessarily the same one: judging by the clothes, it's a girl in Sweater and a boy in Swimsuit.). In the first half of each book, the child adds one garment or accessories at a time: rain gear for Spring in Galoshes, swim gear for Summer in Swimsuit. The second half of each book shows the child doing typical seasonal activities, enjoying a snack and having a snooze. The one-word text of the second half always starts with "S," but it freely mixes verbs and nouns, which I found irritating at first.

So why does my toddler like these books so much? I wish he could tell me. Perhaps because the stick figure children, against bright, simply drawn backgrounds are very basic and easy to identify with. And the new words, like "clogs" and "scatter" are fun. The pictures also express a lot of different emotions: the pleasure of basking in the sun, the comforting warmth of hot soup, the ickiness of scooping out pumpkins or being smeared with sunscreen. All in all, these are understanding glimpses of a child's world. I think, after all, I like them too. (1-3)

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