celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2003 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 11, No. 7; November 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

written and illustrated by Tove Jansson. David McKay, 1971; Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003 (0374350132) $17.00; (0374453098) $5.95 pb

Perhaps partly because of differences in translators, Tove Jansson's "Moomin" books vary widely in their style and emotional impact. Some are mostly light-hearted and gay, while others are more serious and introspective. Although all are enjoyable, I always found the more complex, often sad books to be the most satisfying and memorable. (With one exception: as a child, I could never make a connection with Moominpappa at Sea, which focuses almost exclusively on an adult point of view.) Moominvalley in Novemberis, perhaps, Jansson's best and most universally powerful book, a poignant, wistful story about loneliness and self-discovery.

Jansson's usual main characters, the Moomintrolls, are actually absent from this story, which instead concerns some of the other creatures--not exactly animals, but not exactly humans--that inhabit the Moomin world. In this land, what you are is who you are: hemulens are bossy and like to arrange everything, fillyjonks are obsessively neat and tidy, tofts are small and silent. But sometimes being what you're supposed to be doesn't make you happy. One day a hemulen begins to feel his life is empty and meaningless; a fillyjonk is terrified after a freak accident while cleaning; a toft discovers that his daydreams about the Moomin family in Moominvalley have lost their power to console him. And along with three other seekers, they find their way to Moominvalley, a magical place they all think will supply what they need. But the Moomin family has gone away on a journey and the creatures are left waiting--together, but terribly lonely--each with its own illusion about who the Moomins are and how they will somehow save them from themselves.

Although I have always loved it, I find that Moominvally in November has definitely gained meaning for me as I've gotten older. As a child, I approached it mainly through the character of Toft, a lonely, silently angry child, longing for the perfect mamma to take care of him (a poignant wish shared by many adult readers as well). The adult characters, particularly the Hemulen and Fillyjonk, represented dangers, pathetic traps that children could grow up into if they weren't careful. Although Jansson writes of the pre-determined nature of the characters--"...a fillyjonk can never, of course, be anything but a fillyjonk," for a child reader there's a sense of choice: surely only adults are fillyjonks, it's not something you are born to but something you become.

But now that I am an adult, and have more in common with both the Hemulen and Fillyjonk characters than I might wish, I find the book takes on a new meaning, offering a solution to a seemingly insolvable problem: what do you do when you aren't happy with who you are but can't change? For these unhappy characters, the answer lies in knowing the truth about themselves, for in realizing their visions of the Moomins were false, they also come to see themselves more truly. And with that self-knowledge comes the awareness that they can also be more than what they are: they can face their private fears and stretch their boundaries, discovering their own uniqueness among the others of their kind.

Significantly, I now find the ending of Moominvalley in November to be a much happier one than I remember it as being. It's not a child's idea of a happy ending: the changes have been small. But each character has found what they truly need, and though they leave alone, they are no longer lonely.

(Please note: this review is based on the original paperback edition.)


The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Leonard Weisgard. Doubleday, 1946; 2003 (0-385-74640-7) $14.95

The 1947 Caldecott Medal winner.

My New York written and illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen. Little, Brown, 1993 (0-316-45653-5); 2003 (0-316-92711-2) $18.95

A New York girl's letter to a friend in the Midwest is just an excuse for a wonderfully illustrated portrait of a brilliant, bustling and beautiful New York. The short text is pleasant and informative, if not especially memorable, but the paintings, crowded with color and detail, can be pored over for hours. There's something to see everywhere, down to the slogans on people's t-shirts--Jakobsen even has some fun by putting an ad for her previous book on the top of a taxi. Every corner of the paintings is filled with life. Of course, the pictures are not exactly honest, showing nothing that is not clean, bright and attractive--but although this is an idealized portrait of New York, it manages to hold on to the essential nature of the city, giving a genuine sense of its variety and diversity. (I especially liked one crowd scene which features several kids with mohawks and an unobtrusively but obviously gay couple.) This is New York seen through the understanding eyes of love.

(Please note: this review is of the first edition; I have not seen the new "Anniversary Edition," which has been revised and expanded. There is also a "Holiday Edition" available, which features a scene of Madison Square Garden at Christmas on the cover.)

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. Illustrated by Anita Lobel. Knopf, 1984; 2003 (0-375-82414-6) $8.95

This version of the much illustrated Christmas poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" gives it a city setting, with lovely illustrations of 19th century Manhattan at night.

The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins, 2003 (0-06-009493-1) $17.99

Books about tiny people who live unknown in the human world are nothing new in children's books, yet Pratchett manges to make the idea seem fresh and special. For one thing, he's one of the few authors who's thought the situation out logically. Pratchett's "nomes" are not merely tiny humans: they are alien beings who live at a much faster pace than us (human speech sounds like mooing to them) and who see the would in a completely different way. Although they are similar to humans emotionally, their point of view is unique and Pratchett, unsurprisingly, uses this as the basis for some pointed satire on the human world. Even without satire, the books are uproariously funny, as well as being often exciting and moving. This edition collects all three nome books, Truckers, Diggers and Wings,.in one large, but not too unwieldly volume. A must for Pratchett fans.

Look-Alikes by Joan Steiner. Photographs by Thomas Lindley. Little, Brown, 1998 (0-316-81255-2); 2003 (0-316-71348-1) $13.95

Text is basically irrelevant in this collection of fantastic visuals, which give Martin Handford's "Waldo" a run for his money. Using ordinary household objects, Steiner has created complex, enchanting scenes: a carnival in which a boy rides on a roller coaster made from a suitcase and baton, a general store that sells Hoover vacuum made from razors, and a sweet shop with real pretzels on the pretzel-backed chairs. Readers who like search puzzles will find rules, extra challenges, and a full list of the "look-alikes" at the back of the book, but you don't have to count every egg slicer and safety pin to enjoy this fascinating book.

(Please note: this review is based on the first edition.)

Rootabaga Stories; More Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg. Illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham. Harcourt Brace, 2003 (0-15-204709-3; 0-15-204713-1) $17.00 ea.; (0-15-204714-X; 0-15-204706-9) $5.95 pb

Sandburg's mystical nonsense stories, reprinted with lively new covers.

Wild Robert by Diana Wynne Jones. Illustrated by Mark Zug. Methuen, 1989; Greenwillow, 2003 (0-06-055530-0) $15.99

Newly available in the United States in book form, this novella about a girl who conjures up a mischevious magician is one of Jones' thinnest books, in more ways than one. Fans may find it little more than an echo of her more sophisticated fantasies, but it could be a good introduction to her distinctive style for beginning readers.

New Books

Big Momma Makes the World by Phyllis Root. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. Candlewick,2003 (0-7636-1132-8) $16.99

In a startlingly different, yet thoroughly winning retelling of Genesis, Big Momma, a giant of a woman with a can-do attitude and a baby on her hip, rolls up her sleeves and creates the universe: "'Light,' said Big Momma. And you better believe there was light." Having created the world and everything in it, Big Momma decides to take some time off to rest, but you better believe she is still up there, looking down every now and then to warn us that we "better straighten up down there." Oxenbury's illustrations, which begin with shades of blue and progressively add more colors as Big Momma continues to create, effectively combine the mystical with the mundane, particularly in images of a gloriously alive Big Momma and her baby bursting into the light together, and a beautiful mass of people of all ages, shapes and colors crawling and stretching out of the mud.

Sidekicks by Dan Danko and Tom Mason. Illustrated by Barry Gott. Little, Brown, 2003 (0-316-16845-9) $10.95; (0-316-16844-0) $4.99 pb

"It's usually about now--when Earlobe Lad is sobbing or Exact Change Kid is handing out two quarters, three dimes, two nickels, and ten pennies for a dollar, or I'm buffing the second coat of wax on the Pumpkinmobile--that I ask myself, "What was I thinking?"

Guy Martin was an ordinary kid until he developed super powers that made him the fastest man alive. (Unfortunately, also causing the superhero Fastest Man Alive Man to have to change his name to Almost Fastest Man Alive Man.) But before he can be a superhero himself, he has to serve an apprenticeship as a superhero's sidekick. Often this requires little more than cleaning up after the League of Big Justice's dinners. But when the Brotherhood of Rottenness destroys the League of Big Justice's Headquarters of Big Justice, it's up to Speedy and his fellow sidekicks to save the day.

This slight but entertaining story is reminiscent of "the Tick," but the humor is more scattershot, tending too much towards aimlessly silly, stereotypical, and gross. (The completely unintelligible Boy-in-the-Plastic-Bubble Boy is bound to cause some offense.) But it's a fun read, especially for fans of comic book superheros. (8-12)

Also available: Sidekicks 2: Operation Squish!

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Earthquake at Dawn by Kristiana Gregory. Harcourt Brace, 1992; 2003 (0-15-204681-X) $5.95 pb

Anyone who has lived through a major earthquake knows that surviving the initial shaking is only the beginning of the ordeal. Earthquake at Dawn, a description of the aftermath of the great quake of 1908, is not only interesting historical fiction, but provides some understanding of the experience of quake survivors--showing not only the terrors and major deprivations, but the implacable destruction of everyday life thatŐs almost harder to bear.

Earthquake at Dawn uses a fictional narrator, fifteen-year-old Daisy Valentine, but the events of the story are centered around documentation left by two women: Mary Exa Atkins Campbell, who wrote an exhaustive, revealing letter about the experience, and Edith Irvine, who took photographs of the ruins of San Francisco at much personal risk. (Quotes from the letter and several of Irvine's photographs are included in the book.) In the story imagined here, Edith Irvine is accompanied on a trip abroad by Daisy, a family servant with dreams of seeing the world. Those dreams are abruptly halted by the earthquake; although Edith and Daisy are relatively safe on a boat in San Francisco harbor when the quake strikes, their efforts to find Edith's father at City Hall soon lead them into the heart of the disaster. Their fictional meeting with Mary Exa brings them together with others into a circle of people trying to help each other through the worst of the ordeals: lack of water, pregnant women going into labor, fires and explosions, and looters and vigilantes. Adding insult to injury is their growing awareness that a corrupt government is trying to cover up the extent of the damage, making Edith's attempts to document it with photographs a risky enterprise.

Although Gregory falls prey to the historical fiction writer's worst temptation--the urge to write in every well-known person who might possibly have met her characters--Earthquake at Dawn is engrossing and heartfelt, a very accessible record of this important event. The attention paid to seemingly small details--the annoyance of itchy, unwashed hair, the panic from hearing sudden thumps, Daisy's embarrassment after she saves herself from fire by leaving her skirt behind--helps give a picture of how it feels when your entire life is being continually disrupted (aftershocks making it impossible to ever feel safe), yet you still have to get on with day-to-day living. I just wish it had been within the scope of the book to include all of Campbell's letter, as its excerpts brought the experience to life even more strongly.

The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman. Laurel Leaf, 2003 (0-440-23813-7; 0-440-23814-5; 0-440-23815-3) $6.99 ea. pb

The popular fantasy series, in an attractive, adult-reader friendly paperback edition.

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. 1972; HarperTrophy, 2003 (0-06-054095-8) $5.99 pb Lady Knight ("Protector of the Small, #4) by Tamora Pierce. Random House, 2002; 2003 (0-375-81471-X) $5.99 pb

The fourth and final book in the "Protector of the Small" series.

Noelle of the Nutcracker by Pamela Jane. Illustrated by Jan Brett. Houghton Mifflin, 1986; 2003 (0-618-36922-8) $5.95 pb

Reminiscent of Rumer Godden's classic doll stories, this is a likeable tale about the special relationship between children and toys. Ilyana, who longs to dance, feels an instant affinity with the beautiful ballerina doll she sees in a toy shop--but the one-of-a-kind doll named Noelle costs $175. To make things even worse, Ilyana's obnoxious classmate Mary Jane is determined to get the doll for herself--and she's enough of a spoiled brat to manage it.

Noelle the doll is unaware of this rivalry: her dreams are all about being a prima ballerina, not about little girls, and she gets her wish when she is purchased to be a prop in "the Nutcracker." But when Noelle is no longer needed for the ballet, she realizes that the best kind of dancing for a doll is in a child's loving arms. Is Noelle doomed to a lonely life in the prop room, with the miserable ghosts of other unloved toys? Will Mary Jane find her, only to toss her in the closet with her other dolls? Or will Ilyana somehow find a way to make both her and Noelle's dreams come true? With its sprightly narrative and satisfying conclusion, Noelle of the Nutcracker is just right for holiday reading.

Pale Phoenix by Kathryn Reiss. Harcourt Brace, 1994 (0-15-200030-5) $10.95; 2003 (0-15-204927-4) $5.95 pb

Miranda Browne is deeply disturbed when her parents take in a homeless runaway named Abby Chandler. Somehow she seems to be the only one who notices how strange Abby is: her odd way of speaking, her collection of decades old photographs of girls that all look exactly like her... and the way she seems to vanish whenever Miranda tries to follow her. As Miranda's suspicions grow, so does the hostility between them; but when Miranda reveals that she has heard Abby crying when she was nowhere to be seen, their mutual antagonism dissolves in the face of a peculiar bond. Abby is not an ordinary girl: she is lost in time. And Miranda is the first person ever who could hear her crying when she was in another time; the first person she has met in over 300 years who might be able to help her.

As in Time Windows, the previous book about Miranda, Reiss plays with the concept of our relationship to time to create an unusual, revealing story. Although it drags in places--taking forever to disclose Abb secret, which is fairly obvious from the start--most of ok is smoothly written and engrossing, if not entirely convincing.

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Knopf, 1989; Laurel-Leaf, 2003 (0-440-23856-0) $6.59 pb

A Newbery Honor book.

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman. Illustrated by Peter Sis. 1986; HarperTrophy, 2003 (0-06-052122-8) $5.99 pb

Fleischman's Newbery Award book, a fast-paced caper about a spoiled Prince and his sharp-witted "whipping boy."

Also available: Jim Ugly by Sid Fleischman. Illustrated by Jos. A. Smith. HarperTrophy, 2003 (0-06-052121-X) $5.99 pb

The Window by Jeanette Ingold. Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-201265-6) $12.00; (0-15-204926-6) $6.95 pb

This first novel is an interesting, albeit not completely successful blend of "problem novel" and fantasy. After an accident which leaves her both orphaned and blinded, fifteen year old Mandy goes to live with relatives she's never met. Stiff with anger, she tries not to open up to the new people in her life, or to accept help from anyone. Then she begins to hear voices outside her window, and finds herself seeing, then living, events from the past every time whe "looks" through it. As Mandy slowly adjusts to her new life and starts to make friends, she also witnesses the truth about her family's mournful history, and begins to understand the danger of stubborn pride.

Narrated in a low-key voice that doesn't really do justice to the unusual events of the story, this book is stronger as fiction than as fantasy. It's not a particularly fresh look at the familiar theme, nor is it a thoroughly plausible portrait of what it's like to be blind, but it's an engaging and absorbing story that makes good escapist reading.

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

Amelia Bedelia and the Christmas List by Herman Parish. Illustrated by Lynn Sweat. HarperCollins, 2003 (0-06-051874-X) $6.99 pb

This new Amelia Bedelia book (written by a relative of the original author) has a change of format. Amelia Bedelia is Christmas shopping for Mrs. Rogers, and making her standard brand of mistakes with her list--Mr. Rogers wants headphones, but Amelia Bedelia isn't sure how many phones he can put on his head. But on the end of each page is a flap to turn, which reveals a helpful salesperson finding the correct item for her. It's less intricate and less lively than the usual stories but perhaps a good approach to a potentially anxiety-creating situation: little kids may not care if Amelia "draws the drapes" incorrectly, but Christmas presents are something else again! (3-6)

BIG Little; Quiet LOUD; Yummy YUCKY written and illustrated by Leslie Patricelli. Candlewick, 2003 (0-7636-1950-7) $6.99 ea. board book

Against a background of bright, "baby gap" colored pages, an impish, round-headed toddler wearing only a diaper demonstrates various opposite concepts: "Slippers are quiet. Mommy's shoes are LOUD." "Ladies are BIG. Ladybugs are little." "Burgers are yummy. Boogers are yucky." (I can't tell you why "yucky" looses the capitalization.) These books satisfy on several levels: large, uncrowded shapes are easy on a baby's eyes, while many parents will appreciate the implicit lessons, while enjoying the light touch of contemporary humor and hipness. (Though personally, I could live without the boogers.) (1-3)

Christmas Cookies! by Susan Devins. Illustrated by Barbara Lehman. Candlewick, 2003 (0-7636-1632-X) $12.99

There are two things I love about this cookbook: it's spiral bound (big, usable spirals, with no sharp edges) and its pages are laminated, for easy clean-up. What a great idea for a beginner's cookbook! Other than that, it's a well chosen collection of recipes, some classic like Snickerdoodles and Shortbread, others more novel like Rice Krispie Christmas Wreaths and Peppermint Chocolate Bark (really a candy, not a cookie.) Recipes include both imperial and metric quantity measurements. One potential disappointment: the three plastic cookie cutters enclosed (a star, tree and gingerbread man) are too small to use successfully for some of the suggested recipes. (5-12)

Hanukkah! by Roni Schotter. Illustrated by Marylin Hafner. Little, Brown, 1990; 2003 (0-316-77623-8) $6.99 board book

Now available in board book format. Unlike most books about Hanukkah, this ebullient story is not informative: rather, it tries to capture the spirit of fun and family togetherness created by a Hanukkah celebration. Although the half-rhyming, staccato text is not ideal for reading aloud, and the illustrations are not distinctive, the cheerful warmth of the book is infectious. Winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

One Hundred Shoes by Charles Ghigna. Illustrated by Bob Staake. Random House, 2002 (0-375-82178-3) $3.99 pb

Although subtitled "a math reader," math concepts are--quite deliberately--just barely touched upon in this book. It is primarily an entertaining little fantasy, in easy to read verse, about the shoe needs of the centipede (quite a bewildering subject when you stop and think about it!) "Where do you buy them so tiny and fine? Do you go shopping on web sites online?" "Centipede, centipede where do you keep one hundred shoes when you go to sleep?" The fact that one hundred shoes can be divided into fifty pairs, five sets of twenty or ten sets of ten is also mentioned in the course of the story, in what an introduction to parents notes as a effort to keep the math concepts "woven into the fabric of our lives." The apparently computer created illustrations are cheerfully whimsical, giving the centipede hero a lively town of fellow bugs and an artfully varied shoe wardrobe. (3-6)

Send It written and illustrated by Don Carter. Roaring Brook, 2003 (0-7613-1578-0)

Open it. Read it. Repeat it. That's been the routine here since this fun book arrived; thankfully, it's quite short. Starting on Monday, the book follows the week-long progress of a package getting trucked, shipped, flown and even choo-choo'd across the country. When the package arrives at a birthday party, it turns out to hold a toy mail truck, just like the one the package originally set out in. Thick, solid-looking paint and plaster illustrations give the whole story a toy-like feel. (2-6)

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