celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2004 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 12, No. 2; April 2004

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

New Books

The Fall of Fergal by Philip Ardagh. Illustrated by David Roberts. Henry Holt, 2004 (0-8050-7476-7) $9.95.

In a story that feels more like an introduction to a series than a satisfactorily complete tale, we meet the impoverished McNally family: older sister/mother figure Jackie, almost-identical twins Joshua and Albie, typing whiz Le Fay, and the brains of the family, Fergal--who sadly, has just fallen to his death as the book begins. As we learn of the events leading up to Fergal's tragic fall, it becomes clear that there's more to the McNally family than meets the eye. A fast paced narrative with frequent comic asides make this an enjoyable and readily accessible entry in the darkly humorous fantasy genre.

Remember by Toni Morrison. Houghton Mifflin, 2004 (0-618-39740-X) $18.00.

"So remember," writes Nobel Prize winner Morrison in her introduction to this book. "Because you are a part of it." Joining historical photographs with fictional words, Remember shows that the story of school integration in the United States is not a closed, forgotten chapter in a history text, but a powerful experience that reverberates in the lives of school children today.

Done in a picture book format, Remember combines beautifully reproduced archival photographs with Morrison's take on what might have been going through the minds of those being photographed. In one striking photo, two girls--one black, one white--gaze searchingly at each other: The caption given, "I think she likes me, but how can I tell? What will I do if she hates me?" could apply equally well to the thoughts of either girl. Sometimes the photos speak so loudly, no words need to be added: one spread juxtaposes the ugly, hate-filled jeering of a group of white women with a photo of young black boys, dressed for school with obvious loving care and poignantly clutching lunch bags, pencils, and each other's hands, their faces showing fear and powerful determination.

Even when the entries are more pedestrian, the cumulative power of this history inevitably stirs the heart with anger, pain, pride and hope. "Anything can happen. Anything at all. See?" ends Morrison, again showing two girls of different races, this time happily holding hands.

The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars collected, written and illustrated by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace. Houghton Mifflin, 2003 (0-618-26353-5)

Heavenly bodies are ripe with potential for imagery and this collection of poems, though short, does them justice. From Frank Asch's fantasy of sleighing through sundrifts and sunbanks of sunflakes, to Patricia Hubbell's vision of a tambourine moon reflection making fish dance, it is a lovely, fresh and beguiling work. Simple collage illustrations featuring gentle rabbit-people seem a surprising but ultimately effective choice.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks. Illustrated by William Geldart. Doubleday, 1988; Delacorte, 2003 (0-385-73076-4) $15.95; Dell Yearling, 2004 (0-440-41925-5) $4.99 pb

In this fast-paced modern fairy tale, a lonely woman's wish for a child is granted by a insubordinate young fairy, incurring the dangerous wrath of the power-mad Fairy Queen.

So Much by Trish Cooke. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. Candlewick, 1994; 1997 (0-7636-0296-5) $6. 99 pb

So Much is larger than the average picture book, probably so it can contain an overflow of exuberant warmth. Mom and the baby are sitting around doing nothing when the relatives start coming over--and every relative wants to squeeze or kiss or even eat the baby, because they love him SO MUCH! Then they all sit and relax until the next relative comes--until finally Daddy arrives, and his surprise birthday party can begin! With a strong Caribbean feel to the lively, rhythmic text, So Much is a joy to read aloud. The illustrations are vibrant and affectionate, reflecting the Carribean flavor of the story in the family's clothing and hairstyles. Oxenbury also has some fun by illustrating the "doing nothing" sections of the book in white and sepia, with only the baby's bright red overall standing out like a beacon against his brown skin; it's almost startlingly effective in capturing the feeling of a hot, lazy afternoon, waiting for a party to begin.

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

Actual Size by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin, 2004 (0-618-37594-5) $16.00

Brilliant in concept and execution, this deceptively simple book gives readers a chance to see tremendously large and incredibly small creatures, "actual size." Twelve inch tall pages (as shown by a ruler on the dust jacket) are ample to show the entire Goliath birdeater tarantula, which justifies its name by eating birds and small mammals; other animals, such as the giant squid, can be seen only in close-up of its eye, larger than my son's head. Readers will be fascinated by the chance to compare their own hands to the human-like hands of the huge gorilla and the tiny pygmy mouse lemur--or to see how well their hand would fit inside the jaws of the saltwater crocodile, a man-eater. The paper-collage illustrations are particularly well designed, creating realistic textures for the smaller creatures, yet also adding a layer of safe artificiality to the more frightening spreads, like the teeth of the great white shark. (4-8)

Dumpy La Rue by Elizabeth Winthrop. Illustrated by Betsy Levin. Henry Holt, 2001 (0-8050-6385-4) $15.95; 2004 (0-8050-7535-6) $6.95 pb

Dumpy La Rue is a pig who wants to dance, and despite when anyone says, he's going to do it! And when he gets going, this "porker with passion" soon has the whole barnyard wanting to join in. A snappy, syncopated rhyming text and genuine feeling make this picture book rise about others in its familiar genre, and the watercolor illustrations give both humor and grace to the joyfully dancing animals. (3-6)

My World by Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Clement Hurd. 1949; HarperCollins, 2001 (0-05-024798-3) $15.95; 2004 (0-69-401660-8) $5.99 pb.

This companion volume to the classic Goodnight Moon has some of the same qualities that make that book so special, particularly a tendency for the text to go in just slightly off-beat directions. The book is narrated by a little bunny who talks about the objects in his world, comparing his possessions to those of his parents. But as you might expect from a small child, the comparisons aren't clearly symmetrical, but also include whatever information happens to pop into the narrators head: "My spoon. Daddy's spoon. 'The moon belongs To the Man in the moon.'". It's a style that requires, and repays, intent reading aloud. But it's a little disappointing that the text and illustration don't mesh as perfectly here as in the first book; branching out from their cozy green room into a bigger world, Hurd's rabbit people look a bit static and uncomfortable. (1-4)

Te Amo, Bebe, Little One by Lisa Wheeler. Illustrated by Maribel Suarez. Little, Brown, $15.95

A young Hispanic mother and her new baby go through his first year together, sharing good times in every season. And always, the mother sings her baby's special song: "I love you once, I love you twice. I love you more than beans and rice. I love you more than stars or sun. Te amo, bebe, little one." With its smattering of Spanish words and a Southwestern setting, this book feels a bit like multiculturalism-lite, but that doesn't make it any less appealing. The rhyming text uses a very readable rhythm, and the light watercolor illustrations are easy on the eye. A favorite with our family. (1-3)

Think of an Eel by Karen Wallace. Illustrated by Mike Bostock. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-180-7) $14.95; 2001 (0-7636-1522-6) $5. 99 pb; 2004 (0-7636-2470-5) $19.99

Now available in "Big Book" format: Gorgeously colored watercolor paintings and sparse but vivid writing make the eel a beautiful thing in this stunning book. The usual "Read and Wonder" hand-lettered notes work in counterpoint to the text, providing the factual basis for the poetic images. (3-8)

Quack and Count written and illustrated by Keith Baker. 1999; Voyager, 2004 (0-15-205025-6) $6.00 pb

This cleverly crafted story conveys basic but vitally important mathematical concepts through a simple, gayly rhyming story. The illustrations use textures and attractive natural hues to show seven ducklings (6 plus 1, 5 plus 2, etc.) in various natural settings. (2-5)

Where Is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox. Illustrated by Judy Horacek. Harcourt, 2004 (0-15-204907-X) $15.00

There are lots of sheep in this book--a blue sheep and a red sheep, a bath sheep and a bed sheep. But where is the green sheep? Unsurprisingly, fast asleep. Many silly opposites bring a light touch of whimsy to a common picture book theme, nicely matched by simply lined but imaginatively designed illustrations. I particularly like the "rain sheep," who swings from a lamppost ala Gene Kelly. (1-4)

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