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. 2, October 2000

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

No Pretty Pictures: a Child of War by Anita Lobel. Greenwillow, 1998 (0-685-15935-4) $16.00; (0380-73285-8) $4.99 pb

"I was born in Krakow, Poland. In a wrong place at a wrong time." These simple words begin illustrator Lobel's harrowing memoir of her childhood under Nazi rule, and I found myself remembering them throughout the book. They are the accepting, unashamed words of an adult--a far cry from the child she once was, facing a world of fear and loss painfully accompanied by shame.

For young Lobel, the invasion of Poland meant the gradual destruction of a comfortable, cosseted life. First her father disappeared, then the family goods were taken by the Nazis. When she and her brother were sent to the country with their Niania, their nanny, it was the beginning of years of being either a refugee or a prisoner, of years in which daily life was constantly being "reshaped" by external forces.

Using sometimes terribly vivid images, Lobel tells her story through the eyes of the child she once was, with memories of being disguised with a bandage so tight, it soon resulted in a genuine eye infection; of lying for hours in a hiding place so cramped and stifling, "we were like the contents of a boiling pot on the stove"; of waking up covered in diarrhea and having to desperately clean herself with her soiled clothes, knowing that the concentration camp hospital must be avoided at all costs. We see the anger and suspicion bred of her experiences, the sad distortion of her childhood--because how can childhood really exist when there are no caregivers?--and the pitiful self-hatred that haunted her, instilled by the anti-Jew prejudices of her loving but fanatical Niania, and heightened by the belief that none of this would have happened if she were not a "verfluchte, schmutzige Juden,". a dirty, filthy Jew. The main flaw in No Pretty Pictures is that this issue is left unresolved, leaving me to wonder if Lobel ever accepted being Jewish, or if she spent the rest of her life trying to put her ethnic heritage behind her. I would like to know more about how she grew from an angry, suspicious, ashamed child into the positive, unselfpitying adult she now is.

Even with this gap, the story is by no means purely tragic. As the prologue states: "I have spent many, many more years living well, occupied with doing happy and interesting things, than I spent ducking the Nazis or being a refugee." And despite the tile, the book manages to show at least one very pretty picture: a photograph of Lobel and her brother, joyously smiling at each other after their rescue from a concentration camp. It's a pertinent reminder that even such terrible events don't have to destroy lives forever, a message reinforced in the epilogue. "My life has been good," Lobel writes. "I want more."

Reprints: Reviews

The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes. Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. Harcourt Brace, 1960; (0-15-298572-7); 2000 (0-15-202604-5) $17.00

(reprinted in part from The WEB: Celebrating Children's Literature)

For everyone who needs a hardcover of this book --that is, everyone who doesn't already have one--this is one of the nicest editions I've seen since the original. I still miss Ardizzone's cover, which is a real beauty, but this new one is a nice change from the more serious covers of recent editions, depicting the witch characters in lively, comic watercolors. And as always, the important thing is that the original illustrations are still included.

Although it's not a "picture book," The Witch Family served much the same function as one for me, because I learned from it how to make pictures that went with stories. I don't remember many picture books from my childhood; even when very young I was more likely to concentrate on words. The Witch Family sent me on a drawing/storytelling binge that made up for lost time.

It's easy now to see why this book inspired so much creativity: pictures and stories are very powerful in The Witch Family. The heroine, Amy, loves to draw and also loves to hear stories about "Old Witch"; one day the two passions inevitably combine, as Amy decides to draw Old Witch banished to a glass hill as punishment for her wickedness. From that point on, Old Witch is real, and really banished, and the rest of the book is about her attempts to break out of Amy's control; meanwhile, Amy's increasing sympathy for Old Witch's loneliness results in the formation of an entire witch family, including Amy's counterpart, Little Witch Girl. Ardizzone's delicate yet vigorous pen & ink illustrations stand in place of Amy's drawings, showing us exactly what she wanted to convey in each memorable scene.

What gives Amy authority over Old Witch is never completely clear. It isn't exactly that anything she draws comes true; the blend of fantasy with reality is more complicated that that, especially when Amy steps into Old Witch's world and finds she has very little power there. But pictures are part of how Amy controls her world--or uses her imagination, from a more realistic, though less interesting, point of view. Amy's pictures let her tap into a fantasy and become part of it--even to make up rules about it. What a powerful idea that is! What an incredible plug for pictures and stories!

I can't think of a better book to give or read to a child (or adult) that you want to become enamored with art and literature. But don't choose it because of that; choose it because it's just too wonderful to miss.

Reprints: News

Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton. Illustrated by Erik Blegvad. Harcourt 1957; 2000 (0-15-202450-6) $17.00

Charmingly illustrated combined edition of The Magic Bed-Knob and its sequel in which three children have adventures transported by an enchanted bed. It's not noted but I suspect this book was edited somewhere along the line to remove any reference to skin color in an encounter with a band of "savage natives."

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. 1974; Laurel-Leaf, 2000 (0-440-94459-7) $5.50 pb; Beyond the Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. 1985; Laurel-Leaf, 2000 (0-440-90580-X) $5.50 pb; I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. 1977; Laurel-Leaf, 2000 (0-440-94060-5) $5.50 pb; After the First Death by Robert Cormier. 1979; Laurel-Leaf, 2000 (0-440-20835-1) $5.50 pb

Attractively atmospheric photo covers update these new editions of Cormier's intense and frightening YA novels.

by James Howe. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Atheneum, 1982,; Avon Camelot, 1983 (0-380-64543-2) $4.99 pb; by James Howe. Illustrated by Leslie Morrill. Atheneum 1983; Avon Camelot, 1984 (0-380-69054-3) $4.99 pb

Reprints of the original paperback editions of the first two sequels to Bunnicula.

The Mariah Delany Lending Library Disaster by Sheila Greenwald. 1977; Houghton Mifflin, 2000 (0-618-04929-0) $4.95 pb; Mariah Delany's Author-of-the-Month Club by Sheila Greenwald. 1990; Houghton Mifflin, 2000 (0-618-04928-2) $4.95 pb

Appealing stories, with pleasing new watercolor covers, about the successes and misadventures of a very enterprising girl.

Time Windows by Kathryn Reiss. Harcourt, 1991; 2000 (0-15-202399-2) $6.00 pb

An intriguing time-travel fantasy..

Welcome to the Grand View, Hannah! by Mindy Warshaw Skolsky. 1990; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-06-440785-3) $4.95 pb; You're the Best, Hannah! by Mindy Warshaw Skolsky. 1982; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-06-440846-9) $5.95 pb

These reprints of the books originally titled Hannah is a Palindrome and Hannah and the Best Father on Route 9W are warm and friendly stories, but less interesting and thematically sophisticated than the wonderful Love From Your Friend, Hannah.

New Books: Reviews

Pedro and Me written and illustrated by Judd Winick. Henry Holt, 2000 (0-8050-6403-6) $15.00

I started reading this graphic novel less than thrilled with the heavily detailed, semi-realistic style of the drawings, but when I got to Judd's exquisitely grumpy portrayal of himself as "an unhappy kid," I was hooked. And though there continued to be elements of the artistic style that I found unattractive, overall it is a wonderful marriage of words and pictures, just what a graphic novel should be.

Pedro and Me is the story of how Judd Winick become involved in one of the most important relationships of his life: as a cast member of MTV's "The Real World," he found himself rooming with Pedro Zamora, a gay, HIV-positive AIDS educator, who did an excellent job of educating the tense and naive Judd about the realities of living with someone with HIV. Tragically, that reality also included Pedro's death at the age of 22.

I've never seen "The Real World" so I don't have much of a sense of how "real" any of it actually felt to viewers. (Winick highlights the falseness of the situation from the insider point of view by showing his first meeting with Pam, who would later become his fiance, and then showing the same scene from a further perspective which includes three hovering cameramen.) But Pedro and Me is both joyfully and painfully real. Winick skillfully uses cartooning technique to drive home emotions, sometimes with humor, as in his nervous vision of the AIDS virus walking around on two legs saying "Mornin,'" and sometimes with extreme pathos, as in the final scene of Pedro's death, a small white box against a background of blackness. Biographies of himself and Pedro help us understand how the two of them got to that particular place in time, with an especially germane depiction of the adolescent Pedro willingly being used by older men for sex because he so desperately longed for love. Finally, Judd shows how several chance encounters with strangers helped him grieve for Pedro and understand how important Pedro's short life had been. And he amply fulfills the goal of making even people like me, who had never heard of Pedro, understand and be touched by him as well.

Some Things Are Scary by Florence Parry. Illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Candlewick, 2000 (0-7636-1222-7) $15.99

It's hard to imagine anyone else but Jules Feiffer illustrating this picture book--especially the last page, which could have come straight out of his comic strip. The insightful list of all kinds of things that are scary to a kid--getting hugged by someone you don't like, skating downhill when you haven't learned how to stop, finding out that your best friend has a best friend who isn't you--takes on genuine angst paired with the jittery, strangely-proportioned drawings. The images brilliantly evoke the feelings of different kinds of fear: "Thinking you're not going to be picked for either side is scary" shows the main character watching the shadows of supercilious giants; "telling a lie is scary" shows him with multiple desperately waving hands. And finally, "knowing you're going to grow up to be a grownup is scary" shows a picture of bewildered dissonance that people of any age can relate to.

The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price. HarperCollins, 2000 (0-06-028959-7) $17.95

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.

New Books: News

Boots and the Seven Leaguers by Jane Yolen. Harcourt, 2000 (0-15-202557-X) $17.00

A typical light YA novel--except that it's set in the land of Faerie. More casually written than Yolen's usual style.

Castle ("the Seventh Tower" #2) by Garth Nix. Scholastic 2000 (0-439-17683-2) $4.99 pb

The second in a paperback original series by the author of Sabriel.

Magic Can Be Murder by Vivian Vande Velde. Harcourt Brace, 2000 (0-15-202665-7) $17.00

A historical fantasy/murder mystery from the author of Dragon's Bait and Companions of the Night.

Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones. Greenwillow, 2000 (0-688-17898-7) $15.95

Sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm.

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

Dracula by Bram Stoker. Illustrated by Barry Moser. 1897; Books of Wonder, 2000 (0-688-13921-3) $21.95

This edition of the classic vampire tale is elegantly and atmospherically designed, but the carefully detailed engravings give an air of formality and distance to all but the most frightening illustrations.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri. HarperFestival, 2000 (0-694-01453-2) $5.95 pb

One of the "charming classics" series, this edition comes with a snowflake necklace.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Illustrated by S. Saelig Gallagher. Books of Wonder, 2000 (0-688-14582-5) $21.95

Quite different from the well-known Tasha Tudor version of The Secret Garden, this edition, illustrated with fourteen color plates, is an interesting visual take on the story of the Mary, Colin and the garden that transformed them. The illustrated scenes are particularly intense and the characters--even Mary at her most contrary--have a vulnerable and lonely look, which is more successful in the first part of the book than the second, happier part. Of course, so is the book itself.

Now in Paperback

A is for Aarrgh! by William J. Brooke. HarperCollins, 1999 (0-06-023393-1) $14.95; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-06-440889-2) $5.95 pb

In his four previous children's books, Brooke retold familiar folk tales as a way of exploring the meaning of story in people's lives. This, his first completely original work, goes a step further, taking a whimsical yet pointedly satirical look at the possible origins of language and how its discovery changed human life forever.

Brog and his fellow cavemen have a pretty simple way of communicating, which involves pointing, grunting, and tapping each other with clubs: "The translation of most conversations would have been something like this: 'Give me that.' "What? Ouch.' 'Give me that.' 'What? Ouch.' 'Give me that.' 'What?...' And so on." But Brog's son Mog, who is small and timid and not much of a hunter, prefers to make silly mouth noises, "even though it was very rude to start popping your lips at someone without even clubbing them hello." When the other cavemen realize that Mog's mouth noises have begun to have meaning for them, making them look up at the sun when the hear the sound "sun," language is on its way. But though language is very useful for things like organizing a hunt, it can also be used to create ideas that never existed before--and to the greedy, lazy, unscrupulous caveman Drog, those ideas spell POWER.

By showing how the simple naming of the sun can lead to Capitalism, consumerism, and the company store, Brooke reveals some funny, scary, and empowering truths about the nature of words, stories, and tribes. With its gentle irony, and simple but wise characters, this is reminiscent of Terry Pratchett's "Truckers" series.

Dangerous Games by Joan Aiken. Delacorte, 1999; Dell Yearling, 2000 (0-440-41593-4) $4. 99 pb

The latest book featuring Dido Twite of Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket.

The Face in the Mirror by Stephanie Tolan. 1998; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-380-73263-7) $4.95 pb

A ghost story with a theatrical setting, by the author of Who's There? and Welcome to the Ark.

"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.

A Creepy Countdown by Charlotte Huck. Illustrated by Jos. A. Smith. Greenwillow, 1998 (0-688-15460-3) $15.00; HarperTrophy, 2000 (0-688-17717-4) $5.95 pb

Finely etched scratchboard drawings, accentuated with startling bits of color, give a decidedly creepy atmosphere to this counting book. Counting from one to ten, it shows us chilling images of Halloween night, like one scarecrow frowning threateningly, three jack-o'-lanterns grimacing, and seven red-eyed ghosts arising from their graves. But when the countdown reaches ten, ten tiny mice, "feeling very brave," completely turn the tables on the scary creatures, who scurry away as quickly as they can. The unexpected routing of the menacing creatures makes the book both funny and empowering. (5-8)

Oops! written and illustrated by Colin McNaughton. Harcourt Brace, 1997 (0-15-201588-4) $14.00; Voyager, 2000 (0-15-202458-1) $6.00 pb

This follow-up to Suddenly! and Boo!? is "the same old story... Mr Wolf was very hungry, and Mr. Wolf had his eye on Preston Pig." But when Preston is sent to Granny's house with a red hood and a basket of food--'That reminds me of a story, but which one?' thinks Mr. Wolf--all of the wolf's cunning wolf tricks to trap him fail: the old "Banana Skin" ploy, the old "Dig-a-Deep-Pit" dodge, and even the old "If-All-Else-Fails-Bash-'Em-on-the Head-with-a-Big-Stick" plan. When Preston reaches Granny's house, Mr. Wolf suddenly remembers his part of the story, leaps through the window, ties Granny up and stuffs Preston in a sack. Unfortunately, he forget the ENDING of the story.... Oops!

With numerous fairy-tale allusions, and a wolf who talks to the audience--'Don't look at me like that... These stories would be pretty boring if I was good, wouldn't they?'--Oops! has a cartoony feel, and indeed, almost cries out for animation to bring its many slapsticky pratfalls to life. In book form they lose some of their impact, but some young readers may appreciate the slower pace. The jaunty watercolor illustrations are bright and funny--be sure to look at all the pictures--and the post-modern text allows readers to feel enjoyably sophisticated. Winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal. (5-10)

Sleep Rhymes Around the World edited by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by various artists. Boyds Mills, 1994 (1-56397-243-3) $16.95; Wordsong, 2000 (1-56397-923-3) $8.95 pb

"When I started to collect rhymes for this book--from books and from friends who had been brought up in countries all over the world--it was with a sense of recognition that I came to these poems. For even if I had never heard them before, they were familiar" Yolen writes in the introduction to this book. Indeed, this international collection--illustrated by native artists--shows that the soothing words of loving parents are pretty much the same everywhere, with recurrent images of a precious treasure being guarded as it sleeps. There are some differences that keep this book interesting though: a reminder to the child to protect his parents when they're old in a Finnish lullaby; a commentary on the importance of loyalty to country and parents in one from Korea. Many of the lullabies have a conspicuous note of impatience: "if this child doesn't sleep, what a night I'll have!" says one from Venezuela. This highly understandable element doesn't seem to be found much in the lullabies common in America; perhaps the strong element of violence we seem to favor is a form of passive-aggression.

Sleep Rhymes may be more interesting as multicultural literature than effective as a lullaby book: most of the poems donŐt translate that rhythmically, although a creative parent could probably adapt them for use. Original or transliterated version of the lullabies are included. The art, unsurprisingly, varies wildly in style; none of the pictures are particularly distinctive, but most capture the tone of the lullabies well.

Street Rhymes Around the World edited by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by various artists. Boyd Mills, 1994 (1-56397-243-3) $16.95; 2000 (1-56397-894-6) $9.95 pb. Reviewed by Marilyn Rowland.

A collection of 32 street rhymes from 17 Latin American, European, Asian, African and North American cultures, this book offers a wonderful array of bouncing ball rhymes and jump rope chants that will entertain children and adults. Rhymes are given in both English and the native language, and the accompanying illustrations show children in the act of playing games that go with the rhymes. A delightful feature of this book is that it has been illustrated by 17 illustrators, each native to the culture represented by the rhyme it portrays. The book not only enriches our repertoire of play rhymes, it also shows how much alike children's games are, all around the world. I would have liked to have seen a few words about the origins or meaning of each rhyme, to help make them a little more meaningful, but this is not a major complaint with the book. (4-8/6-10)

Sweet Dreams of the Wild by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Illustrated by Katharine Dodge. Boyds Mill, 1996 (1-56397-180-1) $15.95; Wordsong, 2000 (1-56397-924-1) $8.95 pb

Written with a lyrically soporific combination of gentle, cozy words and exquisite images of nature, this collection of connected poems looks at different animals and insects as they sleep. Whether "curled under the moon and cradled in green" or "bundling furry-deep down for a long winters nap," each animal cuddles up tight "with sweet dreams of the wild." Carefully detailed wildlife illustrations in color pencil make the book's understated anthropomorphism seem perfectly real and natural. This is a lovely bedtime book that will lull both listeners and readers. (3-6)

Two Badd Babies by Jeffie Ross Gordon. Illustrated by Chris L. Demarest. Boyds Mill, 1995 (1-878093-85-1) $14.95; 2000 (1-56397-895-4) $8.95 pb

Smiling with demonic glee, the two Badd babies rock and bounce and bounce and rock their baby bed all across town--to the Tasty Pastry Bakery Shoppe, to Greasy Jack's Hamburger Shack, and finally back to their very own home. This rollicking adventure will fill every reader with envy, as the carefree babies roll merrily down hills, sometimes flying off the back of their baby bed. To make things even better, their antics are rewarded with free goodies all around town. A fun, cartoonish exercise in wish-fulfillment, with lively, silly illustrations. (3 & up)

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