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. 2, June 1, 2001

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

Arthur's Nose written and illustrated by Marc Brown. 1976; Little, Brown, 2001 (0-316-11884-2) $15.95

It would be impossible to reprint this 25th anniversary edition of the first "Arthur" book without some commentary; the character of Arthur, so upset by his long aardvark nose in this book, is completely unrecognizable from the current Arthur, who, ironically, barely has a nose at all! So Brown has added some extra material, including some amusing juxtapositions of Brown's real family photos with Arthur's, and a pictorial history of "Arthur's Nose Through the Years." It's rather fascinating to ponder how tastes in children's book illustration have changed over time; I have to admit mine lie with the more anthropomorphic but less cartoony mid-period Arthur of the 1980's; the original Arthur is too crude and the current one has lost almost any resemblance to an animal at all.

Aunt Flossie's Hats (and Crab Cakes Later) by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard. Illustrated by James Ransome. Clarion, 2001 (0-618-12038-6) $16.00

Fans won't want to miss the 10th anniversary edition of this nostalgic family story, which includes an author's afterword telling the history of the real Aunt Flossie, illustrated with numerous family photographs. It's a little sad to learn that she didn't live to see the book published but Howard notes: "I had read her the story... and she liked it. She would be amazed to know that people all over the United States know her name and know about her hats!"

New Books: Reviews

The Autobiography of Meatball Finkelstein by Ross Venokur. Delacorte, 2001 (0-385-32798-6) $14.95

It's hard enough being a fat kid, but when you're a fat, vegetarian kid named Meatball, bullies really see you coming. But when "world-class, award-winning bully" Rufus Delaney forces Meatball Finkelstein to become a cannibal, Meatball discovers that eating meatballs gives him a super power--one that might just foil a dastardly plot against kids everywhere, saves his parents' health food store, get the girl, and even put Rufus in his place once and for all. A very likeable first-person narrative keeps this story fresh, although its blend of wry humor and whimsical fantasy doesn't always mesh well. Or perhaps I just enjoy wry humor more than whimsical fantasy.

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

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 impression of the book is upbeat and fun.

My Really Cool Baby Book written and illustrated by Todd Parker. Little, Brown, 2001 (0-316-60365-1) $14.95

A deliberate departure from the dreamily sentimental world of most baby books, this book is meant for the baby too--when it's a bit older. Boldly outlined and brightly colored board book-style pictures surround fill-in boxes that let parents keep track of whether a baby was born in a hospital, at home, in an elevator or even on another planet; another page commemorates special occasions like first smile, first tooth and first burp. Less traditional families will also appreciate a page for adoption info and a page for family members that includes stepfamily. The humor and simplicity of this book will encourage parents to keep it filled and someday delight its original subject.

Ride written and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. Silver Whistle/Harcourt, 2001 (0-15-202682-7) $16.00

Pastel and watercolor illustrations with a 1930's feel take an unexpected turn in this picture book--as does the plot--when two grumpy siblings stuck together in the back of the car find their battle taking them to unexpected heights--like one blasting the other off into outer space. The splotchy, multicolored pictures get wilder by the page, as the kids turn into bugs, dinosaurs and "your sister the twister." Visually fascinating.

Squire ("Protector of the Small" #3) by Tamora Pierce. Random, 2001 (0-679-88916-7) $15.95

In the third book in the "Protector of the Small" series, Keladry struggles to prove herself as a squire and win her knight's shield, despite menacing conservative opposition and the distraction of her first experiences with sex. Although less narratively solid then the first book, this is an absorbing, surprisingly down-to-earth magical adventure.

The Wizard's Dilemma by Diane Duane. Harcourt, 2001 (0-15-202551-0) $17.00

As the fifth book in this series opens, things have taken a rather depressing turn in Nita and Kit's wizard partnership; although no longer separated geographically, they now seem to have trouble connecting, with difficult issues of age, sex, and what other people think clouding their once-strong bond. When trouble arises over the correct way to do a spell, Kit finds himself on an off-universe assignment partnered with his dog; meanwhile, Nita is forced to face one of the biggest challenges of any person's life--which will turn out to be the biggest challenge of any wizard's life--at a time when she is particularly alone and vulnerable.

Concentrating heavily both on internal feelings and conflicts and on external adventures, much of The Wizard's Dilemma winds up giving short shrift to both. The lack of a genuine narrative connection between the subplots gives the book a slow, overstuffed feeling, and though filled with magic, it's not very magical. Once it really gets moving though, the story is increasingly powerful and gripping, with a payoff worthy of the best of the series.

New Books: News

On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God by Louise Rennison. HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-028813-2) $15.95

Sequel to Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine. HarperCollins, 2001 (0-0602-9315-2) $15.95

A new fantasy by the author of Newbery Honor book Ella Enchanted and "the Princess Tales" series.

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Broken Chords by Barbara Snow Gilbert. Front Street, 1998 (1-886910-23-5) $15.95; Laurel-Leaf, 2001 (0-440-22887-5) $5.50 pb

The process of finding out what we truly love is one of the most important parts of discovering who we truly are--but sometimes finding out what we don't love is just as important. This thoughtful novel offers a sincere, accessible look at what it means to be an artist and what it means to be yourself.

They never use the word "prodigy" in her house, but the fact is that Clara (named for pianist Clara Schumann) has been studying piano since she first climbed on the piano bench at the age of three, and started playing Mozart's "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star theme." Now, at seventeen, she is just weeks away from the final of the Nicklaus competition; winning will mean a scholarship to Juilliard, a debut concert, and almost certainly a career as a concert pianist. But even amid her preoccupation with the competition, Clara doesn't want to give up everything else in her life, sneaking out against her parents' orders to play a tiny part in a school production of "The Nutcracker." Then a slip during dance rehearsal makes Clara fall on her wrist, an injury that will stop her playing piano until just two weeks before the final.

With a big space in her schedule where lessons and three hours of practice a day used to be, Clara suddenly has time for new things: movies, her first football game--and Marshall, an attractive fellow competitor whose struggle to afford piano study has him living in his practice cubicle. As she sees the passion that drives Marshall to play, against all obstacles, Clara begins to wonder if something is lacking in herself. And for the first time, a terrifying, almost blasphemous thought drifts into her head: "Was this what ordinary life would be like? If she didn't play?"

Concentrating on the important relationships in Clara's life, with her demanding mother, her resentful little brother, the admiring Marshall and her loving but enigmatic piano teacher Tashi, Gilbert skillfully weaves many small threads into a solid thematic whole, showing how Clara begins to understand the important decision she has to make. Although the air of the story is often a touch ornate and romantic, with a mystic Russian folktale as an underlying motif, it is grounded in reality; the bittersweet ending is strong and satisfying, leaving us sure not only that Clara made the right decision, but that she made it for the right reasons.

The Coffin Quilt by Ann Rinaldi. Harcourt Brace, 1999; Gulliver, 2001 (0-15-216450-2) $6.00 pb

The feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, as related by the youngest of the McCoy family.

Harriet the Spy written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh. 1966; Dell Yearling, 2001 (0-440-41679-5) $5.99

One of the the best children's books ever written, once again available as it should be with the original cover illustration (although annoyingly marked as "the classic edition.")

Slot Machine by Chris Lynch. HarperCollins, 1995 (0-06-023584-5) $14.95; HarperTrophy, 2001 (0-06-447140-3) $5.95 pb

"If we don't have a slot for you, what are we going to do with you?" asks Brother Jackson, the head of the Christian Brothers Academy summer program. The brochure claims that their three week pre-school camp is a chance for incoming freshmen to have fun and to bond together, but as thirteen-year-old Elvin Bishop soon realizes, it's really an opportunity to push each newcomer into a sport--into their proper "slot" in the school. Fat and unathletic Elvin just doesn't seem to have a slot: "try as they might, they found me unmoldable. I retained my shape, such as it was." Football and baseball almost get him killed, and even when he really tries to get into wrestling, he just 'snŐt good enough. Shuffled from one humiliating activity to the next, Elvin takes out his misery in sublimely sarcastic letters home to his mother, finally breaking down enough to wonder: "What do I do? Where do I go? Is there a place for me? Will anyone be there when I get there?"

Often as brutally painful as it is funny, Slot Machine is a tough, energetic and ultimately very surprising look at a world in which boys and men are only valued for their athletic prowess. Even for the ones who seem made for that world, it can be a terrible place: through Elvin's golden-boy friend Frankie, determined to be accepted into the coolest group at the school despite an increasingly torturous and shocking initiation, we see just how far the need to fit in can take someone. But despite the heightening menace displayed by the camp towards those who can't be slotted, Elvin decides to opt out. "I had had enough. I didn't want to be bullied or instructed or improved in any way. I wanted a laugh. And I wasn't scared of anything anymore, except the fear that I might never laugh again." Finally down to the bottom of the slot barrel, Elvin discovers that there will always be a place for intelligence, kindness, creativity and humor, if you can save yourself from other people's expectations.

The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron. Illustrated by Ann Strugnell. 1981; Dell Yearling, 2001 (0-394-82892-5) $4.99; More Stories Julian Tells. Illustrated by Ann Strugnell. 1986; Dell Yearling, 2001 (0-394-82454-7) $4.99 pb; The Stories Huey Tells. Illustrated by Roberta Smith. 1995; Dell Yearling, 2001 (0-679-88559-5) $4.99 pb; More Stories Huey Tells. Illustrated by Lis Toft. 1997; Dell Yearling, 2001 (0-679-88363-0) $4.99 pb

Julian is a boy with a lot of imagination. Sometimes it makes life more interesting--and sometimes it makes life scary. Luckily Julian's family always finds a way to cope--especially his dad, whose own imagination always seems to find a way to make things right. These short family stories are written at around a second grade reading level, but they have a touch of poetry and magic that extends their appeal.

Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Jane Yolen. 1997; Magic Carpet, 2001 (0-15-216444-8) $6.00 pb

Twelve fantasy stories, including three new for this collection: "Tough Alice," in which Alice learns some new lessons in Wonderland, "The Bridge's Complaint," an unexpected perspective on the "Three Billy Goats Gruff" and "Lost Girls," in which feminism and fair labour practices are introduced to Neverland.

Wildflower ABC written and illustrated by Diana Pomeroy. Harcourt Brace, 1997 (0-15-201041-6) $15.00; Voyager, 2001 (0-15-202455-7) $6.00 pb

Adults who remember clumsy potato print pictures from their childhood will be astonished by this artistic tour-de-force, which combines potato prints and watercolor-like acrylic paints to create amazingly delicate and beautiful depictions of wildflowers. It's a gorgeous alphabet for plant-lovers, although the elegant, muted shades fail to convey the vibrance of flowers like nasturtiums and poppies. Notes at the end tell some of the facts and legends relating to the wildflowers

"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.

Happy Adoption Day by John McCutcheon. Illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Little, Brown, 1996 (0-316-55455-3) $15.95; 2001 (0-316-60323-6) $5.95 pb

This illustrated version of McCutcheon's joyful song shows a white couple happily preparing a nursery, flying over the ocean and bringing home a beaming, fat-cheeked Asian baby. While the text, which is written in the voice of the parents talking, assures the adopted child that "whatever you learn, whoever you know, you've still got a home in our hearts," the lively, childlike pictures show the new family sharing different activities, including an "Adoption Day" party shared with friends and family. Music for the song is included.

Although some of this book is charming, some elements of it made me quite uncomfortable. For one thing, the text implies that the child's life before being adopted is unimportant and should be forgotten. It also speaks of the adoptive parents as having "a choice," which could suggest the idea of children as a commodity. Perhaps most discomforting is the almost worshipful attitude towards the adopted child depicted by the illustrations, culminating in a picture which actually shows rays of light shooting from the child's face. (I can't help but wonder if there's a touch of sarcasm showing.) Overall, I think this is a book intended for--and most appropriate for--a very specific audience of adoptive families looking for a reassuring story, rather than for those wanting a general interest book about adoption. Among that audience, its warmth and positive spirit will almost certainly be welcome. (4-8)

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