March 08, 2007


My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me about Life, Love, and Laughing Out Loud. By Kevin Clash, with Gary Brozek. Broadway Books. $19.95.

Capital! Washington D.C. from A to Z. By Laura Krauss Melmed. Illustrated by Frané Lessac. Collins. $6.99.

      One of the wonderful things about books is the places they can take you. In the case of books for children, they can take young readers to lands never before seen or imagined – or can bring faraway parts of the world closer – or can provide insight into something that only seems to be familiar because it appears so often on television.

      The difficulty with the generally endearing My Life as a Furry Red Monster is that it is never clear whether children or adults are Kevin Clash’s book audience. Based on the title and much of the writing style (a style that is perhaps Gary Brozek’s rather than Clash’s), this seems a book written for adults. But then it would be for adults who have the very small children who are Elmo’s greatest fans – and do those adults really want all the background detail here? As for kids, will the behind-the-scenes discussions of how Clash became the manipulator of the Elmo Muppet, and of his interaction with others involved in Sesame Street, really be interesting? The book reads like a work in search of an audience.

      It does have its pleasures, though, with Clash bringing in Elmo references as often as possible – his mother, for example, “gave love generously, just the way Elmo does.” There are occasional almost-gritty scenes: Clash’s brother, George Jr., had “a willfulness and devil-may-care attitude that got him into hot water more than once,” including with alcohol. Clash is careful, though, to make this tale funny and uplifting: George passed out once at a party, but a particularly strong neighborhood girl, who “was over the moon pining” for him, “simply hefted him over her shoulder and carried him across the rain-slick fields and streets of our neighborhood to get him back to our house, managing to keep George’s beloved suit spotless.” Even societal troubles get a nonthreatening turn, as when the family, driving in Baltimore during the 1968 race riots there, hears a loud and threatening popping sound – which turns out to be a cork popping out of a champagne bottle rolling around in the car.

      For most readers – whoever they may be – Clash’s words about Elmo are likely to be the most interesting. “Each time I put Elmo on my arm, I am drawing on the completely unconditional and nearly mystical connection I feel with my daughter,” he says. He talks about being six-foot-one and getting down to kids’ level so they can relate directly to Elmo. He discusses Elmo’s highly physical displays of affection and how they have to be modified, depending on whether a given child is hyper-enthusiastic or shy and withdrawn. And he takes readers backstage at Sesame Street, explaining how the lines between reality and make-believe are blurred for sections such as “Elmo’s World.” Clash comes across as a personable and committed actor and interpreter – but it remains unclear just whom the book is targeting.

      Capital! – originally published in 2003 and now available in paperback – is much clearer in its intentions: it is a child’s guide to Washington, D.C., and to the “inspirational sites” and “places of solemn importance” in it. Laura Krauss Melmed, who lives in the city, offers a brief introductory poem about each site (Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Embassy Row, Gallaudet University, Holocaust Memorial Museum – on the page facing the Islamic Center – and many more), plus small-print information on each location she profiles. The Jefferson Memorial gets quotations from Jefferson, such as, “I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.” The Pentagon page explains that 26,000 people work along its 17.5 miles of hallways. The Kennedy Center presentation notes that an eight-foot bronze bust of President Kennedy looks over the Grand Foyer. The alphabet motif gets a little strained – Q is “Q Street” in the Georgetown area, and X, Y and Z are all used in connection with the National Zoo (and specifically with the Amazonia exhibit, which is cheating…a little). But the overview of places within the nation’s capital is mostly pleasant. The gouache-paint illustrations by Frané Lessac are less so: not quite cartoonish, not quite realistic, they are interesting enough but not particularly striking. Still, for kids who have not been to Washington, D.C., Capital! may be a sufficiently intriguing introduction to make them want to see the city in person someday.

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