celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2004 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 12, No. 1; January 2004

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The Day It Rained Hearts (Previously published as Four Valentines in a Rainstorm) written and illustrated by Felicia Bond. 1983; HarperCollins, 2004 (0-06-054442-2) $6.99 board book

Far less mushy than you might expect from the title, this Valentine's Day favorite embraces thoughtfulness and creativity. When it begins to rain hearts one day, a little girl catches several and turns them into valentines, each one perfectly designed for its intended recipient: A dog receives a new collar made of hearts; a mouse gets a valentine full of holes, like a swiss cheese. Bond's illustrations use shaded backgrounds, giving a richer, warmer tone to her usual whimsical watercolors, The final pictures, in which we see how happily each valentine is received, are especially appealing. (2-6)

So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane. Delacorte, 1983; Harcourt Brace, 2003 (0-15-204738-7) $16.95

My original review of this book began, "Although they have been long regarded as classics by adult fans of fantasy and science fiction, Diane Duane's 'Wizard' books seem to be less well known as great children's literature. I hope this new reprinting (which will eventually include all four titles) will win them the recognition they deserve, among readers of all ages." With seven titles now in the series, multiple editions available and this new hardcover edition for the book's twentieth anniversary, I think it's safe to say that the series is doing quite well.

Nita Callahan is like a lot of intelligent bookworms: she loves words and ideas and the possibility of magic. . . and she has a serious problem with bullies. Then she finds the book in the library, looking just like any ordinary book about career choices: So You Want to Be a Wizard. Suspicious but fascinated, Nita reads through the book, discovering that wizardry is one profession that values the love of reading and skill with words. (In one of the book's most delightful moments, Nita discovers that "one strong sign of a potential wizard is the inability to get to sleep without reading something first.") Impulsively she takes the Oath of Wizardy, a serious commitment to "use the Art for nothing but the service of. . . Life." And the next morning, she finds herself listed in the book--"novice, pre-rating." The book isn't a joke, and she is going to be a wizard.

Naturally, Nita's first thought is to use her new powers to take care of the bullies who constantly torment her. But when she meets up with Kit, a boy who is also a new wizard and trying to cope with similar problems ("they keep saying things like 'If you're so smart, 'ow come you talk so fonny?'"), the two are unexpectedly hurtled into their first big assignment. Accompanied only by the friendly presence of an energy-emitting spark nicknamed Fred, they find themselves in an alternate New York City in which machines are alive--and very hungry--facing the most terrifying force in the universe and the strong possibility of the end of their world.

So You Want to Be a Wizard inevitably evokes the best fantasies of Madeleine L'Engle's; although in this book Duane does not yet approach the depth of L'Engle's characterizations, she has a similar gift for believably embodying the spirits of darkness and light. The satisfying mix of magic and everyday life, which incorporates both humor and horror, highlights the importance of the battle between good and evil; the emotional, even spiritual resonance the reader feels with the elements of good is a hallmark of most great fantasy. Sacrifice and grief are inevitably--and rightfully--part of the story, a reminder that nothing truly important comes without price.

New Books

Freaky Green Eyes by Joyce Carol Oates. HarperTempest, 2003 (0-06-623759-9) $16.99

Alone at a party, fourteen-year-old tomboy Franky Pierson decides to try on a new role, as girly Francesa. But when an older boy's interest turns to violent attack, a whole new Franky is born--Freaky Green Eyes, a fighter and a survivor. Franky doesn't know it yet, but Freaky will needed a lot in the months that follow, when her mother's suspicious disappearance will force her to make the hardest decision of her life. A suspenseful yet achingly sad story about finding ones path.

The Hidden Alphabet illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Roaring Brook, 2003 (0-7613-1941-7) $17.95

The letters of the alphabet are generally the starting off point of alphabet books. This one approaches the alphabet from the other direction: each page shows a picture of an object, an arrowhead, balloons, a cloud. But when a flap is raised, the original picture becomes part of the background of an artfully created letter. The arrowhead is the hole in the A, the two balloons are colorful holes in a starry sky B. Each picture is beautifully crafted, and it is quite intriguing to observe how the artist uses color, shading and repetition to make the objects effectively disappear. As much an art lesson as an alphabet.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

black is brown is tan by Arnold Adoff. Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. HarperCollins, 2002 (0-06-028776-4) $15.95; HarperTrophy, 2004 (0-06-443644-6) $5.99 pb

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, based on the author's family. Warmth, humor and love live in each line as Adoff tells readers, "this is the way it is for us/this is the way we are."

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. HarperCollins, 1997 (0-06-027510-3) $14.95; Avon, 2003 (0-06-055886-5) $5.95 pb

In this unusual twist on the Cinderella story, Ella has serious troubles even before she acquires her wicked stepmother and stepsisters--in fact, right from birth, when she receives the fairy gift of perfect obedience. "If someone told me to hop on one foot for a day and a half, I'd have to do it... if you commanded me to cut off my own head, I'd have to do it." The gift of obedience doesn't have quite the effect that was intended: deprived of her free will, Ella becomes a rebel, finding ways to subvert orders whenever possible. But still, she must obey any direct command from anyone, and in the hands of unscrupulous people she is helpless. When Ella realizes that there's a chance she could get the "gift" reversed, she sets out on a dangerous quest to find the fairy who changed her--but it will take her own inner goodness and strength of will to finally free her.

Brightly narrated by Ella, this is an entertaining, sometimes humorous fantasy but is so overplotted it often feels uncomfortably like at least two different stories inexpertly mashed together, with the elements of the traditional tale forced in. Still, many readers will enjoy the strong heroine, her difficult predicament, and her friendly romance with the likeable Prince Charmont. A Newbery Honor book.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar. Avon Camelot,1978; Morrow, 1998 (0-688-16086-7) $16.00; HarperTrophy, 2003 (0-380-69871-4) $5.99 pb

Paperback originals for children tend to be as ephemeral in nature as they are in format; although some may achieve temporary popularity, most come and go without much notice. Among the most notable exceptions are the books of Louis Sachar, whose early paperbacks were so enduring, they turned the publishing tables and were reissued in hardcover. Now they are again in paperback.

The Sideways Stories are perhaps the best of Sachar's early work. The absurd adventures of kids who go to school on the thirtieth floor of a mixed-up school, they seem to be pure farce--but their almost Richard Brautigan-esque irrelevance reveals an understanding of the often arbitrary nature of childhood which undoubtedly resonates with young readers. Calvin is stuck trying to deliver a note he doesn't have to a teacher who isn't there on a floor that doesn't exist (and gets a Tootsie Roll pop for doing it so well); Deedee finally gets to be first in line for a good ball at recess by pretending to be a dead rat (the teacher wants it outside immediately); every day, even the day he saved the class from robbers, Todd somehow winds up getting sent home early on the kindergarten bus. There aint always justice in the world of Wayside School, but there's always a strange kind of logic, as sideways as the school itself.

First beginning the Sideways Stories requires a fairly strong tolerance for whimsy, but once past that hurdle they are delightfully funny, without ever losing the underlying tenderness that is so strong in Sachar's writing. Librarians and fans alike will be glad they are now here to stay.

Sparks by Graham McNamee. Wendy Lamb Books, 2002 (0-385-72977-4) $15.95; Dell Yearling, 2004 (0-440-41847-X) $4.99 pb

"The only nice thing they said about me was I have a strong imagination. But what good is that? They never test you on making things up."

Because of his poor reading comprehension and memorization skills, Todd spent most of last year in "Special Needs" class. But this year he's made the big leagues: "the real fifth grade with the normal kids." It's a hard struggle trying to keep up with the normal kids, and it doesn't help that they're always calling him names like Mr. Retardo and Gump. Todd really misses his best friend Eva from Special Needs, but he can't afford to hang out with her anymore: "People will think I'm still Brain-Dead." But when a class assignment about an exploited pygmy shows Todd that his strong imagination actually is good for something, he realizes it's not much fun being "normal" when you can't share your success with your best friend.

Written by a former slow learner, this is an insightful look into the heart of a "slow" kid, as he learns to conquer his fear of looking stupid and to have some faith in his own abilities. McNamee shows great tenderness and understanding of his characters, making the story real and endearing.

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

Hi, Harry! by Martin Waddell. Illustrated by Barbara Firth. Candlewick, 2003 (0-7636-1802-0) $14.99

A gentle, sweet story about a tortoise who finds that the world moves too quickly for him, until he meets the perfect friend: Sam Snail. Especially fun if you read Harry and Sam's dialogue veerrrry slooooowly. (2-6)

Lilly's Chocolate Heart written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes. HarperFestival, 2003 (0-06-056066-5) $6.99 board book

The irrepressible star of Julius, the Baby of the World and Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse is back, in a short book for younger children. It's the evening of Valentine's Day and Lilly has one chocolate heart left--but what to do with it? Under her bed is too dusty, her dresser is too messy and behind the radiator is too warm. Finally Lilly thinks of the perfect place to put her heart, and hugging herself tightly with glee, pops it into her mouth. Even in these few pages, Lilly's exuberant personality shines through. (2-4)

The Worry Web Site by Jacqueline Wilson. Delacorte, 2003 (0-385-73083-7) $14.95

In interconnected stories, seven classmates confess their problems on a "worry web site" and find some resolutions with the help of an understanding and slightly offbeat teacher. This fast-paced batch of short, first-person narratives reads a bit like a lighter version of Anne Fine's Step By Wicked Step, but rarely rises above superficiality. One oddly harsh note is struck by a story--written not by Wilson, but by a twelve-year-old girl as part of a "worry website" contest--in which the worry is that the child's father is beating her mother; it stands out painfully against the generally lighthearted tone of the rest of the book (8-12)

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