celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2000 Wendy E. Betts. Reproduction for personal and non-commercial use is permitted only if this copyright notice is retained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission. Mail with comments or questions.

All reviews by Wendy Betts unless otherwise noted. For info and archives, see

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Vol. 8, No. 1, August 2000

Dear Readers,

This is the first issue of the retooled "Notes from the Windowsill." After seven years of reviewing children's books online, increasing burn-out convinced me that I needed to change what I was doing. I decided to concentrate on my strongest area of interest: adult readers of children's books and the kinds of books that they love. I especially want to let people know about old favorites that are still, or once again, available.

Because I'm still suffering a fair degree of burn-out--you can get amazingly tired of the sound of your own voice after seven years--this first issue contains more information than actual reviews, but I hope you'll be happy to find out about some of the treasures that are currently out there, as well as interesting new books. I welcome submissions and suggestions for future issues.

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

I think this is the best children's book news since Overlook Press started reprinting Walter Brooks' "Freddy the Pig" books: the "60th Anniversary Edition" of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy is to be followed by not only all the Betsy-Tacy books, but what Harper-Collins is calling "The Deep Valley" books, the hitherto impossible to find Winona's Pony Cart, Carney's House Party and Emily of Deep Valley. These stories about friends growing up around the turn of the last century are the best kind of cozy reading, full of warmth and child-sized adventure. The stories grow with the characters, taking them from children exploring the world around them and finding fun to young women discovering their unique personalities and finding romance.

Fans will be happy to see that the hideous caricature covers of the last paperback edition have been replaced with much more tasteful, if unexciting, paintings; more importantly, the original illustrations are included. Several of the books have forwards by contemporary authors and--much more interesting--bibliographic notes and photographs from the author's life, adapted from The Betsy-Tacy Companion by Sharla Scannell Whalen.

Currently available: Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace. Illustrated by Lois Lenski. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1940; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-06-440096-4) $5.95 pb. Betsy-Tacy and Tib. 1941; (0-06-440097-2). Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill. 1942; (0-06-440099-9). Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. 1943; (0-06-440098-0). Winona's Pony Cart. Illustrated by Vera Neville. 1953; (0-06-440860-4).

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. 1964; Henry Holt, 1999 (0-8050-6132-0) $17.95. The Black Cauldron. 1965; (0-8050-6131-2). The Castle of Llyr. 1966; (0-8050-6133-9). Taran Wanderer. 1967; (0-8050-6134-7). The High King. 1968; (0-8050-6135-5). . 1965; (0-8050-6130-4)

This is a collector's dream: hardcover editions of the "Prydain" books with the original interior maps and beautifully colored renditions of the original, mystical covers. The type has been reset, which I found oddly disturbing, but perhaps after I've read these as many times as the old editions I won't notice anymore.

Take Note: books of special interest to children's book enthusiasts

A Door Near Here by Heather Quarles. Delacorte, 1998 (0-385-32595-9) $13.95; Laurel-Leaf, 2000 (0-40-22761-5) $4.50 pb

"Dear CS... I was wondering if you could tell me where a secret door is from here to Narnia... I need to go to Narnia very bad, I think someone there can help my mom, she is sick."

For fifteen-year-old Katherine, reading the letter her little sister Alisa wrote to her favorite author, C.S. Lewis, is a painful wake-up call; she can no longer pretend that their mother's weeks long drinking binge isn't affecting the family. But it's very important to keep pretending to the outside world... because although she and siblings Tracey and Douglas could always go live with their father, Alisa isn't their father's child. And as Tracey says, "he wouldn't even take her to the museum."

Katherine, who loves to keep lists and makes plans, thinks that together the three of them can cope: "we still have a chance to keep everything normal. If we just handle things right, then nothing bad will happen." But events rapidly get beyond her control. Their mother is almost comatose, the food is running out, and when Katherine has to bring Alisa to school with her--she keeps running away to look for that secret door--the religion teacher, Mr. Dodgson, begins taking a very unwelcome interest in their family situation. Even worse, he seems to be encouraging Alisa in her belief that C.S. Lewis' character Aslan can save her mother. Clinging tighter to the veneer of normality the more fragile it becomes, Katherine becomes convinced that Mr. Dodgson is their enemy, and she strikes out to destroy his credibility--only to realize that she desperately needs his help.

Katherine's narrative, which reveals both her intelligence and her immaturity, has an authenticity that makes her sympathetic even when she's clearly running in the wrong directions. Her story is as gripping as an adventure, holding our interest through calamity after calamity, but everything builds so inevitably that the book never seeming episodic or melodramatic. Only the end perhaps falters, with the author, like many another problem novelist, having trouble reconciling probability with a desire to rescue her characters; on the other hand, the ending could be considered integral to an underlying theme of sacrificial forgiveness that comes straight out of the Narnia books.

You don't have to be fan of Narnia to appreciate A Door Near Here, or even to have read the books, but it will have its greatest resonance for those who understand how much Narnia and Aslan can mean to children, especially desperately unhappy children. The resolution of Alisa's obsession is especially powerful, leaving it for readers to decide whether Aslan's appearance in her life is fantasy or metaphor.

A Door Near Here was the winner of the 15th annual Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel.

Dear Genius: the Letters of Ursula Nordstrom edited by Leonard S. Marcus. HarperCollins, 1998 (0-06-023625-6) $22.95; 2000 (0-06-446235-8) $16.95 trade pb

She wrote only one book herself... but according to historian Leonard Marcus, Ursula Nordstrom was "the single most creative force for innovation in children's book publishing in the United States during the twentieth century." I'd say that this collection of letters easily proves his point.

The director of Harper's juvenile department from 1940 to 1973, Nordstrom was involved in the creation of many of the greatest books from that Golden Age of children's publishing: Charlotte's Web, Harriet the Spy, the "Little House" books, among countless others. As her letters show, her job went far beyond choosing the best books and gently rejecting those that didn't measure up ("If I can resist a book, I resist it," was her motto, one I wish more editors would employ.) She was also the person who cajoled depressed writers and convinced them to keep trying, who passionately discussed their work and helped them to improve it, who sought out just the right illustrators to make characters stay in our minds forever, who intelligently and compassionately answered complaints, and who generally did everything she could to make sure children got the more wonderful, alive, real books possible.

For anyone interested in children's literature, Dear Genius is utterly compelling as a collection of historical documents. So much of children's literature as we know it today had its roots in Nordstrom's work, in the way she fought to open doors and break new ground and to preserve artistic vision, as seen in this impassioned response to concerns about a controversial book:

"...I bleed at every pore when I read your plaintive statement to the Sales Manager: `I wonder if the book couldn't stand a little editing if it isn't too late." ...if we want to publish Ruth Krauss AND WE DO we have to publish 100% pure Krauss. She knows something we don't know... and most grown-ups don't know... I respect her instinct and her final judgements and when she decides that there is nothing more she can honestly do to a book I have to respect her knowledge and trust her. Because she is the one with talent--and I'm only someone who recognizes and loves creative talent."

Without Nordstrom, who often said she liked to publish "good books for bad children," many of the things we take for granted--even expect--in children's books today--innovative uses of language, unpretty illustrations, realistic depictions of "bad" behavior--might still be considered unpublishable. Her influence on the genre can't be calculated.

But there is a also special pleasure in reading Dear Genius for anyone who, like me, grew up with the children's literature that Nordstrom contributed so much to... it is a chance to read wise, witty,intimate comments about my favorite books from someone who loved them as much as I do.

Looking Back: a Book of Memories by Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin, 1998 (0-395-89543-X) $16.00; Delacorte, 2000 (0-385-32699-8) $12.95 trade pb

I don't remember ever enjoying an autobiography by a children's writer when I was a kid. They were often in the third person, sometimes fictionalized, always distant. And strangely enough, the writers never seemed to talk about what most interested me: The relationship between their lives and their books.

Autobiographies have improved a lot since then, but this one takes the prize as the book I would probably most have liked then, as well as being a book I love now. It's not the usual straightforward telling of events from childhood to adulthood; as Lowry writes, "It has no plot. It is about moment, memories, fragments, falsehoods and fantasies. It is about things that happened, which caused other things to happen, so that eventually stories emerged." Lowry, twice winner of the Newbery Medal for Number the Stars and The Giver (if I ruled the world, she would have won for Anastasia Krupnik), was lucky enough to be born into a family given to taking photographs. This book is based around those photographs, which are grouped together to suggest and illustrate stories from Lowry's life. The groupings are used to great effect; in several, Lowry juxtaposes a picture of herself with one of her mother taken at the same age, and imagines the conversation they might have had, if they could only have met when they were both twelve, or both eighteen. Another collection shows three of the Lowry family babies, all "with our faces folded up and our hands making a little church steeple because we haven't yet figured out how to wave or grab or poke or point." Perhaps the most affecting grouping shows Lowry's son Grey with his wife; the following year shows him with his barely toddling baby; the year after that shows his grave. Lowry again imagines talking to her dead mother, who had lost a daughter at almost the same age:

'What was it like for you?' I ask her. `How could you bear it?'

'It was a piece of my life ripped away,' she replies. `But I still had a family left. So I put one foot in front of the other and went on.'

'You looked ahead,' I said, knowing that's what I would have to do.

She nodded. And she smiled. 'But I looked back all the time, too.' she explained."

Lowry introduces each grouping with an evocative title and a quote from one of her books, tying them together and showing how her own emotions were expressed in her stories. She also writes about the incidents in her books that came directly from her own life, like deciding to change her "stodgy, dull, and completely unromantic" name for a while, just as her character Enid Crowley in Taking Care of Terrific later would. Anyone who loves Lowry's work will be intrigued by this look at the author's heart. But even those who have never read another word by her could love this book, as an honest, poignant, wryly funny look back, on a thoroughly-lived life.

Reprints: Reviews

Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary. Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. Morrow, 1983 (0-688-02405-X); Avon Camelot, 1994 (0-380-70958-9) $4.99 pb; Strider by Beverly Cleary. Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. Morrow, 1991 (0-688-0900-9) $13.95; Avon Camelot, 1992 (0-380-71236-9) $4.99

(Reprinted with permission from The WEB: Celebrating Children's Literature)

It's a little embarrassing to admit that I just read the decade-old Newbery winner Dear Mr. Henshaw for the first time. To be honest, Beverly Cleary is not an author that stayed with me - I enjoyed her books as a child but I quickly outgrew them. Perhaps I should take another look, because Dear Mr. Henshaw is wonderful. It's unusually serious for a Cleary book, a deeply felt story simply told.

As a second-grader, Leigh Botts writes a fan letter to author Boyd Henshaw about his "book about the dog. It was funny. We licked it." When Leigh is in sixth grade, writing as a fan becomes something more when he sends Mr. Henshaw a long list of questions about being a writer and Mr. Henshaw responds with a list for Leigh to answer, about who he is and what his life is like. Leigh's initially-begrudging answers, about his parents' recent divorce, the loss of his beloved dog and being a new kid in a strange school, reveal to us that he is a very sad and lonely boy. And as he continues to write, switching from letters to a diary, he discovers that it helps to be able to express how he really feels.

Mr. Henshaw is not really a character in the book--Cleary, no fool, makes it very clear that as a working writer he doesn't have the time for lengthy correspondence with Leigh--but he serves his purpose: The narrative device in Dear Mr. Henshaw, in which Leigh's self-expression also tells us his story, is a great device if it's done right, and it is. Leigh's voice is totally believable and hearing his story told simply and directly only adds to its emotional impact.


It's not uncommon for children's book writers who have created a particularly unhappy character to come back to that character, many years later, and write them a happier story. Marilyn Sachs followed up The Bears' House with Fran Ellen's House; Harry Mazer took the boy in The War on Villa Street and gave him The Girl of His Dreams. Perhaps it's just too hard for authors to live with having created unhappy children and given them no rescue, especially in a field which traditionally specializes in happy endings.

Unfortunately, the result is often a much weaker book, and Strider, the sequel to Dear Mr. Henshaw, is no exception. It's quite enjoyable, with some interesting follow-up on Leigh's relationships with his mother and father, but it doesn't have the special quality that made Dear Mr. Henshaw outstanding. It also seems to stack the deck almost too much in Leigh's favor this time, as if Cleary felt obligated to make amends to him--by the end, you're practically expecting him to win the lottery and be elected President. On the whole, though, it added to my appreciation of the first book, rather than detracting from it, so I would recommend it.

Editor's note: These editions are reprints of the original paperbacks, with the same covers and illustrations. I believe they are also identical to the hardcover editions.

Glinda of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Illustrated by John R. Neill. 1919; Books of Wonder, 2000 (0-688-14978-2) $21.95

In the final Oz book written by Baum, Ozma and Dorothy travel to a remote corner of Oz in order to stop a war between two magic-using powers, the Flatheads and the Skeezers. When the two little girls are trapped in a magically submerged island, the good Sorceress Glinda and all of Ozma's most wise and trusted friends must try to find a way to save them.

I want to be kind to Glinda of Oz because it was my very first Oz book. And in some ways it's not at all a bad place to start, with introductions to many of the classic characters like The Scarecrow, The Patchwork Girl and Tik-Tok, and discussions of the history and magical rules of the fairyland Oz. (Baum appears to be at least trying, albeit hopelessly, for consistency within the series.) But the book is pretty low-key, with much told by narration that in other books was expressed with more verve through dialogue. It's a pleasant farewell, thankfully lacking the unpleasant tone of some of the later Oz books, but not offering much more.

O'Neill's drawings are as lively as ever though, so this attractive edition, with crisp reproductions of the black & white illustrations and twelve color plates, is certainly welcome.

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. Little Brown, 1990; 2000 (0-316-80906-3) $5.95 pb

(reviewed by Evan Hunt; reprinted with permission from The WEB: Celebrating Children's Literature)

I have never read another book quite like Maniac Magee, the richly deserving winner of the 1990 Newbery Medal. First off, it's not a story at all in the plain, conventional sense--it's a legend, a mythic tall tale of a larger-than-life folk hero. But it's also the story of a lonely, homeless boy in search of love and acceptance. The combination is so graceful, it's stunning.

Maniac Magee is an eleven-year-old orphan who, after years of living with an aunt and an uncle who never speak to one another, can longer stand it and runs away. He runs for a year, all over Pennsylvania, blindingly fast, until eventually he settles, more or less, in the suburban town of Two Mills--and becomes a legend among the children there to rival Paul Bunyan or the Lone Ranger.

He makes an excellent legend--rescuing children, performing astonishing feats of athletic prowess, kissing a buffalo, untying impossible knots. His miracles are scaled down to kids size, but since they're viewed through kids' eyes, they still seem plenty miraculous, and before long he's a hero to every little kid in town--and a thorn in the side of most of the bigger kids.

While all this is going on, Maniac the boy tries to find a home, but he never quite manages it, because the town itself is as divided as his aunt and uncle's house had been. The whites live on one side, the blacks live on the other, and no one will cross the line between the two--except Maniac, who doesn't understand why it should make a difference. He lives for a while with a black family, and for a while with a white family, and for a while he avoids both sides entirely, but in a town where everyone's place is preordained, a boy as different as Maniac can't be happy for long. So Maniac the legend sets out to change the town.

The book is beautifully written, in the simple, powerful language of a folk tale. It's honest, it's sad, it's joyous, it's often extremely funny. Most of all, it reminds a person what a family is, and why it's a good thing to have one.

Editor's note: the author of this review was particularly glad to see Maniac Magee reprinted with the original hardcover illustration of Maniac's running feet, having been aghast at editions which try to depict Maniac; in his view, "you should never see Maniac's face."

Reprints: News

Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken. 1964, 1966; Houghton Mifflin, 1999 (0-395-97128-4; 0-395-97185-3) $5.95 pb ea.

Attractive, quality editions of two of the "Dido Twite" adventures, with atmospheric cover art by Edward Gorey.

Edith and Mr. Bear written and photographed by Dare Wright. Random House, 1964; Houghton Mifflin, 2000 (0-618-04253-9) $6.95 pb

A picture book about a doll and a teddy bear, illustrated with photographs. A follow-up to The Lonely Doll, also recently reprinted by Houghton Mifflin.

Emily's Runaway Imagination by Beverly Cleary. Illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush. 1961; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-380-70923-6) $4.95 pb

A nice paperback edition with the original illustrations and a lively, comic line drawing on the cover.

Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary. Illustrated by Louis Darling. 1950; HarperCollins, 2000 (0-688-21385-5) $14.95

A hardcover reprint in honor of "50 Happy Years," with a new introduction by the author and the original cover and illustrations.

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards. 1974; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-06-440314-9) $4.95 pb

The "25th Anniversary Edition," with a new introduction by the author.

Mishmash; Mishmash and the Substitute Teacher by Molly Cone. Illustrated by Leonard Shortall. 1962; 1963; Houghton Mifflin, 2000 (0-618-05482-0; 0-618-05483-9) $4.95 each pb.

Quality editions with the original fifties-ish illustrations and new stylishly offbeat covers.

Mitch and Amy by Beverly Cleary. Illustrated by George Potter. William Morrow, 1967; Avon Camelot, 1991 (0-380-70925-2) $4.99 pb

The Monster Garden by Vivien Alcock. 1988; Houghton Mifflin, 2000 (0-618-00337-1) $4.95 pb

Paddington Takes to TV by Michael Bond. 1973; Houghton Mifflin, 2000 (0-395-91370-5)

Originally published in 1973 as Paddington's Blue Peter Story Book. Like the recent reprinting of A Bear Called Paddington, this is described as a revised edition, but I don't see much evidence of tampering: even the English spelling of words like Centre remains.

Socks by Beverly Cleary. Illustrated by Beatrice Darwin. William Morrow, 1973; Avon Camelot, 1990 (0-380-70926-0) $4.99 pb

New Books: Reviews

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan. HarperCollins, 2000 (0-06-028454-4) $15.95

In an evocative portrait of contemporary life in India, a girl named Koly describes how she survived the aftermath of a disastrous arranged marriage and became an independent and happy woman. Atmospheric details enhance a briskly told and absorbing story.

The Time Bike by Jane Langton. HarperCollins, 2000 (0-06-028437-4) $15.95

The sixth book about the Hall family is a disappointing muddle of themes from the previous books, particularly The Diamond in the Window and The Swing in the Summerhouse. Once again the Hall's foil an attempt (singularly implausible) by Mr. Preek and Miss Prawn to steal their home; once again Eddy's friend Oliver causes trouble by using a magic device and breaking it; once again the broken magic causes someone to be supernaturally stranded; once again, Eleanor learns (singularly implausibly) not to value conformity. None of that would really matter if anything else in the book made it worth reading, but though Langton's familiar plot elements are well represented, the qualities that make her books wonderful--loveable characters, charismatic language, glorious ideas--are sparse at best, making this a very tired and pointless rerun.

New Books: News

The Miserable Mill ("A Series of Unfortunate Events #4) by Lemony Snicket. HarperCollins, 2000 (0-06-440769-1) $8.95

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. Greenwillow, 2000 (0-688-17423-X) $15.95

Sequel to the Newbery Honor Book The Thief

Space Race by Sylvia Waugh. Delacorte, 2000 (0-385-32766-8) $15.95

A slight science fiction story by the author of the "Mennyms" series; unlike those books, this one strikes me as dull and unlikely to appeal to adult readers. Let me know if I'm wrong.

What Became of Her by M.E. Kerr. HarperCollins, 2000 (0-06-028435-8) $15.95

The latest novel by the author of Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! and Gentlehands, a bittersweet story about a boy's friendship with two misfits.

Everything Old is New Again: new editions of books widely available.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Introduced by E. L. Konigsburg. Scholastic Classics, 2000 (0-439-10137-9) $3.99 pb Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Introduced by Paula Danzinger.

These workaday paperback editions are enlivened by introductions from popular contemporary authors. Although I dislike the implication that these books have to seem "modern" in some way to be interesting to contemporary readers, I did enjoy the pairings, which seem to have been chosen with a certain wit: E.L. Konigsburg, author of several insightful looks at the lives of children of privilege, describes how the "insufferable" Sara Crewe became real to her when she realized that Sara had self-doubt; Paula Danzinger, the queen of the dysfunctional-family story, wistfully describes her longing for a family like the Marches and neighbors like the Laurences. The covers are bland and in the case of A Little Princess, a little creepy (a headless Sara shown holding a doll), but these are generally a good choice for an inexpensive classic library.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Illustrated by Sir John Tenniel. HarperFestival, 2000 (0-694-01454-0) $5.95 pb

The selling point of this "Charming Classic" is a cheap "white rabbit" charm on a chain, which looks more like the Disney version than the Tenniel illustration, but is undeniably cute. The illustrations are reproduced reasonably well and text seems to be complete.

"Leftovers": new editions of books originally reviewed in Notes from the Windowsill

Editor's note: Since many of these reviews weren't written with adult readers in mind, I have left in the original age recommendations.

Cat Tricks written and illustrated by Keith Baker. Harcourt Brace, 1997 (0-15-292857-X) $15.00; 2000 (0-15-202416-6) $7.00 pb

Baker's rich, luscious illustrations are at their most elaborate and eye-catching in this clever novelty book. Each page features a cuddly cat, sitting in a hat or snoozing on a windowseat--but turn the half-page and the pictures change completely: the hat becomes a ship the cat is sailing and the curtains become a waterfall, with the cat going over the edge. The surprises are captivating, although turning the pages to the right place is a bit tricky. A simple rhyming text encourages readers to guess what's coming up. (3-7)

Grandmother and I and Grandfather and I by Helen E. Buckley. Illustrated by Jan Ormerod. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1994 (0-688-12531-X;0-688-12533-6) $13.00 ea; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-688-17525-2; 0-688-17526-0) $5.95 pb, ea.

When the world of parents and big brothers and sisters becomes too fast and too hectic, that's when the children in these stories find that being with grandmother and grandfather is just right. Told from the viewpoint of a little boy in Grandfather and I and of a little girl in Grandmother and I, each book expresses a special kind of love and care a grandparent can give, whether it's going for a nice, slow walk with grandfather, where you can stop and look at things "just as long as we like," or having a comforting rock back and forth in grandmother's lap, in the big chair.

These beautifully crafted stories capture the feelings of the youngest child in a busy family, where quiet times and one-on-one attention is rare and treasured. Each story uses a comfortably repetitious, almost song-like rhythm, alternating with effective contrast between descriptions of everyday, stimulating family life, and repeated phrases that sum up the quiet happiness the children associate with being with grandmother and grandfather. Originally published in 1959 and 1961, the books have been reillustrated with exquisite line drawings, whose softly muted colors and gentle lines are in perfect sympathy with the text. Ormerod keeps an outstanding balance between familiarity and variety throughout the pictures, providing just enough visual action to hold the reader's interest. Simply ideal bedtime stories. (2-6)

Emma's Magic Winter by Jean Little. Illustrated by Jennifer Plecas. HarperCollins, 1998 (0-06-025389-4) $14.95; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-06-443706-X) $3.95 pb

A little imagination helps a shy girl named Emma make a new friend in this winning "I Can Read" book. When Emma meets her new neighbor Sally, she's totally at a loss for words. Then she sees Sally's snow boots, just the same as hers, and suddenly knows what to say: "My boots have magic powers... Your boots look just like mine. Are yours magic too?" Sure enough they are, and soon the magic of Emma and Sally's boots has made them best friends, and helped Emma overcome her shyness, too.

Written with warmth and understanding, Emma's Magic Winter can be enjoyed both by readers who take it at face value and those who understand the subtext. The lively pen & ink and watercolor illustrations are equally warm, giving the two girls a sort of coltish exuberance that expresses their joy at being together. (4-8)

The Killer's Cousin by Nancy Werlin. Delacorte, 1998 (0-385-32560-6) $15.95; Laurel-Leaf, 2000 (0-440-22751-8) $4.99

Acquitted of the murder of his girlfriend Emily, but still under a heavy burden of guilt, seventeen-year-old David Yaffe is sent to live with relatives to "get back on track" to normal life. It's hardly a normal household though: since the suicide of their eldest daughter, his aunt and uncle only speak to each other through their eleven year old daughter Lily, and Lily obviously relishes the situation and resents any interference. Something else is odd about the house, too: strange noises and shadows haunt his room, almost like a reminder of some female presence.

David's stay becomes more and more uncomfortable, as his aunt and uncle begin to thaw towards one another, setting off a vengeful, destructive fury in Lily. David is the only one who sees anything wrong, perhaps because only he really knows what children are capable of. "Greg and Emily and I had been kids too. Being under eighteen didn't mean you were innocent. Or harmless." As he begins to recognize the strange psychological kinship he has with his young cousin, David also realizes that the presence in his room is trying to give him a message: "help Lily." He is the only one who can understand Lily--but can he save her?

A compelling mix of problem novel and thriller, The Killer's Cousin explores a frightening truth: that when it comes to certain deeds, guilt or innocence are not only very indistinct concepts, but are almost irrelevant. Even the most unintended action can put a person across a line he never dreamed he could cross--and once that line is crossed, innocence is not enough. But as Werlin shows, in an ending that offers poignant surprises, even those trapped forever on the other side can find inner strength and hope for redemption. This is a powerfully touching and thought-provoking novel, hard to put down and impossible to forget.

Regular Guy by Sarah Weeks. HarperCollins, 1999 (0-06-028367-X) $14.95; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-06-440782-9) $4.95 pb

Twelve-year-old Guy is sure there's something fishy about his family. His mom tie-dyes all their underwear; his dad sucks oysters up his noise in public... there's no way these weird people could have produced a normal, regular kid like him. When he finds out that the weirdest kid in his class, Bob-o, has the same birthday as him, and was born in the same hospital, Guy is sure he's found the answer—especially since Bob-o's parents seem as normal as can be. But when he convinces their parents to let them switch lives, for a "homework assignment," he discovers that matching families up isn't that simple.

Regular Guy gets off to a shaky start, trying hard to sound cool and topical with dubious results. (Do kids really still say "Gross me out the door?" I can date that back to 1983.) But as the story progresses, Guy's voice becomes increasingly authentic and appealing, especially when he discovers that weird, yucky, nose-picking Bob-o has some pretty good qualities. The ending even manages to deliver a few surprises, as Guy begins to understand why Bob-o is the way he is, as well as developing the expected appreciation for his weird parents. A likeable and entertaining story. (8-12)

also now available: Guy Time by Sarah Weeks. HarperCollins, 2000 (0-06-028365-3) $14.95

The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman. Illustrated by Marla Frazee. Browndeer/Harcourt Brace, 1997 (0-15-200096-8) $15.00; 2000 (0-15-202440-9) $6.00 pb

Mrs. Peters and her husband love lots of kids... but as their family grows, so do her problems. Because every single one of the seven young Peters is an absolutely impossibly picky eater: Peter only likes warm milk, Lucy will only drink pink lemonade (homemade), Mac will only eat oatmeal--and if it has a single lump, he dumps it on the cat! Mrs. Peters is wearing herself to a frazzle cooking for them all. Then one day, all seven of the Peters children try to make their mom a birthday surprise of all the foods they love best--and the result is a wonderful dish that solves all their eating problems. This gleefully silly rhyming story is a delight for picky eaters and easy eaters alike, the only moral being that the whole family learns to help make their meals, and leave Mrs. Peters some time to play her cello. Crisp pen & ink and watercolor illustrations show a casual, comfortable-looking family in a home that reflects the realities of living with seven kids, with toys scattered around, laundry that sometimes piles up and bathroom doors that aren't always closed; the children's room, completely filled by two beds, two cribs, bunk beds and a loft, is a particularly funny touch. (4-8)

The Teddy Bears' Picnic illustrated by Bruce Whatley. HarperCollins, 1996 (0-06-027302-X) $14.95 book and tape; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-06-443655-1) $5.95 pb only

Even without the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman tape that came with the hardcover edition of this book, this is a delectable, slightly offbeat interpretation of the popular, slightly offbeat song. Whatley does his best to show "every bear that ever there was," including all kinds of soft, cuddly looking teddies--even a few wearing vests, beads and tie-dyed clothes, and a strangely familiar, chubby, guitar-playing bear that will bring tears to a few adult eyes. My favorite bear, however, may be the malevolent looking one that peers off the page to remind us "It's lovely down in the woods today/But safer to stay at home"--the song is always more fun when it's a little creepy. (3 & up)

3 NBs of Julian Drew by James M. Deem. Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (0-395-69453-1) $14.95; Harper Tempest, 2000 (0-380-81098-0) $6.95 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.

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