celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2004 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 12, No. 3; June 2004

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


"B" is for Betsy; Betsy and Billy; Back to School With Betsy; Betsy and the Boys written and illustrated by Carolyn Haywood. Harcourt Brace, 2004 (0-15-205103-1;0-15-205104-X; 0-15-205105-8; 0-15-205106-6; 0-15-205106-6) $16.00 each

Readers with a taste for slower-paced, uncomplicated looks at childhood will enjoy this nostalgic series from the 40's, which takes Betsy from first grade through fourth. In the first book, Betsy nervously starts school, makes friends with Ellen and Billy, and gets her first puppy. By fourth grade, the little girl who wanted to run away and hide the first day of school has decided to play football with the boys. (Though alas, Betsy's mother forbids football after a dress-tearing game. One of the problems with nostalgia.) Warm characters and and a strong feeling for the emotions of childhood keep these books likeable today.

The series has also been reprinted in paperback, $5.95 each

Paddington Takes the Air by Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Houghton Mifflin, 1970; 2004 (0-618-33141-7) $15.00

Paddington the bear has a visit with a highly unhappy dentist, tries to solve a mystery, and wins a dance contest with his spectacular moves, in another collection of funny and usually sticky stories.

Potatoes, Potatoes written and illustrated by Anita Lobel. Harper & Row, 1967; Greenwillow, 2004 (0-06-023927-1) $15.99

This new edition of Lobel's classic fable has been brightly recolored, but its message about the futility and destructive power of war is just the same.

New Books

the dot written and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. Candlewick, 2003 (0-7636-1961-2) $14.00

Perhaps more than any other genre, picture books are the upholders of a belief in innate creativity and the beauty of self-expression. the dot can proudly take its place besides classic titles such as Tomi dePaola's The Art Lesson: it is exceptional in its simplicity and the positive strength of its message.

Vashti is pretty ticked off by the end of art class, and her paper is completely empty. "I just can't draw!" she tells her teacher. When her teacher suggests, "just make a mark and see where it takes you," Vashti gives the paper a jab and makes a dot. She isn't expecting her teacher to ask her to sign it... or to frame it. "Hmmph" thinks Vashti to herself. "I can make a better dot than THAT"....

Drawn with Feiffer-like lines in ink and sepia-toned tea, with color mainly used as background to express mood and to highlight Vashti's growing portfolio of beautiful dots, this is a readily accessible story that seems to grow in loveliness with each new reading. I wish every art teacher understood so much about creative potential and the power of encouragement.

The Shamer's Daughter by Lene Kaaberbol. Henry Holt, 2004 (0-8050-7541-0) $16.95

The first book in a promising series is an exciting mix of adventure and fantasy set in a medieval world. Dina is the daughter of a Shamer--one who can read a person's inner self simply by gazing into his eyes--and she has had the misfortune to inherit this gift, and subsequently lose all her friends. Then Dina's mother is called away to solve a murder and becomes trapped by a ruthless conspiracy. It is up to Dina to rescue her--and to perhaps in the process find the friend she longs for. For as her mother has told her, "anyone who can meet a Shamer's gaze openly is a very special human being and the best friend you could ever hope for."

Perhaps because it's translated by the author, The Shamer's Daughter is free of the over-formal style often found in translated children's books. Kaaberbol has created a fine magic universe, with a strong moral system; she has also given it an intriguing twist, as Dina discovers that her power can be used to build confidence as well as to shame. I look forward to the continuation of the series.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Abhorsen by Garth Nix. 2003; Eos, 2004 (0-06-052873-7) $7.99 pb

The sequel to Sabriel and Lirael.

Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer. Harcourt Brace, 2002; 2004 (0-15-205085-X) $6.95 pb

Orphaned Mary escapes from a life of poverty on the streets of London, by becoming Jack, a ship's "boy." On board she finds companionship, danger and unexpectedly, romance. A resourceful and quick-witted heroine, careful attention to detail and a compelling first-person voice make this cross-dressing adventure feel unusually plausible and authentic, except towards the preposterous end. A terrific read.

Mary's story continues where it left off in Curse of the Blue Tattoo by L.A. Meyer. Harcourt Brace, 2004 (0-15-205115-5) $17.00

Dragon's Blood; Heart's Blood; A Sending of Dragons by Jane Yolen. Harcourt Brace, 2004 (0-15-205126-0); 0-15-205118-X; 0-15-205128-7) $6.95 each pb

Colorful new editions of Yolen's Pit Dragon trilogy, with covers geared towards older readers.

Dreadful Sorry by Kathryn Reiss. Harcourt Brace, 1993 (0-15-224213-9) $16.95; 2004 (0-15-205087-6) $6.95 pb

A recurring nightmare and a deadly fear of water have been part of Molly Teague's life for as long as she can remember, but she's always managed to ignore them. When she meets her friend's cousin, Jared, things get harder to ignore: like the feeling she keeps having that she knows him; like the way she keeps calling him by the wrong name; like the song, "My Darling Clementine," that seems to be haunting them both. Hardest of all to ignore is what happens when Jared almost drowns her by throwing her into a swimming pool: a vision they both have of seaweed, floating boxes...and blood.

An evocative cover and intriguing title set the mood for this tightly plotted and suspenseful ghost story about guilt and reparation, an exciting and satisfying excursion into supernatural fantasy.

Dusty Locks and the Three Bears by Susan Lowell. Illustrated by Randy Cecil. Henry Holt, 2001; 2004 (0-8050-7534-8) $6.95 pb

The classic folk tale. "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" is here given a Western twang and some funny surprises. Dusty Locks, called that because she hasn't had a bath for a month of Sundays, invades the home of three grizzly bears and discovers that beans full of chile peppers really are too hot and that a feather bed you sink and sink and sink into can be much too soft. With a squinty-eyed glower and mean little line of a mouth, Dusty Locks is a far more entertaining protagonist than the usual Goldilocks and the surprised and irate bears are quite human.

Owl in Love by Patrice Kindl. Houghton Mifflin, 1993; Graphia, 2004 (0-618-43910-2) $6.99 trade pb

Teenage alienation and infatuation have become such common themes in young adult novels that it's rare to find a treatment that can take them beyond cliche. This extraordinary novel sets the cliches on their ear, with a premise so bizarre and unexpected, it gives the same old problems a new freshness and immediacy

. Falling in love with a teacher is generally a hopeless passion, but for fourteen-year-old Owl, it is even more hopeless than usual. "Not only are we of different generations, but we do not even belong to the same species... The most that can be said for our common ground is that we are more like one another than we are like amoebas, sponges, snails, or earthworms. What odds, I wonder, would the ladies of Seventeen and Sassy give on a romance like that?" For Owl is an owl by nature as well as by name: she is a shape-shifter, a "wereowl," who attends high school by day and hunts mice by night. Nothing could be less likely for her than marriage to her science teacher, Mr. Lindstrom--but since it is in an owl's nature "to give my love once and only once in a lifetime," somehow a way must be found. What Owl does not expect is that her quest will lead her to form relationships with other people for the first time. She has always been the weird one at school, the perpetual outsider. Can a girl like her actually become someone's friend?

By turns haunting and hilarious, Owl in Love is a sheer delight. The premise, firmly established at the start, rarely falters: we accept not only that Owl is a wereowl, but that it is right and appropriate for her to be one--the only concern is that she gets what she needs to be happy, both in human form and in owl form. This is a rare and satisfying message in a book about someone so very different from her peers; unlike most outsiders, Owl does not need to change her essential self to win friendship and love.

But what really sets Owl in Love apart is neither its premise nor its message. Owl's rich, formal, Victorian narrative is the perfect voice for the story, making its stranger, darker elements believable, yet also finding the great potential for humor in her situation. Occasional departures from Owl's voice are less successful, and the smoothness of the narrative starts to break down towards the end of the story, when Owl is essentially too confused to carry it. But those are minor flaws in an otherwise superb novel.

Summerland by Michael Chabon. Miramax (0-786-81615-5) $8.95 pb

An intricate, magical mix of myth and baseball.

3 NBs of Julian Drew by James M. Deem. Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (0-395-69453-1) $14.95; Graphia, 2004 (0-618-43907-2) $6.99 trade pb

"ABBREVs + NOs: 170V3them. THEY don't sound like words. THEY don't look like words. THEY sound + look like secret code. THEY don't scare me or my pen."

Four years ago, under great stress, Julian Drew chose to have "a mouth that could not produce many words," a mouth kept tightly closed to "stop words from falling out." Sometimes, though, the urge to communicate is stronger even than the urge for self-preservation, and so Julian turns to a notebook, struggling to let out the secrets he has learned to keep inside, using his own form of code to step around the words that hurt too much.

Writing to someone from his past he calls U, whom he desperately misses, Julian describes how the adults in his life, "43" and "543," abuse him--barely feeding him, constantly accusing him of wrongdoing, and keeping him locked away in a garage with no bathroom. Only his love for his little sister Emma keeps him from running away. Then he realizes that Emma is happy as she is, with no memories of the past that haunts him--and there is no longer anything to stop him from getting away, from trying to get back, so he can find U once more.

This fascinating, compelling novel well repays the initial effort of deciphering it. Julian's strange writing--not that difficult once you've gotten the hang of it--gives us the story in tantalizing bites, becoming more and more revealing as he slowly conquers his need to distort his own words. But the code is more than a gimmick to obfuscate the plot: it is doorway into a very troubled mind. From the start, there is an element of uncertainty as to whether Julian is genuinely being abused or is just psychotic; his mental measuring of cereal bowls every morning--"mine always has less. Sometimes a lot less, sometimes only a little"--sounds more like paranoia than child abuse. He himself recognizes the difficulty of making his problems seem important: "How can I do this? How can I write a (true) sentence that explains what it is like to be cheated and tortured with a small bowl of cereal and a glass of water?" I'm not sure that Julian--or the author--does quite succeed in explaining it; although the picture of neglect, indifference and active malice against Julian does becomes clear, he seems more disturbed than events alone really justify. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant portrait of a troubled person, and of the ways even a troubled person can find to help himself--perhaps the strongest part of the portrait is that despite everything, Julian is far from helpless. The ending is especially insightful, offering hope for Julian's survival without denying the damage that may never be healed.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. 1994; HarperTrophy, 2004 (0-06-056013-4) $6.50 pb

The Newbery Medal winner.

Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger by Louis Sachar. Illustrated by Joel Schick. Morrow, 1995 (0-688-13694-X) $15.00; HarperTrophy, 2004 (0-380-75484-3) $5.99 pb

What kind of school has a practical joking hypnotist for a counselor, a cook whose specialty is Baloneo's (Oreo cookies with baloney filling), and a substitute teacher who sucks voices up his nose? Wayside School of course, where things in Mrs. Jewls class on the thirtieth floor get a little stranger, and funnier, with each new book. These thirty episodes, one for each story of Wayside School (except, of course, the nineteenth--there is no nineteenth story, and Mrs. Zarves teaches there), are reminiscent of Ellen Raskin's early work: dead-pan gags, ridiculous situations, unexpected twists and rollicking word-play are all held together by a comfortable underlying base of warmth and affection. Or at least, usually comfortable: Sachar's talent for evoking emotion is so strong that a few scenes which should be merely ludicrously gruesome become unexpectedly serious and almost cruelly painful to read. They cast an unpleasant shadow over this otherwise sweetly hilarious book.

Who Do You Think You Are? selected by Hazel Rochman and Darlene Z. McCampbell. Little, Brown, 1993 (0-316-75355-6) $15.95; (0-316-75320-3) $9.99 pb

A heartwrench in just 6 lines by Langston Hughes sets the wistful tone for this exceptional anthology, which explores the confused, precarious world of adolescent relationships. Beautifully and richly written, the stories and excerpts bring to life the complex emotions of children and young adults experiencing friendship found and friendship lost, friends becoming enemies and enemies becoming friends. The universal experiences of discovery and loss are enriched by writings from authors with diverse cultural backgrounds, including Louise Erdrich, Tobias Wolff and Sandra Cisneros. Who Do You Think You Are? is ideally suited for classroom use: each story, from Carson McCullers' sad and chilling "Sucker," to Richard Peck's wicked little revenge fantasy "Priscilla and the Wimps," could've been designed to elicit school discussions. But it is also a wonderful read on its own, full of thoughtful, evocative and often painful stories. Joyce Carol Oates terrifying "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?", Gish Jen's witty yet poignant "What Means Switch" and Toni Cade Bambara's joyously triumphant "Raymond's Run" all contribute to a deeper understanding of the meaning of friendship.

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

Hot Potato selected by Neil Philip. Illustrated by Claire Henley. Clarion, 2004 (0-618-31554-3) $16.00

A tasty collection of fun food poems, with an emphasis on rhymes and silliness. Henley does a nice job of putting well-known rhymes into a new context: "Beautiful Soup" by Lewis Carroll is sung by little girl adoring a tureen on a pedestal. (But surely depicting Mary Jane, from A.A. Milne's "Rice Pudding," as throwing a very deliberate tantrum after consulting books such as Mother Management and How to Be A Princess is missing the point?) The unsophisticated acrylic paint illustrations are most appropriate for preschoolers. (3-6)

I Love You, Mister Bear written and illustrated by Sylvie Wickstrom. HarperCollins, 2003 (0-06-029331-4) $14.99

In this tender and humorous look into the mind of an imaginative child, a young girl named Sosha finds a stuffed bear at a garage sale. When her father points out that the bear has a big hole, they leave it there--but Sosha is unable to forget about the shaggy old bear. Back they go, to make Bear a part of their family. Sosha takes the bear to the doctor (her mom) to get stitches, gives him a good washing, and finds him an entire new outfit--which makes him look so handsome and distinguished, she decides he must be called "Mr. Bear."

Told entirely in dialogue, the style of the story took a little getting used to, but soon won our whole family over with its sweetness and funny touches. (Sosha, trying a pink tutu on Bear, concludes, "Not your style!") The illustrations show a believable modern family, simply drawn against minimal backgrounds. (2-5)

Pinata! written and illustrated by Rebecca Emberley. Little, Brown, 2004 (0-316-17412-2) $14.95

Emberley has created many bilingual books but she's probably never had such a perfect subject matter for her mixed media collage illustrations. Her rainbow striped pinata practically bursts from the page and most of the goodies that go inside look tantalizingly tangible. Text in English and Spanish describes the different fun things that go inside the pinata; a short history, instructions for making the pinata, and a little quiz on the names of the items are also included. (3-6)

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