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. 6; August 2003

Click on the book covers for more information or to order from Powell's Books.

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

The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House by Mary Chase. illustrated by Peter Sis. Knopf, 1968; 2003 (0-375-82572-X) $15.95

It seems that every adult has that one children's book: the book that you will never quite forget and always yearn to identify. It may be a plot, a character, or barely an image, but something about that book made it stick. This was mine. And though the helpful folks at rec.arts.books.childrens helped me identify it years ago (under its original title, The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden), and I subsequently bought a lovely musty smelling discard from the Salem library, with the original title and illustrations, I'm thrilled to see it finally in print again.

The heroine, Maureen Swanson... well, she's not much of a heroine, for starters. In fact, she's a rude, obnoxious bully. But Maureen meets her match when she sneaks into a deserted house and sneers at the portraits of seven lavishly dressed women on its walls. There is an old magic lurking in the Messerman mansion and Maureen will pay for her rudeness--and for taking home the feathered bracelet she found in the house.

What was it about this book that so stuck with me? Aside from the memorable nastiness of the main character, it was mostly a barely defined sense of creepiness. Rereading it today, I see that in fact the creepiness is in some ways quite subtle, a cold, shivery kind of covert menace. Even understanding, or guessing, more than Maureen does, the reader is still never quite sure what is really going on and what the consequences might be.

It is, even now, a one of a kind story. Get your copy now, while they still smell good.

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

King of the Mild Frontier by Chris Crutcher. Greenwillow, 2003 (0-06-050249-5) $16.99

I've written before about how disappointing the author memoirs of my childhood were, so distant in tone, so oddly silent on the subject of the author's actual work. You could never accuse Crutcher of either flaw: this chatty memoir lets most of it hang out, even to the point of breaking a 40 year old vow of silence to describe an unbelievably lurid club initiation. (Crutcher admits in a disclaimer to a penchant for exaggeration and one can only pray it came into play here.) And he also talks about how his life inspired his work: from the goofy real-life details, like the "magic tooth" in Stotan!, to the more somber ones that influenced his distinctive themes.

Crutcher veers effortlessly between comic memories of himself as a highly gullible "bawlbaby" to serious thoughts on life as he has learned to understand it. One particularly effective chapter describes Crutcher's frequent encounters with death: "A student asked me recently why somebody always dies in my books. I said, because somebody is always dying in my life." At a young age, learning about death led to fear and an effort to be good: "Got the stealing down to about a third, though the swearing remained about the same. Shit." As he became older, it grew into the inevitable need to understand why bad things happen, as well as bringing him into contact with grieving people, a first taste of the skills he would later use as a family therapist.

King of the Mild Frontier will of course interest fans of Crutcher's books, but it potentially has a much wider audience: of readers who might like to know that not every author adored books in the cradle (Crutcher on To Kill a Mockingbird: "I couldn't believe this was a book. It didn't even give me a headache.") And that a highschool freshman with "all the muscle definition of a chalk outline" can train himself into an athlete. And that even a foolish bawlbaby can grow up to be wise.

Also now available: Crutcher's first novel, Running Loose (1983), Stotan! (1986) and The Crazy Horse Electric Game. (1987)


All Alone written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 1981; 2003 (0-06-054115-6) $14.99

I love how synchronous reading can be. I just finished Dumbing Us Down, in which John Gatto writes about how necessary private time is for forming an individual identity. And then I picked up this reprint of All Alone and discovered a perfect illustration for Gatto's point.

At first glance, Henke's first book is very different in style from his funny, brightly colored picture books, such asJulius, the Baby of the World. The text is short and straightforward, and the water color and colored pencil illustrations are muted and impressionistic. What it does share with his other books is an instantly recognizable empathy with childhood feelings In it a young boy described how it feels to be alone: to have the space and freedom to hear more and see more, to be able to "look at myself inside and out." And although he may wonder what his friends are doing, "Sometimes I like to live alone, all by myself, for just a while."

In a time when private space for children seems to have become a rarity, I'm glad this book has been reprinted, to help remind us that everyone needs the opportunity to look at themselves, inside and out.

Aunt Maria by Diana Wynne Jones. 1991; Greenwillow, 2003 (0-06-623742-4) $16.99; HarperTrophy, 2003 (0-06-447358-9) $5.99 pb

black is brown is tan by Arnold Adoff. Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. HarperCollins, 2002 (0-06-028776-4) $15.95

Originally published in 1973, this landmark lyrical poem about an interracial family has been updated with glowing and tender new watercolors by the original illustrator.

Man O' War by Walter Farley. Random House, 1962; 2003 (0-394-86015-2) $6.99 pb

A partially fictionalized but well researched "biography" of the famous American racehorse, by the author of The Black Stallion.

Sneakers, the Seaside Cat by Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Anne Mortimer. 1955; HarperCollins, 2003 (0-06-028692-X) $15.99

One of Brown's stories from Sneakers: Seven Stories About a Cat, now gracefully illustrated by the illustrator of Cats Sleep Anywhere. (reviewed Volume 7, number 4.)

Some Things Are Scary by Florence Parry. Illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Candlewick, 2000 (0-7636-1222-7) $15.99; 2003 (0-7636-2147-1) $12.00

It's hard to imagine anyone else but Jules Feiffer illustrating this picture book--especially the last page, which could have come straight out of his comic strip. The insightful list of all kinds of things that are scary to a kid--getting hugged by someone you don't like, skating downhill when you haven't learned how to stop, finding out that your best friend has a best friend who isn't you--takes on genuine angst paired with Feiffer's jittery, strangely-proportioned drawings. The images brilliantly evoke the feelings of different kinds of fear: "Thinking you're not going to be picked for either side is scary" shows the main character watching the shadows of supercilious giants; "telling a lie is scary" shows him with multiple desperately waving hands. And finally, "knowing you're going to grow up to be a grownup is scary" shows a picture of bewildered dissonance that people of any age can relate to.

This new, smaller hardcover is designed as a gift edition, with a plate to inscribe inside.

New Books

Midwinter Nightingale by Joan Aiken. Delacorte, 2003 (0-385-73081-0) $15.95

The latest in the Dido Twite series.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Halfway to the Sky by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Delacorte, 2002; Dell Yearling, 2003 (0-440-41830-5) $4.99 pb

When twelve-year-old Dani runs away from home she doesn't expect to be found--in fact, she doesn't even much expect to be missed. Since the death of her older brother Springer and the departure of her father, her mother has been busy or absent most of the time, and running away is only too easy. Dani's goal is an ambitious one: to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, from the mountain her brother was named for to the one she, Katahdin, was named for. But when her mother finds her on her second day out and joins her, Dani's solitary adventure changes to a journey that brings new knowledge about her mother and father, her dead brother and herself. An original and well-crafted plot brings freshness to some otherwise familiar themes.

Here There Be Dragons by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by David Wilgus. Harcourt Brace, 1993; 1998 (0-15-201705-4) $12.00 trade pb

Reviewed by Sherrie A. Inness

In this collection of her short stories and poems, Yolen examines dragons and dragon lore from all angles. Her tales are not limited to one particular era or a certain genre. One of the best stories in the collection tells the dragon's story from the viewpoint of the dragon, not the dragon slayer. Another tale creates a world on a planet where men fight dragons in pits like cocks or pitbulls. Yet another story focuses on what it means to be a hero, even if one does not feel or act like a hero. The concluding story looks at Chinese dragons, which are very different from their European counterparts. These tales and others create a multifaceted picture of dragons that would be appreciated by any reader interested in fantasy and mythical beasts. Adding to its appeal, the book is illustrated by David Wilgus, whose haunting pencil drawings are ideal for portraying the mythical realms that Yolen conjures up.

A Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aiken. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Doubleday, 1968; Dell Yearling, 2003 (0-440-41850-X) $4.99 pb

A collection of Aiken's original fairy tales.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4; The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend. 1982; HarperTempest, 2003 (0-06-053399-4; 0-06-053398-6) $6.99 pb

Not into Harry Potter? Try this very different--but also bestselling--view of an adolescent boy's life in England.

SOS Titanic by Eve Bunting. Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-200271-5) $13.00' (0-15-201305-9) $6.00 pb

Focusing less on the history of the doomed Titanic than on fictional passengers, this is an exciting adventure story that effectively personalizes the tragedy. Fifteen-year-old Barry O'Neill, on his way to join his parents in New York, isn't much enjoying his luxurious first class accommodations on the Titanic: he's lonely for his grandparents, and justifiably nervous about running into the Flynn brothers, fellow passengers from his Irish village who have a grudge against his family. To make things worse, the creepy cabin steward keeps dropping hints about some danger that threatens him--or is it the entire ship that's threatened? When Barry inevitably tangles with the Flynn boys, he also meets their attractive sister, Pegeen, and starts to see a new side of the troublemaking family. Then the disaster strikes, and Barry discovers that the impoverished steerage passengers--including the Flynns--are virtually trapped on the ship. Somehow he feels he has to save Pegeen--but can he even save himself?

Although it's a bit overburdened with subplots and eerie foreshadowings, this is a gripping story with lightly drawn but striking characters. The complex class issues that arise aren't thoroughly explored, but they do provide an interesting conflict and a romantic aura which makes Barry's strong feelings for Pegeen plausible. Barry's interactions with his fellow passengers give the description of the last hours of the ship a special poignancy, as he sees his friends and acquaintances face death, in many cases needlessly. Enjoyable just as an adventure, this is also a stirring introduction to a fascinating true story, in which human arrogance received a resounding comeuppance.

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

How Big Were the Dinosaurs? written and illustrated by Bernard Most. Harcourt Brace, 1994 (0-15-236800-0) $16.00; (0-15-200852-7) $7.00 pb

How big were the dinosaurs? It's pretty hard to imagine--but think about Tyrannosaurus Rex having teeth the size of your toothbrush! Using satisfyingly concrete examples, this book helps readers visualize the largest dinosaurs (the small ones are left out). It isn't much of a read-aloud--there are too many tedious attempts at hyperbolic wit--but Most's colorful cartoony pictures mix dinosaurs and everyday scenes with a simple appeal. Cheerful smiles on his dinosaurs add to their charm--especially those with mouthfuls of sharp teeth. (4-8)

Mrs. Brown Went to Town written and illustrated by Wong Herbert Yee. Houghton Mifflin, 1996 (0-395-75282-5) $14.95; 2003 (0-618-36918-X) $5.95 pb

When Mrs. Brown gets injured on the way to town and winds up in the hospital, she little suspects what her animals--a cow, two pigs, three ducks and a yak--are up to back at the farm. Soon the animals have moved into her house, where they try on her clothes, take long showers and raid the pantry. But when Mrs. Brown comes home and goes to bed--not noticing it's already occupied by a cow, two pigs, three ducks and a yak--everyone is in for a crashing surprise.

As in Yee's Eek! There's a Mouse in the House (reviewed volume 3, number 7b), the zany juxtaposition of animals and human surroundings makes for a very silly, funny tale that will hold up for numerous rereadings. Many in its audience will happily empathize with the joyful hedonism of the animals, which is not unlike the behavior of small children--and although destructive, is never malicious. The rollicking, rhyming text reads aloud well, and the witty illustrations have an underlying warm appeal that keeps the story on a friendly, rather than frightening, note. (3-8)

Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. Illustrated by Eric Carle. Henry Holt, 2003 (0-8050-1758-5) $15.95

This collaboration by Martin and Carle is very much in the style of their previous books, Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See and Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?: short, repetitive sentences are accompanied by large, vibrant animal illustrations. This time the text focuses on movement--a green sea turtle swimming, a macaroni penguin strutting--and all the animals share one sad thing in common: they are all endangered. The book ends with a dreaming child, face formed by the moon and floating amidst stars, seeing all the endangered animals "wild and free." The repetitiveness of the text keeps it from being a very interesting read-aloud, but the illustrations of the animals, sometimes fierce, sometimes a little sad, evoke an empathy which will make this a natural starting point for discussion about endangered wildlife. (4-8)

Sometimes written and illustrated by Keith Barker. Green Light Readers, 1999; 2003 (0-15-204847-2) $3.95 pb

Less is more in this positive but never preachy little look at feelings and self-esteem. The star is an active and adventurous alligator, who reveals that "Sometimes I am happy. Sometimes I am sad." But no matter what happens, "I like who I am. I like what I do." The gentle rhythm of the text gives it the qualities of a song, making its simplicity and repetition feel natural, instead of forced or babyish. Baker's vibrant and expressive acrylic illustrations fill in all the details the text leaves out, showing busy scenes of the alligator as he enjoys his daily life. This is an unusually attractive beginner's book, an excellent choice for sibling reading. (2-6/4-6)

Quack and Count written and illustrated by Keith Baker. 1999; Red Wagon, 2003 (0-15-204751-4) $6.95 board book

Now available in board book form, this cleverly crafted story manages to convey basic but vitally important mathematical concepts through a simple, gayly rhyming text. The illustrations use textures and attractive natural hues to show the seven ducklings in various wild settings. (1-3)

Who Is the Beast? written and illustrated by Keith Baker. Harcourt Brace, 1990; Red Wagon, 2003 (0-15-204752-2) $6.95 board book

Reviewed by Colleen Zeitz

"We all are beasts--you and me," proclaims this heartwarming book. A tiger is revealed one part at a time as he overhears his animal neighbors exclaiming about a beast. The tiger is wholly and amusingly taken aback when he realizes that he is the beast to which they refer. With gentle and friendly expressions, he wins the animals over by demonstrating the similarities between them. For example, the tiger tells a bee, "I see stripes, yellow and black. We both have stripes across our backs." Now the animals get to see the same parts that frightened them in the context of the whole lovable tiger.

The subtleties of the tiger's shifts in expression and body language are fabulous. The highly detailed illustrations use deep, rich tones on dark backgrounds. The pages team with an abundance of leaves and flowers, giving an appropriately jungly impression. The realistic renderings are overlaid with fanciful details, such as fish scales that remind one of an intricate wallpaper pattern. The rhyming text is spare but charming. (Although the unmarked shift in point of view from animals to tiger makes the first reading a little rough.) This upbeat book may prompt children to reflect on how much we have in common with animals and each other that may not be apparent at first glance. (3-8)

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