September 17, 2009


Once Upon a Twice. By Denise Doyen. Illustrated by Barry Moser. Random House. $16.99.

The 39 Clues, Book 5: The Black Circle. By Patrick Carman. Scholastic. $12.99.

     It is rare for a children’s book to succeed based almost solely on its style, without regard to its underlying story – and Once Upon a Twice is a rare book indeed. The plot of this book for ages 4-7 is nothing much: an age-appropriate warning given by older mice to young ones to be careful what they do so they can avoid danger. But the telling of the tale is simply marvelous. Denise Doyen turns and twists language every which way to create a book that almost has to be read aloud – and that is even better when spoken than when read silently. “They runtunnel through the riddle— Secret ruts hid inbetwiddle— But one mousling jams the middle! Whilst he goofiddles, others howl.” The troublemaker, “a riskarascal in repose,” has “dropped preycautions” and incurred a safety lecture that “the elder mouncelors whispercroon” to him: “Open moonlight is a menace. Trust in shadows – disappear.” But little Jam, unafraid, goes off on his own, “sneaks un –aware, -afraid, -asham’d” into the open – where his carelessness attracts a deadly enemy of mice everywhere. What happens then to Jam – and what the incident means to young mice from then on – is the heart of the book’s lesson, but not of its beauty. That comes from a combination of Doyen’s language with the intricate, lovingly realized illustrations by Barry Moser, which sparkle with reality while heightening it, bringing extraordinary loveliness to a firefly’s spark, a flash of moonlight, a flower petal, the slender shape of a reed. The mice here are treated anthropomorphically, but they are drawn with accentuated realism – to which Moser adds humanizing touches, such as the small stick that one old mouse uses as a cane. Doyen’s gentle manipulation of language melds beautifully with Moser’s accentuation of the natural world that at the same time pushes beyond its boundaries. The result is a work that goes beyond the boundaries of most children’s books into a land of rare delight and considerable elegance.

     The stylistic contrast between Once Upon a Twice and 10-book sequence The 39 Steps, a fairy tale series in its own way, could scarcely be greater. Aimed at preteens, the series is succeeding through its consistent lack of style: although the 10 novels are being written by seven different authors, there is very little to distinguish them from each other. The Black Circle, the fifth book, gets a (+++) rating: it is written colorlessly but with the series’ trademark excitement and multiple double-crosses by Patrick Corman, who is better known (and should be) for his Land of Elyon books. Readers approaching the midway point of The 39 Steps will already know all the intricacies of the central Cahill family, which splits into multiple lines that, among them, include pretty much all the famous and notorious people of history – which gives every author a chance to inject a short history lesson into his or her novel. The Black Circle, set primarily in Russia, offers a bit of information on the czars and rather more on Rasputin, who (of course) turns out to have been a Cahill. Corman does occasionally throw in a good line – “Ian Kabra had been in the back of a limousine hundreds of times but never when covered in meat pies” is one of the funniest asides in the series so far – but for the most part, Corman sticks to the formulaic skullduggery with which this series is rife. Attentive readers will be a bit surprised at the way this book progresses, since the previous one, Beyond the Grave, indicated that the mysterious Madrigals would play an important role here, but there is barely any reference to them. Still, there are enough turncoats and almost-turncoats and mysteries and piles of bones and cryptic (or encrypted) bits of writing to keep things moving at a predictably hectic pace. There is also what appears to be an outright error – actually unusual for this series – in having notes written by 19th-century Europeans use the American date sequence: 2-1-1826 is presented (as the context makes clear) as February 1, but it ought to be January 2; and 10-07 turns out to be October 7, although in Europe it would be July 10. Fans of The 39 Clues are unlikely to care about such niceties, though – they will be more interested in the game cards (of which six are packaged with each volume of the series, including The Black Circle), the Web site and the other elements of this series’ universe, which may not have stylish presentation going for it but has plenty of plot twists and excitement to keep its fans interested.

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