October 05, 2006


Steal Back the Mona Lisa! By Meghan McCarthy. Harcourt. $16.

Is There Really a Human Race? By Jamie Lee Curtis & Laura Cornell. HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Kids ages 4-8 can be heroes, too.  That’s the message of both these books – but they communicate it in very different ways.  Meghan McCarthy’s Steal Back the Mona Lisa! is very minimally based on the actual theft of the famous painting in 1911 (details are provided at the back).  The book is cast as a very funny secret-agent romp, in which “Secret Agent Jack” has to get the Mona Lisa back from “a few crooked crooks.”  The story is all about Jack overcoming obstacles and learning all the things he can do, at least in his own vivid imagination.  He is awakened one night by a flying old-fashioned radio, finds only brown suits and brown hats in his closet when he goes to get dressed, gets a special-agent watch that will help him out of a jam later, and finds that he can drive the fast car that’s waiting for him outside his home.  Then it’s a race to France to prevent the nefarious plot of the crooks, who intend to put a mustache on the Mona Lisa as soon as they can decide which design to use.  Crooks keep interfering with Jack’s plans, first dumping him in Russia rather than France and later poisoning his juice and kidnapping him, forcing him to “watch videos of chickens dancing – OVER and OVER again!”  But Jack escapes, catches the crooks, rescues Mona (who smiles at him), smuggles the painting back to the Louvre, and uses “secret methods too treacherous to mention” to get back home, safe and sound.  The book is fun throughout, and Jack always looks like a young boy who is in slightly over his head but comes through just fine – a great message for the children for whom the book is intended.

     Is There Really a Human Race? is clever, too, especially in its title and in a few of Laura Cornell’s illustrations: babies in hospital bassinets filled with sports equipment, and a “world yearbook” at the back featuring kids labeled “clog dancer and nuclear physicist,” “oatmeal factory,” and “medical aesthetics.”  The rhyming text by Jamie Lee Curtis starts out well, as a young boy asks his mother lots of questions about what “human race” means: “Is the race like a loop/ or an obstacle course?/ Am I a jockey,/ or am I a horse?”  The best of these questions is: “Why am I racing?  What am I winning?/ Does all of my running keep the world spinning?”  The mom’s response to her son, unfortunately, is not written nearly so cleverly – it’s rather insipid: “Sometimes it’s better not to go fast./ There are beautiful sights to be seen when you’re last.”  Still, the lathered-on inspirational message takes up only a small part of the book, and sensitive parents can reinterpret the words so they sound less preachy and more upbeat.  There are many better alternatives to such lines as, “Make friends and love well,/ bring art to this place.”  Despite the disappointing conclusion, this is a lovable book, its illustrations filled with activities done by people of all shapes, sizes, colors and costumes – including kids doing small heroic deeds, such as helping “save the park.”  The inclusiveness of the pictures and the occasional soft-pedaled sociopolitical messages (a man in Arab costume playing “go fish” with one dressed as a devout Jew) create plenty of opportunities to discuss the real meaning of “human race” with any young child.

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