June 01, 2006


Mary Poppins from A to Z. By P.L. Travers. Drawings by Mary Shepard. Harcourt. $14.

Ugly Fish. By Kara LaReau. Illustrated by Scott Magoon. Harcourt. $16.

     Offbeat in very different ways, these two books – one a minor classic, the other an entirely new offering – are best for families that want to see the world from a just-so-slightly-skewed perspective.

     Mary Poppins from A to Z is, of course, one of the entries in the tales of the practically perfect British nanny, who was introduced in 1934.  This is a late addition to the Poppins world, originally published in 1962.  And it is a most unusual alphabet book, for every letter of the alphabet gets its very own full-page story – in each of which a single letter predominates.  The book is introduced by a page highlighting the letters in alphabetical order, and it ends with one highlighting them in reverse alphabetical order – a particularly nice touch.  The new Harcourt edition colorizes the original black-and-white illustrations, and while this may not be to everyone’s taste, it certainly makes the book seem more up-to-date – and makes the starting and ending pages, on which each featured letter is highlighted in color, more fun to read.  You do have to know the basic Mary Poppins story to understand everything going on here, but even kids who know the tale only through the wonderful 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke will be able to follow most of what is happening.  The real pleasure here is the writing.  Part of the page for F, for example, reads, “The Banks Family and their Faithful Friends are Frisking round a Fountain of Flame.”  The page for M begins, “M is for Michael and Mary Poppins.  They are coming home from the Market with Meat and Marmalade.”  The Q page – always a tough one in alphabet books – is a delight, reading, in part, “The Queen asks, ‘Why are Quinces yellow?  And do they Quench the thirst?  Does a hen,’ she Queries, ‘think it Quaint when ducklings say Quack-Quack?’”  Poppins fans should rejoice that this delightful volume is back in print.  Non-fans should become fans, quickly, and then enjoy the book.

     Ugly Fish is all the things that the Mary Poppins series is not: sly, cynical, quickly told and heavily dependent on some truly unusual illustrations.  A very modern fable whose not-so-happy ending may make it unsuitable for some of the children in the target age range of 3-7, Ugly Fish is the story of a really ugly fish who is also big and mean and not interested in sharing his tank and food with anyone.  New fish who try to make friends are…well…gobbled up.  But after a while, Ugly Fish starts to feel lonely all by himself, and decides to be nicer if he gets the chance to meet any other fish.  Unfortunately for him, the next fish plopped into the tank is Shiny Fish, who is even bigger and meaner than Ugly Fish.  The ending is definitely not the stuff of pleasant little stories.  As a matter of fact, Kara LaReau ends up making readers feel rather sorry for Ugly Fish, with the result that the end is sad instead of coming across as a lesson in being nice while you have the chance.  Parents may want to pre-read this book before sharing it with kids, especially younger or more sensitive ones.  One thing is for sure: everyone will enjoy Scott Magoon’s illustrations, in which Ugly Fish has a hugely underslung jaw and teeth sticking out both upwards and downwards – sort of a cross between a fish and a crocodile.  LaReau makes him endearing nevertheless – so be sure the ending works for your kids before you buy the book.

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