January 22, 2009


Bone, Book Nine: Crown of Horns. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $19.99.

Princess Baby, Night-Night. By Karen Katz. Schwartz & Wade. $14.99.

     Any idea that the finale of Jeff Smith’s Bone saga might somehow be appropriate for young children will be dispelled by even the slightest glance at the cover of Crown of Horns. It shows a scratched-up, disheveled Princess Thorn, an equally damaged Fone Bone (with one eye swollen shut), and the baby rat creature Bartleby, staring out from behind rocks at – what, exactly? Nothing good, for sure – and indeed, there is nothing good occurring in most of the conclusion of Smith’s epic. Crown of Horns is about the final battle between the forces of Thorn and Gran’ma Ben – here restored to her royal title as Queen Rose – and those of the Locust, led by a resuscitated Briar and consisting of thuggish men and great hordes of rat creatures. There is none of the gruff humor involving "stupid, stupid rat creatures” in this book as there was earlier in the tale: this is a story of battle, of repeated narrow escapes, of great loss (the death of one major character makes for a strong scene, and an upsetting one), and of eventual victory that may be inevitable in a good-vs.-evil epic but that scarcely feels foreordained as the viciousness and violence escalate. Crown of Horns – the title refers to a strange object that balances the dreaming and waking worlds and may be able to restore their balance if Thorn can find and touch it – is a highly dramatic book. It does have a few minor touches of Smith’s trademark humor near and at the end, but it generally proceeds with a higher level of intensity than anything that has come before in Bone. Scenes involving the mad dragon queen, Mim, scale the heights of drama in ways that Smith did not attempt earlier in this series – and those scenes, as well as many others, are made vastly more impressive through Steve Hamaker’s coloring of Smith’s original black-and-white illustrations. Bone is one of the great graphic novels, but it is arguable whether it is a story for all ages, as it is usually said to be. The earlier books will draw readers as young as seven or eight into Smith’s world, but Crown of Horns and its predecessor, Treasure Hunters, are really more appropriate for ages 10-12 and up – way up, into adulthood. Bone is a marvelous achievement, and the new Scholastic edition, thanks to its fine color, is the one to have, surpassing even Smith’s own thick single-volume edition of the saga.

     For much younger children, though, adventures need to be kept a good deal simpler and more benign. Karen Katz’s second tale of Princess Baby is just that, and as such is ideal for ages 2-5. The first book, simply titled Princess Baby, introduced a charming little girl who objected to being given all the usual endearments that adults used when addressing her: she would not be called a buttercup, cupcake or little lamb, but only Princess. In Princess Baby, Night-Night, the little girl insists she is not tired, but she listens as her parents call in from another room to ask her whether she has gone through her bedtime routines: putting toys away, getting into pajamas, brushing teeth, and so on. She doesn’t quite do the things as her parents expect her to – she washes her stuffed animals’ faces instead of her own, for example – but she keeps reassuring mom and dad that she is doing what she should. And then her parents come in to give Princess Baby a good-night kiss, and find her sound asleep on the floor, not in pajamas (but of course wearing her crown), amid all her stuffed friends. A little parental straightening-up is in order, and the final scene shows the parents kissing their sleeping princess after putting her into pajamas, putting her room in order, and putting her in her own bed. As in Katz’s earlier book, it is the illustrations that make this one so much fun: Princess Baby is clearly not obeying her parents, but she is not doing so in such an adorable way that it is impossible for her mom and dad to get angry. This is a wonderful bedtime book for young children who may not always be quite as obedient as their parents would hope – provided, of course, that it doesn’t give them additional ideas of how to get away with staying up just a little later.

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