May 14, 2009


The Napping House. By Audrey Wood. Illustrations by Don Wood. Harcourt. $17.99.

The Firekeeper’s Son. By Linda Sue Park. Illustrated by Julie Downing. Sandpiper. $6.99.

     Reissued, these books are every bit as charming as they were when first published. This is the 25th anniversary of The Napping House, a story on the “house that Jack built” model in which each event builds on the one before – until Audrey Wood undoes what she has constructed by removing things one at a time. The simple story starts with a house, within which is a bed, on which granny sleeps; grandson climbs on top; then dog; then cat; then mouse; then flea. But then the flea bites the mouse – and, one at a time, everyone wakes up, as Don Wood’s hilarious illustrations show the wide-eyed, legs-splayed cat in midair, the dog so startled that its fur stands on end, the boy waking with a start, and the granny and boy tumbling upside-down. But everyone turns out to be in a wonderful mood as the sun comes up and a rainbow that ends right at the house indicates the start of a bright new day. Straightforward, yes, but quite delightful – and the new edition includes a CD that features not only a reading of the book but also six original songs. It all adds up to a package every bit as wonderful as The Napping House was all the way back in 1984.

     The Firekeeper’s Son dates only to 2004, but the story – now available in paperback – feels much older, based as it is in the Korean of long ago. Linda Sue Park sets her tale in the early 1800s, when news of possible danger to Korea reaches the king by a series of signal fires. Sang-hee, the young son of the village firekeeper, learns how the system works: the village lights the first fire atop a mountain every night (because it is the settlement closest to the sea, from which danger is most likely to come). Seeing the fire, the next village’s firekeeper lights another one, and so on all the way to the mountain closest to the king’s palace. Seeing the fire, the king knows that all is well; if there is no fire, he sends soldiers to protect the land. Sang-hee wants so much to see soldiers, even if only once; and one night, his father has an accident and is unable to start the fire, leaving the responsibility on Sang-hee’s shoulders. All Sang-hee has to do to fulfill his wish is to avoid starting the blaze…but responsibility wins out in the end, and Sang-hee even learns something about his father’s own boyhood wishes. Park’s telling gives the story the feeling of myth, and Julie Downing enhances the atmosphere with watercolor-and-pastel illustrations that evoke the young boy’s reality and dreams with equal skill. But as Park points out in an Author’s Note at the end, the signal fires are a fact of Korean history – and were actually a far more complex system than this book indicates. Although modern communication rendered them obsolete, they remain part of Korea’s past, and The Firekeeper’s Son remains a lovingly written tribute to them and to the people who made sure they burned brightly.

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