celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2004 Wendy E. Betts.
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Vol. 12, No. 4; October 2004

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

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

Half-Magic by Edward Eager. Illustrated by N. M. Bodecker. Harcourt, 1955; 2004 (0-15-205302-6) $18.95

Half-Magic has never been hard to find, but as soon as I saw this 50th anniversary edition, I knew I had been long-awaiting it. It's a beauty, with the whimsical green and white original cover--half girl, half knight in armor--on matte paper; though pricey, it's hard to resist. Unfortunately, it appears to have been glued, rather than sewn.

For those who may have somehow missed it, Half-Magic is a classic example of the family story/fantasy genre, a timeless story about ordinary children in the 1920's who have magic enter their lives and transform it. Unabashedly inspired by E. Nesbit's books, all of Eager's stories are about book-loving children--an instant bond for most readers. (As a child, I never understood books about children who didn't like to read; I simply couldn't understand why anyone would bother to create them.) The literate family in Half-Magic is a particular joy, as in this passage:

'"This," said Katherine, "is what I would call a tulgey wood."

"Don't!" cried Martha. "Suppose something came whiffling through it!"'

Of course it's great fun to recognize the allusion, but even if you don't, you can appreciate the atmosphere it creates. And that's only one of the more obvious literary references; all of Eager's books are scattered throughout with quotes, paraphrases, and allusions. He essentially created a whole childhood literary language, much as P. G. Wodehouse did in the "Jeeves" books.

Another delight of Half-Magic is the family story aspect. The four children of a widowed, working mother, Jane, Katherine, Mark and Martha spend a great deal of time pretty much on their own, but together. It's a perfect, even necessary set-up for magical adventures--lots of unscheduled, unsupervised time--but it's also very cozy. United by the love of books, imaginative play, and a common culture based on reading, the siblings can generally be happy together. Of course, Martha, the youngest, sometimes whines and has to be put under the seat at the movies, but the four have so much in common, age is not the insurmountable burden it is often made out to be for children.

We need stories like this, perhaps now more than ever. But you might want to buy the kids a paperback, and save this beauty for yourselves.


The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin. Harcourt Brace, 1944; 2004 (0-15-205170-8) $16.00; 2004 (0-15-205260-7) $6.00 pb

Part of what I love about reviewing classic children's books is that I'm always learning new things about them or seeing things I missed as a child. Sometimes it happens when I least expect it: I have always remembered The Hundred Dresses as a poignant, haunting story, yet I never realized that this very short, easy-to-read book has an intriguing subtext, one that was probably very meaningful to those who awarded it a Newbery Honor in 1945.

When I wrote a short blurb about The Hundred Dresses recently, I said it was about "a little girl who is tormented by her schoolmates, and her very unusual response." But rereading the book now, I see that's only partially true: the story is less about Wanda Petronski than it is about Maddie, one of her tormentors. Maddie, with her friend Peggy, regularly waits for Wanda, to "have fun with her"--their term for teasing her about the hundred dresses she claims to have "all lined up in her closet." For Wanda is not only strange looking and oddly named, but she always wears the same faded blue dress. And after she tells the other girls about her dresses, Peggy "seemed to think a day was lost if she had not had some fun with Wanda, winning the approving laughter of the girls." But Maddie, Peggy's best friend, is increasingly uncomfortable with the game. Maddie is poor herself; most of her clothes are hand-me-downs. Although she tries to believe that she could never seem as strange as Wanda, Maddie can't help but realize how easily she could become a target of Peggy's game; much though she admires her best friend, she is also afraid of her. So when Wanda's family suddenly moves away, sending a letter to her teacher that reads, "No more ask why funny name. Plenty of funny names in the big city," Maddie is left with a terrible burden of guilt. "She had helped to make someone so unhappy that she had had to move away. . . she had stood by silently, and that was was just as bad as what Peggy had done. Worse. . . at least Peggy hadn't considered they were being mean, but she, Maddie, had thought they were doing wrong."

The Hundred Dresses has barely dated at all; its message is still very powerful. But how much more powerful it must have seemed in 1944: a message to children about standing up for what you believe in, about not letting fear keep you silent--about common humanity. "This girl is just a girl just like you are. . . ." Maddie cries out in her daydreams about becoming Wanda's rescuer: a very simple statement, but one that completely exposes the rationalizations that let good people do evil things.

I certainly don't think The Hundred Dresses was intended as a parable about World War II: it's a children's story, about the way children act and feel. Peggy the popular girl, Maddie the follower and Wanda the outsider are all familiar figures in children's lives and the book is very meaningful on that level alone--if it were not, it would seem dated and horribly didactic now. But I think the real people who failed to stand up must have been in Estes's mind as she wrote it, and that is part of why it carries so much emotion, even after fifty years.

New Books

Calavera Abecedario written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. Harcourt, 2004 (0-15-205220-4) $16.00

Loosely inspired by Don Pedro Linares, a skilled maker of cartoneria (papier-mache objects), this book opens with several pages describing the Linares family making calaveras (skeletons) for the Day of the Dead. This leads into the real meat of the book, a strikingly illustrated Spanish alphabet featuring very busy skeletons: a Bruja stirs a potion, a Jardinero waters plants and a merry Ilustradoradraws pictures for children. Traditional colorful clothing against a deep black background make the pictures eye-catching and there are some lovely visual touches, like a skeleton Frieda Kahlo ("K) drawing a self-portrait, and a skeleton doctor who manages to look very concerned for his patient, despite his lack of skin or actual features. A final spread showing all the skeletons together makes me wish the book were bigger: it would make a gorgeous poster.

The Grand Tour by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. Harcourt, 2004 (0-15-204616-X) $17.00

The sequel to Sorcery and Cecelia (see "now in paperback," below) joins our now married heroines on their joint honeymoon, as recounted in "the Intimate Diary of a Noblewoman and the Sworn Testimony of a Lady of Quality." Despite their respectable married state, trouble is still never far behind Kate and Cecy, who inevitably stumble across some dangerous and magical mysteries on the Continent. Sometimes delightfully funny, and with the occasional romantic interlude--this is a honeymoon, after all--this sequel should please fans of the first book. I'm glad to see a more appealing cover this time around; hopefully older readers won't be put off by the fact that the heroines now look about thirteen years old.

The Old Willis Place by Mary Downing Hahn. Clarion, 2004 (0-618-43018-0) $15.00

Diana and her brother Georgie live near the spooky Old Willis Place, bound by a set of rigid "rules" to always stay hidden and alone. With no one to talk to but each other, the two amuse themselves by spying on and teasing the estate caretakers that constantly come and go. But when a new caretaker arrives with a daughter about Diana's age, the urge to make a friend becomes irresistible. Will breaking the rules lead to a horrible punishment--or might it be the means to their rescue? Equal parts scary and sad, this is a compelling ghost story with an unexpectedly tender message of redemption.

Wizard's Holiday by Diane Duane. Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-204771-9) $17.00

In the seventh book of the wizard series, Duane seems to have decided to give readers, as well as her characters, a vacation from the angst of the recent books. The mood starts and continues in a low-key tone in which even the potential loss of Earth's sun never seems all that worrisome. As young wizards Nita and Kit go away on a wizard's exchange program and deal with the Lone Power's attack on an apparently idyllic alien race, Nita's sister Dairine tries to cope with some very peculiar "exchange students" back on earth. Far too much time of the narrative is spent doing what someone who wrote for a Star Trek series once described as "tech teching the tech," with long, tedious descriptions of the ins-and-outs of spells that make magic seem far from magical, but the culture clash situations do make for some amusement.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson. Illustrated by Nick Sharratt. Delacorte, 2001 (0-385-72916-2) $15.96; Dell Yearling, 2004 (0-440-41806-2) $4.99 pb

Ten-year-old Mandy White is a "miracle baby," the child of an older couple who thought they'd never have children. The other kids in her school don't find her so miraculous though, and Mandy is constantly teased for having grey-haired parents who baby her. Then she meets Tanya, a fourteen-year-old foster kid who gets to be as grown-up as she--and Mandy--wants to be. Tanya wears "great clacky high heels" and lots of make-up, but she also has a nurturing and lonely side, and both she and Mandy find something they need in each other. There's only one problem: Tanya likes to shoplift, and her idea of fun could destroy their friendship.

I've never really gotten into Wilson's books; their frenetic first-person narratives always seem to be trying too hard. But from the opening of this story, a harshly believable scene of the kind of schoolyard torment "nice girls" specialize in, Mandy's situation grabbed me. The complex portrait of Tanya, a smart, creative and caring girl who has been badly shortchanged by life, is even more compelling. Although I found the ending disappointingly pat on one hand and painfully unresolved on the other, I appreciated the overall subtlety of the narrative, which introduces several intricate themes without ever betraying Mandy's point of view.

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. Laurel-Leaf, 2004 (0553-49410-4) $6.50 pb

The 1999 Newbery Medal winner.

Creepers by Keith Gray. Putnam, 1997 (0-399-23186-2) $15.95; Red Fox, 2004 (0-09994-7564-2 - UK edition)

Originally published in England, Creepers is a weird, sad journey into a secret world of adolescence. "Creeping" means sneaking though back gardens on residential streets, trying to get from beginning to end of an entire street without being Spied by a Resie--noticed by a resident. The goal isn't to steal or vandalize: "the idea was to make the distance and not have the Resies know you'd even been there." But when two friends try to make the distance on one of the most difficult Creeps, the worst happens and one of them is Snared, with strange and tragic consequences.

The story is told in the first person by one of the boys, a seemingly normal kid. And in fact, he is a normal kid--doing homework, noticing girls... and creeping with his best friend Jamie. It's all part of ordinary life for kids, which doesn't make it any less exciting. The narration, slightly marred by some sloppy foreshadowing, is somehow all the more disturbing because it's so ordinary.

Written with total commitment to the values of its characters, Creepers creates a world in which creeping is far more sinister and important than adults would imagine: it's a battle, a test of manhood, a sacred ritual with its own vocabulary, legends and code of conduct. And like other battles and rituals, it cements deep bonds of friendship--bonds that can't bear to be broken. Offbeat and surprising though it is, Creepers has a classic theme: grief and loss as part of a rite of passage.

Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jacklyn Moriarty. St. Martin's Press, 2001 (0-312-26923-4) $16.95; Griffin, 2003 (0-312-228736-4) $12.95 pb

Elizabeth Clarry's life is full of letters: notes from her mom, who always seems to have just gone out, required letters to a stranger in another school, and the caustic internal messages she gets almost constantly from organizations like "The Cold Hard Truth Association," "The Best Friends Club," and "The Association of Teenagers," almost all of which find Elizabeth pretty much a failure at being who she's supposed to be. But when some of these letters lead her to new and unusual places in the real world, Elizabeth discovers some truths about friendship that the "Best Friends Club" never told her--and some truths about herself that leave "The Association of Teenagers" eating her dust.

I'm a sucker for high-concept YA books, but this one strained plausibility a bit too much for me at first--especially the little notes of Elizabeth's mom, who always seems to be just around the corner of Elizabeth's life. But the book perks up so much with the arrival of the letters of "the complete and utter stranger," Christina--"I think the best way to forge ties between our schools is for us to swap homework"--that the many coincidences and dramatic absurdities of the plot seem relatively unimportant, and the general mood of the book is upbeat and fun.

The Ghost in the Third Row by Bruce Coville. 1987; Dell Yearling, 2001 (0-553-15646-2) $5.50 pb

In the first in a series of supernatural mysteries, theatre-loving Nina Tanleven lands a part in a musical--despite an audition featuring a most unexpected audience member. A somewhat trite plot is peopled with enough likeable characters and snappy dialogue to make this an entertaining read.

The Great Blue Yonder by Alex Shearer. Clarion, 2002 (0-618-21257-4) $15.00; Scholastic, 2004 (0-439-56127-2) $4.99 pb

There have been a number of children's books about dealing with death and grief, but this quirky story may be the first in which the person dealing with the death is actually the one who died. Harry, a fairly ordinary English boy, finds himself in a vague sort of place known as the Other Lands after a bike accident. Bad enough to be dead, but what really disturbs him is what happened right the accident: "You'll be sorry one day when I'm dead" he yelled at his sister. "No I won't be, I'll be glad." she yelled back. Now dead, Harry realizes that he'll never be able to move on beyond the limbo of the Other Lands unless he can deal with his unfinished business and find a way to let his sister know he's sorry. Except for the unusual plot, this isn't a particularly original or excitingly written book, but Harry's plight is moving enough to make it a tear-jerker and the resolution is both sad and comforting.

How Angel Peterson Got His Name by Gary Paulsen. Random House, 2003 (0-385-72949-9) $12.95; Dell Yearling, 2004 (0-440-22935-9) $5.50 pb

"There is a fate that sometimes protects idiots," writes Paulsen, and it certainly seems so. This amusing memoir describes times that he and his friends were adolescent daredevil idiots and yet somehow lived to tell the tale. Paulsen writes in a friendly tone, straightforwardly describing the different world of his time without being overly cute, or condescending to modern readers. But it's the little touches of tall tale--Carl Peterson, breaking a speed record on skis behind a car, hears the angels singing "your cheatin' heart"--that make this story so much fun.

Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence. Delacorte, 2001 (0-385-72924-3) $15.95; Laurel-Leaf, 2003 (0-440-41812-7) $5.99 pb

Ten-year-old Johnny loves playing war with the wooden soldiers his toymaker father carved for him. But as the figures his father sends him from the front of the Great War become more and more sad and horrible, Johnny begins to have a strange feeling about his soldiers, that they represent the real war his father is fighting and that his play battles are coming true. This dramatic story is so intense it sometimes seems overwrought: there are too many characters acting as a kind of greek chorus to drive home the anti-war message, instead of letting Johnny's insights develop naturally. Still, its compelling storyline held my attention.

The Maestro Plays by Bill Martin Jr. Illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky. Harcourt Brace, 1970; 1994; Voyager, 2004 (0-15-205063-9) $7.00 pb

A gleeful, stimulating exercise in wordplay and images, this book describes a fantastic concert, in which a musician plays a multitude of instruments in a multitude of ways: proudly, loudly, busily, dizzily. Absurd, witty illustrations in bold, simple shapes and dazzlingly bright colors accompany the rhythmic text; the combination is somehow mesmerizing. (Adults will also notice some amusing surprises, such as an all-pig version of a well-known painting.) Nothing makes much sense, nor does it need to: this book plays the reader's imagination as wildly as the maestro plays his instruments.

Monsieur Eek by David Ives. HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-029529-5) $15.95; HarperTrophy, 2003 (0-06-447301-5) $5.99 pb

When I read that this story was set in a town called "MacOongafoondsen," I had an uneasy feeling that it was going to be pretty heavy on the whimsy. Luckily, the silliness is well leavened with humor, satire and some kindly and heroic characters.

MacOnngafoondsen in 1609 is an isolated town with a population of just 21 people, including Barbara the Carpenter and Luigi the Carpenter's Husband, Akmed the Cobbler and his wife Peaches (think about it), fifteen-year-old Flurp the Town Fool (who in the classic tradition of town fools, is one of the smartest people in town), and thirteen-year-old Emmaline Perth, who wishes she could see some of the outside world--where there are cities with over a thousand people in them!--and most of all, wants to do something significant someday.

Her chance comes when a ship washes ashore, carrying no passengers except a small, naked, extremely hairy creature, who says nothing but "Eek!" The town's mayor and bailiff (who have agendas of their own), immediately conclude that he is a Frenchman and a spy, to be "given a fair trial, found guilty, and shot until you are dead." And so Emmaline finally finds something significant to do: she will be Monsieur Eek's lawyer. And with the help of Flurp--and of another unexpected arrival to town--she will make MacOnngafoondsen a different and better place.

Filled with amusing minor anachronisms--the differing town factions put bumper stickers on horse carts reading "EEK OUT!" and "EEK'S A GEEK!"--and running gags--"What curious habits that French have," says Emmaline, describing Monsieur Eek's tendency to hang upside down from the rafters--the satire and humor of this book aren't particularly subtle, but it rarely feels heavy-handed. And though it's fun for readers to be in on the joke, the laughs are never mean.

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-216705-6) $17.00; 2004 (0-15-205310-7) $8.95 pb

Word-loving Mattie Gokey longs for college and a life as a writer, but the threads tieing her to her home town seem to get stronger every day. There's the endless battle against poverty on her father's farm. There's Royal, who has no use for books or conversation, but whose physical presence haunts her. And there's the sacred promise she made to her dead mother, to take care of her sisters. Mattie feels as trapped as an ant in pitch. But when a strange young woman entrusts Mattie with her love letters, and is later found drowned, Mattie discovers that some traps--and some promises--have to be broken. Inspired by true events and actual letters, A Northern Light brings the beauty of insight and hope to its evocative portrayal of the often harsh, crude and heartbreaking world of rural poverty in 1906.

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde. Houghton Mifflin, 2000 (0-618-05523-1)$15.00; Scholastic, 2002 (0-4393-0529-2) $4.99 pb

The "Rumpelstiltskin" problem is this: it makes no sense. As the author's note explains, the story is pretty much nonsense from beginning to end. (How this makes it different from most other fairy tales, I don't know, but never mind that.) So this book of short stories shows six different ways the story might go if you applied some logic to it; in one of the most amusing, the whole straw-into-gold boast is the start of a clever scheme to trick a king into marriage. (The miller's daughter in question "spins" straw into gold that looks suspiciously like the castle's gold fixtures.) There's a bit of redundancy to the stories, but on the whole they're different enough to be entertaining, whether they're farcical or romantic. An enjoyable light read.

Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. 1988; Harcourt, 2003 (0-15-204615-1) $17.00; 2004 (0-15-205300-X) $6.95 pb

A Regency England in which magic is commonplace is the setting for this lighthearted romp. Separated during Kate's London Season, cousins Cecelia and Kate accidentally run afoul of several wicked magic-doers, causing many hair-raising adventures, which they faithfully detail to each other in their frequent letters. The convoluted, action-filled plot is not always ideally suited to the epistolary format, but the tone is generally amusing. I can't imagine why, having quite reasonably decided to reprint this as a book for young adults, the publishers gave it such a dreary, albeit historically accurate, cover.

The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price. HarperCollins, 2000 (0-06-028959-7) $17.95; Eos, 2003 (0-06-447236-1) $6.99 pb

In the not-too-distant future--some unspecified time in the 21st Century--a machine has been invented, a tube that carries people between the "21st side" and the "16th side." Moreover, the 16th century it reaches is not the 16th century of this dimension, but merely of a very similar one, so that the 21st side need have no concerns about causing paradoxes or changing history. It's a situation ripe for exploitation--which is exactly what the polluted, resource-depleted 21st century has in mind. But there's one hitch: the Sterkarm clan, a band of 16th century marauders who stubbornly refuse to play by 21st century rules, even after Per Sterkarm from the 16th and Andrea, an anthropologist from the 21st, fall in love.

This unsparingly unsentimental romance is a constantly surprising and thoroughly convincing look at what "culture clash" really means. Price creates her worlds and characters with great honesty, showing that while Andrea and the Sterkarms may connect on a physical and emotional level, their minds are literally centuries apart. Although the premise brings to mind books such as Diana Gabaldon's enchanting Outlander series, The Sterkarm Handshake is a very different experience, one readers may appreciate less for its romantic qualities but more for its authenticity, plausibility and insight.

Growing a Reader: Children's Books for Children

Big Brown Bear written and illustrated by David McPhail. Green Light Readers, 1999 (0-15-201999-5) $3.95 pb

Bear is trying to pain a treehouse, but the antics of Little Bear quickly turn him from a big brown bear to a big blue mess. This early reader has it all: rhyme, repetition, colors, opposites, all combined into a fun and funny story. My only quibble is that it ends too abruptly: I want more!

Eddie the Raccoon by Catherine Friend. Illustrated by Wong Herbert Yee. Candlewick, 2004 (0-7636-2331-8) $12.99

This otherwise unmemorable early reader is enlivened by the character of "Big Chicken," an enormous chicken in a housecoat and purple boats who somehow has the air of a ticked-off, cross-dressing bouncer. Eddie twice runs afoul of Big Chicken and no one will be surprised when he is thoroughly chastened by the experiences. Aside from that, this is a collection of four very short stories about a mischevious boy raccoon, with some pleasant silliness and plenty of word repetition for beginning readers. (3-6)

The Everything Book written and illustrated by Denise Fleming. Henry Holt, 2000; 2004 (0-8050-7709-X) $6.95 board book

For babies who want variety, this book, now available in board format, does indeed offer just about everything. Numbers, letters, seasons, body parts--just about any concept you might expect--are all illustrated with the casual pizazz of Fleming's vividly colored dyed-pulp paintings. There's plenty to look at and talk about as you share this book with a young child. (6 months-18 months)

Omar on Ice written and illustrated by Maryann Kovalski. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1999 1-55041-507-7) $13.95; 1999 (1-55041-783-5) $5.95 pb

Omar, a bear who loves pictures, is miserable when his teacher thinks that his drawing of his mother is a rock. "I'm just a bad artist," he says, throwing his drawing away. But when the class goes out for a skate, athletic Omar comes into his own, twirling and leaping--and discovers there's more than one way to create a beautiful picture. This book gives a fun surprise twist to a familiar story and illustrates it with some joyous scenes of Omar dancing on the ice. The rest of the light-hued illustrations are more of a mixed-bag: there are some funny bear-as-human touches, but the befrilled and beribboned female characters--apparently only male bears can go bare--look obtrusive and clunky next to the liveliness and grace of Omar skating.

Robots Everywhere by Denny Hebson. Illustrations by Todd Hoffman. Walker, 2004 (0-8027-8892-0) $15.95

Pun-haters should run a mile from this book, but it never fails to bring a grin to my face. Short, effective two-line rhymes describe a marvelous world of robots, very much like our own, only oilier: from "Robot kids with metal trikes" to "Robot teens with metal spikes." The text is perfectly matched by the illustrations, which find every possible pun or allusion: shakers are marked S&P for "silver" and "pewter," a robot drinks "Coila" at the movies, and a suburban sign warns "Beware of Cog." Although filled with gears, cogs and gizmos, the pictures are so well-defined and uncrowded, and the big-eyed robots so friendly and familiar, that most young children won't find them overwhelming. (3-8/5-8)

We Just Moved! by Stephen Krensky. Illustrated by Larry DiFiori. Scholastic, 1998 (0-590-33127-2) $3.99 pb

Whimsical, unexpected illustrations give a delightful twist to this familiar story about a common childhood situation. As a young boy talks about moving to a new house, we see that his former house was a castle, and that packing involved putting lots of armour in wagons, while bringing the family pets meant taking alligators out of the moat. The new house, the boy tells us, has a nice view (from the towers), a modern kitchen (a kettle burning over a huge fire) and some nice new neighbors (giants). The juxtaposition of the straightforward text and the drawings is very funny, yet also accurately conveys a sense of the mixed, unsettled feelings moving often brings. But the mood is generally positive, and by the end of the book, the new house is "starting to feel like home"--perhaps made more cozy by the friendly ghosts that are curled up on the floor by the boy's bed. (4-7/5-7)

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