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. 5, December 2001

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

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Illustrated by DeLoss McGraw. HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-029150-8) $21.95

Carroll's dreamlike fantasy is here given a surreal and colorful new interpretation. Though still basically representational, the bright watercolors use odd shapes and splotches to make every picture seem distorted and startling. Alice herself seems dully drawn compared to the wonders around--and happening to--her, but I like the occasional touches that evoke the Victorian milieu of the story, such as the checked waistcoat and bow-tie of the white rabbit.

The Complete Adventures of Curious George written and illustrated by Margret and H.A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin, 2001 (0-618-16441-3) $30.00

This 60th anniversary edition is a huge, 422 page volume; in addition to the seven "Curious George" books, it includes.commentaries by Leonard Marcus and Anita Silvey, a collection of photographs, and, most interestingly, an illustrated retrospective essay about the Reys' work. It's quite fascinating to see other examples of the familiar style, including advertising art and sheet music.

My World by Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Clement Hurd. 1949; HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-024798-3) $15.95

This companion volume to the classic Goodnight Moon has some of the same qualities that make that book so special, particularly a tendency for the text to go in just slightly off-beat directions. The book is narrated by the little bunny from the first book, who talks about objects in his world, comparing his possesions to those of his parents. But as you might expect from a small child, the comparisons aren't clearly symmetrical, but also include whatever information happens to pop into the narrators head: "My spoon. Daddy's spoon. 'The moon belongs To the Man in the moon.'". It's a style that requires, and repays, intent reading aloud. But it's a little disappointing that the text and illustration don't mesh as perfectly here as in the first book; branching out from their cozy green room into a bigger world, Hurd's rabbit people look kind of uncomfortable.

Reprints: Reviews

Child of the Owl by Laurence Yep. HarperCollins, 1977; 2001 (0-06-440336-X) $6.95 pb

Casey Young, a twelve-year old Chinese-American girl, has always felt more American than Chinese. Traveling around with her father (a compulsive gambler trying to make it big), she's met people of every race and color and never felt out of place--until her father is injured and she's sent to live with her grandmother in San Francisco's Chinatown. Everything about Chinatown in 1965 is strange to Casey and everyone seems to despise her for her different background and her ignorance. Ironically, Casey's first real encounter with prejudice comes from people of her own race.

When Casey's grandmother, Paw Paw, tells her a family legend about an owl who lived as a woman, Casey sees it as a metaphor for feeling like an outsider, and for the first time she feels a connection to the heritage of her ancestors. As she learns to respect and love her grandmother, her sense of belonging grows; after a lifetime spent traveling, she has finally found a place where she can put down roots.

More than just a book about ethnicity, Child of the Owlis a story about why people belong together: the ties of love, and loyalty, and shared background.

In addition to Child of the Owl, HarperTrophy has reprinted four other books in the "Golden Mountain Chronicles" series, which follow the Young family back in time for several generations: Dragonwings (the 25th anniversary edition), Dragon's Gate, Mountain Light and The Serpent's Childrens.

The Jolly Postman; The Jolly Christmas Postman written and illustrated by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Little, Brown, 1986; 1991 (0-316-12644-6; 0-316-12715-9) $17.95 ea.

Offering some peeks beyond "happily ever after," these enchanting books let readers enjoy the mail exchanged by various fairy tale characters, as delivered by the Jolly Postman. In the first book, built-in envelopes contain Goldilocks' apology to the three bears, a postcard from Jack to the Giant, and a letter from "Meeny, Miny, Mo & Co., Attorneys at Law," threatening B.B. Wolf Esq. with several lawsuits. The second book is even more elaborate, with fairy-tale residents receiving fancy christmas cards and presents of a small jigsaw puzzle and a tiny book within a book (which, as the text points out, is also within a book!) The sprightly illustrations are filled with wonderful detail--the Giant offers the Jolly Postman a thimbleful of tea, while peering at the tiny postcard he holds between thumb and forefinger--and just about everything is worth looking at closely, including the stamps and postmarks on the envelopes

Oodles to Do With Loo-Loo and Boo written and illustrated by Dennis Roche. Houghton Mifflin, 2001 (0-618-15423-X) $9.95 pb

Subtitled "the Collected Art Adventures," this spiral-bound book combines two previous titles. Loo-Loo, Boo, and Art You Can Do is a very child-friendly instruction manual, in which a girl named Loo-Loo and her talking dog Boo explain how to create various kinds of art, including classic projects like potato prints and some more unusual suggestions like sculptures made from boxes, tubes and cans. The text is easy to follow and includes plenty of silly jokes as well as all the essential information; the bold, irregularly-shaped, child-like illustrations encourage readers to do their own thing, rather than copying someone else's examples. Art Around the World: Loo-Loo, Boo, and More Art You Can Do continues the creativity, with art projects inspired by different countries: Burial Masks from Peru, Mosaics from Italy and Rainsticks from Togo, among many others. This book can't be beat for bringing interest and fun to self-paced art instruction.

There's No Such Thing as a Dragon written and illustrated by Jack Kent. Golden Books, 1975; 2001 (0-307-10214-9) $9.95

After Billy Bixbee's mother tells him that there's no such thing as a dragon, she refuses to believe she could be wrong--even when the dragon Billy found in his room grows so big, it walks away with their house. Told in a completely matter-of-fact way--"When Mr. Bixbee came home for lunch, the first thing he noticed was that the house was gone"--this silly story is irresistible. The pen & ink and watercolor illustrations are similarly simple and familiar (Kent was a comic strip artists), but aptly express the various emotions of the Bixbee family, perfectly complementing the book's dry humor. Reprinted in standard picture book format.

Reprints: News

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. 1958; Houghton Mifflin, 1986 (0-618-15071-4) $4.95 pb

Babar and Father Christmas written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff. Random House, 1940; 2001 (0-375-81444-2) $15.95

A reprint of de Brunhoff's final "Babar" book. The copyright notes that this is a slightly altered edition, but does not specify the changes.

Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare. Illustrated by W.T. Mars. 1957; Houghton Mifflin, 2001 (0-618-15076-5) $6.95 pb

A historical romance based on the true account of a pioneer woman whose family was captured during an Indian raid and sold to the French in Montreal. By the Newbery award winning author of The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow. This is a good quality paperback edition.

Cowboy Small and The Little Farm written and illustrated by Lois Lenski. 1949; 1942; Random House, 2001 (0-375-81075-7; 0-375-81074-9) $11.95

Two more in a proposed series of fourteen reprints of Lenski's out-of-print books.

The Gingerbread Man illustrated by Bonnie and Bill Rutherford. Golden Books, 1963; 2001 (0-307-10681-0) $9.95

A cheerfully illustrated version of the classic cumulative tale. Reprinted in standard picture book format.

The Magicians Nephew by C.S. Lewis. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes. HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-623826-9) $24.95

A gorgeous hardcover edition with large print, hand-colored illustrations and full-color maps on the end pages. The second volume of the"deluxe edition" of the Narnia books.

Mishmash and the Big Fat Problem by Molly Cone. Illustrated by Leonard Shortall. 982; Houghton Mifflin, 2001 (0-618-07038-9) $4.95 pb

Third reprint in the "Mishmash" series.

A Necklace of Raindrops and Other Stories by Joan Aiken. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. 1968; Knopf, 2001 (0-375-80584-2) $15.95

This new edition of an early collection of Aiken's original fairy tales now features numerous jaunty black & white illustrations

Paddington at Work by Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. 1966; Houghton Mifflin, 1986 (0-618-11577-3) $15.00

The Ralph Mouse Collection by Beverly Cleary. HarperTrophy, 2001 (0-06-441004-8) $17.85

Boxed set of paperback editions of The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Runaway Ralph and Ralph S. Mouse.

Who Was that Masked Man, Anyway? by Avi. 1992; HarperTrophy, 2001 (0-380-72113-9) $4.95 pb

New Books: Reviews

Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence. Delacorte, 2001 (0-385-72924-3) $15.95

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.

New Books: News

The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket. HarperCollins, 2001 (0-06-440866-3) $9.95

The eighth in the "Series of Unfortunate Events."

Now (or Again) in Paperback

Christmas with Anne by L.M. Montgomery. Edited by Rea Wilmhurst. Delacorte, 1996 (0-385-32288-7) $16.95; Bantam, 2001 (0-553-57100-1) $4.99 pb

Good-will, generosity and forgiveness are the recurring themes of this collection of holiday stories from the author of Anne of Green Gables. Readers who appreciate MontgomeryÕs special blend of good sense and sentiment will find the Christmas background ideal for the cozy, old-fashioned spirit of these stories.

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. HarperTrophy, 2001 (0-380-73304-8) $6.95 pb

Sequel to the Newbery honor winner The Thief.

Gib and the Grey Ghost by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Delacorte, 2000; Dell Yearling, 2001 (0-440-41518-7) $4.99 pb

Sequel to Gib Rides Home.

"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.

Big Blue Whale by Nicola Davies. Illustrated by Nick Maland. Candlewick, 1997 (1-56402-895-X) $15.99; 2001 (0-7636-1080-1) $5.99 pb

This evocative picture book brings "the biggest creature that has ever lived on earth" close enough to seem like a friend. The text encourages readers to imagine what it's like to touch a blue whale or even look into its mouth; muted, delicately whimsical pen & ink and watercolor pictures strengthens a feeling of gentle intimacy with the enormous beast, without being at all anthropomorphic. (Well... a real blue whale might not actually let people stand on its lower lip to examine its baleen plates.) The simple facts about the blue whale are odd enough to be interesting anyway, but what makes this book really attractive is its atmosphere of respect and caring. (6-9)

Little Boy Blue; Wee Willie Winkle; Humpty Dumpty; Pussycat Pussycat selected by Iona Opie. Illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Candlewick, 1997 (0-7636-1629-X; 0-7636-1631-1; 0-7636-1628-1; 0-7636-1630-3) $4.99 each

Based on the delightful book My Very First Mother Goose, these board books make traditional nursery rhymes more accessible than ever. The cozy illustrations of animal-people are basically the same, with new, colored backgrounds that give them a warm air; although I actually prefer the lighter, less crowded feel of the original, which has lots of whitespace and big lettering, these smaller, sturdier books definitely have their place. These are an even smaller version of the previous board book editions (2-6)

On Christmas Day in the Morning illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Candlewick, 1999 (0-7636-0375-9) $15.95; 2001 (0-7636-1055-0) $5.99 pb

A different kind of Christmas carol, this cheerful old song tells of a group of animals tending their crops: on Christmas day, a pig went out to dig, a cow went out to plow, and a sparrow went out to harrow--here, shown whimsically pulling a harrowing machine as it flies. Eventually, every beast contributes to a Christmas feast. The rhythmic song is very easy to read or sing aloud, even if you don't know the tune (simple piano music is provided), and the watercolor pictures use an eye-catching technique: one page of each spread illustrates the text with a woodcut-like drawing of an animal, the other, in lively contrast, shows the animal in action on its farm. Sweet dresses the animals in medieval clothes and uses ancient symbols and motifs to honor the song's roots as a harvest ritual, although some modern-looking children sneak onto the last page. I'd like this book more if its creators didn't seem to be trying to find deep meaning in what's essentially a nonsense song--how can it be about seasons and circles when almost every action in it is so outrageously out of season?--but children won't mind or even notice. (2-6)

Owen Foote, Second Grade Strongman by Stephanie Greene. Illustrated by Dee DeRosa. Clarion, 1996 (0-395-72098-2) $14.95; 2001 (0-618-13054-3) $4.95 pb

"Parents always said things like that. They said names could never hurt you. But kids were smarter. They knew they could."

More than anything, Owen hates being short. His best friend Joseph says it's worse being fat, but Owen knows he's wrong: "Being small was practically the worst thing that could happen to you. Unless you were small, you couldn't understand." But when the most terrible day of the year arrives, height-and-weight-chart day, Owen is for once left unscathed by the nurse's booming remarks; it is Joseph who is publicly humiliated. Owen rushes to his friend's defense--and is suddenly in big, big trouble.

With believable depictions of childhood relationships and concerns, this warm and funny book gently conveys a positive message about size and character without ever losing its empathetic insight into childhood feelings. Owen's legitimate dread of height-and-weight-chart day will strike familiar chords in many readers, as will his difficulty in getting any adults to really understand his problem. I was a little unsatisfied by the conclusion, in which Mrs. Jackson agrees she shouldn't make personal remarks that everyone can hear; it doesn't seem to occur to anyone, including the author, that she shouldn't make them at all. But aside from that personal quibble, I found this to be a very likeable and encouraging story. (6-9)

Think of an Eel by Karen Wallace. Illustrated by Mike Bostock. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-180-7) $14.95; 2001 (0-7636-1522-6) $5. 99 pb

Gorgeously colored watercolor paintings and sparse but vivid writing make the eel a beautiful thing in this stunning book. The usual "Read and Wonder" hand-lettered notes work in counterpoint to the text, providing the factual basis for the poetic images.

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