When Ruby Tried to Grow Candy. By Valorie Fisher. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.
Bringing In the New Year. By Grace Lin. Knopf. $15.99.
Sometimes a wonderful adventure can lie just next door, or in the midst of a real-world celebration. Kids ages 4-8 will find When Ruby Tried to Grow Candy delicious, partly because of the surreal elements of the story (which is a bit like a leftover scene from Alice in Wonderland) and partly because Valorie Fisher illustrates it so delightfully with photo collages that also include drawn elements. The tale seems to be a mystery as it begins: what’s really going on in the peculiar house next to the everyday one where Ruby and her family live? It’s an odd place, to be sure, with crooked windows and a sloppily patched fence and gloom that seems to hang over it even when it is sunny at Ruby’s home. And this mysterious place belongs to a woman named Miss Wysterious. It’s all almost creepy – but not quite, as Ruby discovers when she climbs the fence in search of a ball she has lost. Miss Wysterious, it turns out, grows a very…special…garden, in which teacups, umbrellas and playing cards sprout from trees (part of the fun of the book lies in studying the pictures to find out just how much is going on). And although outwardly stern, Miss Wysterious gives Ruby a chance to try to grow something she really likes, such as…well, candy. “It doesn’t always work,” Miss Wysterious says. “Socks, for instance. Shoes grow like weeds, but I’ve never been able to sprout a sock.” Ruby, it turns out, has a natural affinity for this sort of magical gardening, and she and Miss Wysterious work very well together in a world in which the plants grow ever odder and the delights of the drawings become ever more intricate (be sure to check out the face of the sun, which changes as the book progresses).
Bringing In the New Year offers delights of a different kind. This is the tale of one family’s preparations for the Lunar (or Chinese) New Year – currently the Year of the Rat. It is designed for slightly younger children than Fisher’s book – the target age range here is 3-6 – so it emphasizes large illustrations (including one attractive foldout) and a minimal number of words. Parents can add to the story by using the inside front and back covers, which show specific elements of the celebration that appear within Grace Lin’s illustrations (spring lantern, decorated kumquat tree, symbolic sun, etc.). Lin also offers a more-adult end-of-book explanation about the Lunar New Year rituals that she shows quite simply within the book, thus giving parents a chance for further enjoyable talks with young children. For there is nothing troubling or threatening in this celebration or this book: everyone smiles while sweeping the old year out of the house, decorating to welcome the new one, and eventually – after suitable rejoicing – shouting “hooray!” as the lucky dragon awakens and brings in a new and (one hopes) happy year. Whether a family already celebrates the Lunar New Year and wants to introduce it to a younger child, or celebrates the solar New Year (starting January 1) and wants to enjoy a different sort of celebration vicariously, this book will serve as a fine and upbeat introduction to Lunar New Year customs.