October 02, 2008


Born to Read. By Judy Sierra. Pictures by Marc Brown. Knopf. $16.99.

Ghost Files: The Haunting Truth. By The Ghost Society. HarperCollins. $19.99.

     Here are two books that will barely fit on a bookshelf – not because they are weighty but because each is more than a foot tall. Born to Read deserves to be oversize, because it puts forth the basic message that “readers win and winners read.” It is the story of a boy named Sam who is literally born to read: he knows his name from the start (and although he never says “Sam I Am,” there is a Dr. Seuss book – The Cat in the Hat – shown on several pages). By the time Sam is almost four, he is better at reading medical books than the doctor is – leading Sam to diagnose his own rash correctly as harmless “Play-dough-osis” rather than dangerous “Martian Mustard-ation.” Judy Sierra’s story, abetted by Marc Brown’s amusing illustrations, takes Sam further and further toward success in life as a result of his increasingly complex reading. First, such books as Pat the Bunny and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom appear around him, but as he gets older, he reads “Sea Monsters” in the tub, “Bike Repair” while preparing for a cycle race, and so on. Sam’s reading eventually helps him save the town from “the baby giant, Grundaloon,” who stomps around, grabbing kids’ toys, with parents unable to stop him. Sam brings Grundaloon some of his own favorite books from earlier in life, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Arthur, and while Grundaloon is distracted, Sam gets a cargo jet to pick the baby giant up and bring him home to “his mommy giantess.” Where will reading eventually take Sam? That is the unanswered question at the end of the book – but Sierra makes it clear that “readers can go anyplace,” and that is about as uplifting a message as anyone can hope to find in a book for ages 4-8.

     Ghost Files is for older kids – ages 10 and up – and is one of those books whose format is as attractive as its content. On every page there are tabs to pull, flaps to open, or books-within-the-book to read, as well as a combination of straightforward information with a heaping helping of items not to be taken seriously. There is, for example, a discussion of doppelgängers, plus some very interesting information on the ghosts of Japan: “Be careful between two and three in the morning. That’s when the yurei come out. A yurei has one purpose: to seek revenge for a wrong done to it in life.” But there are also statements such as, “If you hear a bloodcurdling howl on a stormy night, prepare to see the phantom black hound,” and there is a “Captain’s Log” for the fictional “S.S. Phantom,” which sights a ghost ship – after which the log breaks off, of course, in mid-sentence. The combination of genuine ghost lore with put-ons is a bit off-putting, and the blurring of the line between reports of actual ghostly visitations and pure superstition is not always clear. Ghost Files gets a (+++) rating for its fine design and the highly interesting information it provides; but it is hard to tell whether the book wants to be informative or entertaining. Actually, it seems to want to be both, and this occasionally works – the two-page spread of a house containing a poltergeist, with tabs to pull to show what poltergeists are reputed to do, is quite an accomplishment. But much of the time, the juxtaposition of fact (or real-world reports) and fiction is merely silly – for instance, the pages on mediums mention times when spirits have reportedly materialized during sĂ©ances, but the pull tab underneath this item says, “Many ghosts grumble about ectoplasm. ‘It smacks of charlatanism and gives us ghosts a bad name.’” Ghost Files is, in the final analysis, neither all here nor all there.

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