celebrating children's books loved by adult readers

Copyright 2001 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. 9, No. 1, February 2001

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

Betsy and the Great World; Betsy's Wedding; Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace. Illustrated by Vera Neville. HarperTrophy, 2001 (0-06-440545-1; 0-06-440544-3; 0-06-440858-2) $6.95 pb each.

The last of the eagerly awaited reprints of the complete Betsy-Tacy series.

Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl. Walker, 2001; 2003 (0-142509937-2) $6.99 trade pb

This poignant yet triumphant story examines powerful ideas about humanity through a beguiling blend of science fiction, fantasy and romance. A Newbery Honor winner.

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

Rocking Horse Land compiled by Naomi Lewis. Illustrated by Angela Barrett. Candlewick, 2000 (0-7636-0897-1) $19.95

This collection of sentimental and whimsical stories about toys includes E. Nesbit's "The Town in the Library," Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier and "The Memoirs of a London Doll by Mrs. Fairstar. A striking black & white silhouette accompanies the introduction to each story; the stories themselves are illustrated in delicate watercolor. Originally published in 1979 as The Silent Playmate.

Reprints: Reviews

Jean and Johnny; Fifteen; The Luckiest Girl; Sister of the Bride by Beverly Cleary. 1959; 1956; 1958; 1963; Avon Camelot, 2001 (0-380-72805-2; 0-380-72804-4; 0-380-72806-0; 0-380-72807-9) $4.95 pb

It's a pleasure to see such cleverly designed covers on these editions of Cleary's quartet of romance books: casual motifs of hearts and flowers, phones and malt shop hamburgers help readers enter the very 1950's world of the stories without being jarred by the contemporary covers usually forced upon them. Which may still leave them jarred by the stories themselves; in particular, the pathetically boy-crazy heroine of Fifteen seems more than a little creepy today. But though it's impossible not to wonder if these lightweight, dated stories would still be around if it wasn't for Cleary's name, she is such a good storyteller that there's still some pleasure in visiting their naive world.

Wagon Train 911 by Jamie Gilson. Lothrop, 1996 (0-688-14550-7) $15.00; HarperTrophy, 2001 (0-06-440988-0) $4.95 pb

Having to get "married" for the school "Wagons Out West" program is bad enough, but when Dinah--the tallest girl in the fifth grade--is paired off with Orin--the shortest boy--it seems like things couldnŐt get any worse. Until the newly wedded pair is stuck on a wagon train with some of the most obnoxious kids in class. "The biggest problem the pioneers had was getting along with each other," their teacher tells them, and the group quickly discovers itŐs true. But as the program goes on, and Dinah starts to enjoy OrinŐs smart, funny company, she finds herself feeling less like Dinah the Dinahsaurus, the girl who always makes faces and does funny walks, and more like Lydia Jones, the strong, capable pioneer woman she is portraying. Can she prove to her fellow pioneers that she can be a leader instead of a clown?

Lively yet sympathetic, this is a fast-moving, funny story that involves the reader from beginning to satisfyingly happy end. The details of the pioneer program are intriguing, and the different reactions from the participants--some finding it one big joke, others getting deeply involved in the pretense--are right on target.

I'm glad to see that this delightful book has scored its second paperback edition--and everyone who hated its original, realistic cover will be glad to see that it's been replaced by one that's exceptionally goofy.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Delacorte, 1995 (0-385-32175-9) $14.95; Dell Yearling, 1997 (0-440-41412-1) $4.99 pb; Laurel-Leaf, 2001 (0-440-22800-X) $5.99 pb

Definitely deserving--at the very least--its 1995 Newbery Honor, this is an unique and memorable book, a funny, sad and loving story about the power of family in the brightest and darkest times of life.

The Watsons--the Weird Watsons, as they sometimes get called, especially after Byron gets his lips frozen kissing his reflection in the car mirror--are Momma, Dad, Byron, Kenny and Joetta, a working-class black family suffering through the cold of Flint, Michigan in the early 1960Ős. Kenny is the narrator, an intelligent but unsophisticated "Poindexter"--read "nerd"--who describes with innocent humor his family's quirks, his troubles with bullies, and his love-hate relationship with his tough, sometimes brutal older brother Byron, who casually protects him when not busy tormenting him himself. Byron, having turned thirteen, is an "official teenage juvenile delinquent," and his parents are starting to find him uncontrollable. And so they decide to finally follow-up on their threat to take him to Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Alabama, a strict disciplinarian who "won't be putting up with any of that mess."

What awaits the Watsons in Birmingham? A small but devastating part in one of the most tragic, incomprehensible moments in American history; an event that will leave Kenny reeling from the unfairness of life and the sudden awareness of true evil. And when he is at his lowest ebb, hiding in the space behind the couch like a hurt animal waiting to heal, it is tough, seemingly heartless Byron that comes to his rescue.

Children's books that deal with heavy, painful subjects are commonplace these days, but what sets The Watsons apart is that most of the narrative is so lighthearted, with no forebodings in the text of the events of the end. Readers are unlikely to understand the significance of the title; I didn't make the connection myself until I saw the book's dedication to four girls who died very young, "the toll for one day in one city." But I don't think Curtis was aiming for shock value, which would just make the book annoying; rather, the contrast between the book's beginning and end emphasizes the incomprehensible swiftness with which life can change and our sense of security get ripped from us. The humor and lively characterizations of the narrative also make it far more pleasurable to read than most other children's books about tragic events, which are invariably almost unrelievedly sombre. Ending on a positive note, as Kenny realizes that he will always have the security of his family's love, The Watsons turns what could be a dirge into a celebration of what is good in life. (10 & up)

Reprints: News

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson. HarperTrophy, 2001 (0-06-447059-8) $5.95 pb

Winner of the Newbery Medal and unofficial winner for the title of children's book most hated by kids but loved by adults.

Other Bells for Us to Ring by Robert Cormier. Delacorte, 1990; Laurel-Leaf, 2000 (0-440-22862-X) $4.99 pb

A sombre homefront story set during World War II, by the late author of The Chocolate War and I am the Cheese.

New Books: Reviews

Cirque du Freak by Darren Shan. Little, Brown, 2001 (0-316-60340-6) $15.95

Darren and his best friend irrevocably enter a frightening world when they visit a mysterious freak show. Although it scored an impressive blurb from J.K. Rowling, the limp writing, shallow characterizations and disappointing cliff-hangers of this vampire story seem more likely to appeal to "Goosebumps" fans than those who like Harry Potter.

Pig and the Shrink by Pamela Todd. Delacorte, 1999 (0-440-41587-X) $4.50 pb

Tucker Harrison is sure he's found the perfect science fair project in Angelo Pighetti--"Pig"--a fat classmate who obviously needs some scientific help. But as he painfully discovers, an experimental human being has ideas--and feelings--of his own. A likeable story of friendship and self-acceptance, that makes up for what it lacks in plausibility and subtlety in humor and warmth.

New Books: News

Renir by Garth Nix. Scholastic, 2001 (0-439-17684-0) $4.99 pb

Book three of "The Seventh Tower" series.

A Snitch in the Snob Squad by Julie Anne Peters. Little, Brown, 2001 (0-316-70287-0) $14.95

Sequel to Revenge of the Snob Squad and Romance of the Snob Squad

Now in Paperback

Williwaw! by Tom Bodett. Knopf, 1999; 2000 (0-375-80687-3) $.99 pb An adventure story by the radio commentator.

"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.

Slump by Dave Jarzyna. Delacorte, 1999 (0-385-32618-1) $14.95; Dell Yearling, 2000 (0-440-41514-4) $4.50 pb

Thirteen-year-old Mitchie is the kind of guy who walks all the way to school, just because his house is one block outside the bus line. "Chuck says this is stupid. He says I should just walk to the closest bus stop... But I am a guy with strong convictions. If they don't want me on their stinking bus, then I'll proudly walk."

That pretty much sums up Mitchie's attitude towards life--which might explain why, when Couch Hendricks demoted him from starter to the third line for losing his temper, he quit the soccer team. Now, with his big dream of playing varsity soccer smashed, Mitchie finds everything else in his life going downhill too: his folks never seem to be home, he hardly talks with his brother Chuck anymore, and everyone he knows is getting fed up with his sarcasm and hostility. When he gets kicked out of math class, alienates his best friend and yells at his little sister all in one day, Mitchie knows he's hit rock bottom. It's time to find a way out of his slump and reconnect with his family and friends--and just maybe, with his dream.

This is an undemanding look at a situation a lot of readers will find familiar, with a reassuring message that it's often possible to move beyond mistakes, and that a change of attitude can go a long way. The first person narrative makes it easy to empathize with stubborn, opinionated Mitchie, to the point that the people in his life actually seem too hard on him; the sarcastic words of wisdom of his friend Annie get particularly grating. But the thematic threads of the story come satisfyingly together, especially when we learn the real reason behind Mitchie's ambition. This could be a good choice for teens reading below grade level. (8-12)

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