July 23, 2009


The Polar Express. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin. $18.95.

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan. By Jonah Winter. Illustrated by Richard Egielski. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Reading or rereading The Polar Express in summer can be a wonderful family experience. Although this is avowedly a Christmas tale, it is more than that: it is a story of faith, not religious-dogma faith but belief in qualities that children affirm but that adults too often forget – warmth, generosity, and a sense of wonder. Chris Van Allsburg’s highly detailed but strangely surreal paintings for this book won him a Caldecott Medal in 1986, and the illustrations have lost none of their power in the more than two decades since then. Children today may know The Polar Express from the rather disappointing 2004 movie, which retained some of the look of Van Allsburg’s book but missed out on its skewed perspective and oddity. If so, the book itself may be revelatory. The story is simple, with the cadence of fairy tales: a young boy whose friend has challenged his faith in Christmas sees a train, pulled by an old-fashioned steam engine, in front of his house on Christmas Eve. He boards the train, which is filled with children, and journeys all the way to the North Pole and back – in the process receiving the first gift of that Christmas season, a modest token that remains meaningful to him all the way into his adult life. What Van Allsburg does so well is to pull readers into this fantasy through pictures that do far more than illustrate the words. In the dining car, a mustached waiter serves some of the young passengers in the foreground while steam curls enticingly from a container, perhaps of warm milk, on a wheeled cart pushed by another server; three wolves are in the foreground as the train, in softer focus, passes through their forest; the text has a child exclaiming with wonder at the elves at the North Pole, but the illustration is packed with dark red, elaborate buildings, the elves seen only as brighter red blobs at street level far below, clustered around the steam engine that, like the elves themselves, is almost obscured by falling snow. The children on the train appear both lifelike and odd, and are as likely to be looking wide-eyed away from the central focus of a picture as they are to be looking at that focus. The blend of the homey and the strange pervades this thoroughly charming and slightly unsettling book, which can be a delightful reading experience at any time of year.

     The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan are fine anytime as well – in fact, amateur companies often perform them enthusiastically (if not particularly well) during the summer, when most professional ensembles take time off. The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan is a more-or-less factual account of the genesis of one of the pair’s best and most popular operettas, The Mikado. In this book as in The Polar Express, it is the pictures that lend depth and enjoyment to the text. In truth, the work by Richard Egielski (who won a Caldecott Medal for Hey, Al the year after Van Allsburg won his) is more interesting than the sometimes careless writing of Jonah Winter – who, for example, calls the Gilbert and Sullivan works operas rather than operettas. Although this book is for younger readers, Egielski is effective in showing why “jolly old England was not so jolly” in the Victorian age, portraying a dark daytime street with dripping rain and, within one building, a sweatshop using child labor. Winter overstates by saying that “everything was dark” except in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “make-believe kingdom of Topsy-Turvydom,” but he does a good job of explaining how the famed operettas brought lightness to an often-dismal time. Winter says that lyricist Gilbert presented Sullivan with “always the same story,” which is not quite right – Gilbert did love the idea of a “magic lozenge” and propose variations on it several times, but it was used only in The Sorcerer. And Winter bolsters his “sameness” argument, which he posits as the reason for the “feud” of the book’s title, by citing the plots of operettas written both before and after the team created The Mikado – an idea as full of tortured logic as many in the operettas themselves. Kids and most parents probably will not notice these inaccuracies, but it is a shame to find them in a book for which Winter clearly did his research – he even correctly mentions in his “Author’s Note” that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 operettas, including the now-lost Thespis. In any case, The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan improves after Gilbert and Sullivan have an argument in the office of impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte and go their separate ways. The book talks about the Japanese exhibits that were all the rage at this time in Victorian London, and how they inspired Gilbert to write the libretto for The Mikado – which then inspired Sullivan to work with his old partner again. Egielski’s two-page spread showing what The Mikado could initially have looked like on stage is a highlight of the book, and Winter’s note at the end that the pair wrote five further operas but still fought from time to time offers a good lesson for children who sometimes argue with friends and siblings. If The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan gets kids interested in actually seeing The Mikado sometime, so much the better – this is one Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that, when well staged and sung, is as fresh today as when it was first performed in 1885.

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