October 29, 2009


The New Yorker: On the Money—The Economy in Cartoons, 1925-2009. Edited by Robert Mankoff. Andrews McMeel. $24.99.

Old Farts Are Forever. By Lee Lorenz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     There are some very special things about The New Yorker, not the least of which is how determined it is to have people regard it as special. To that end, the magazine has developed a unique sense of humor in its cartoons – some of which are haughty but not particularly funny, others of which are in-jokes of one sort or another, and still others of which are hilarious in a sophisticatedly offbeat way. One topic that the magazine does not cover particularly well is finance, so it may come as a surprise that so many of its cartoons have dealt with matters monetary over the years. Still, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his introduction to The New Yorker: On the Money, these are not really the cartoons of people who understand financial matters or Wall Street (even though that famous center of capitalism is, after all, in New York). These cartoons are mostly those of bemused characters who just can’t quite figure out what all that financial fuss is about and how the “money business” works. And yet many of these offerings are extremely funny. There is the well-dressed man walking into the IRS holdings his hands up in surrender. There is the husband ruefully telling his wife that they are now living beyond their second income. There are the Wall Street traders looking up at the display board to see the start of the Biblical phrase of doom, “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin.” There is the IRS bureaucrat telling the irritated (and presumably under-audit) businessman, “Maybe we do bungle the spending of your tax dollar, but you’ll have to admit we do a bang-up job of collecting it.” There is the down-at-the-heels miner who pans a large gold nugget from a stream and says, “Damn it! Now I’ve got to revise my estimated income.” There’s a megastore in which men and women with shopping carts roam aisles adorned with signs such as “Mutual Funds,” “REITs,” “Tax Exempt Municipals” and “U.S. Treasury Notes.” And there is one down-at-the-heels man saying to another, “There, there it is again – the invisible hand of the marketplace giving us the finger.” The cartoons are arranged by decade – a very few from the 1920s and a good selection thereafter – but the best ideas transcend their times, poking fun at (and a few holes in) the whole notion of prosperity for its own sake and the people who pursue it. The New Yorker is often a touch too snooty for its own good (although many of its readers think that is their own good), and the frequent disdain for the monied class in these cartoons melds uneasily with the fact that the magazines’ subscribers are scarcely downscale. But even if this creates some dissonance and ambivalence within the cartoons, it also helps give them a kind of wry effectiveness – and an impact quite different from that of the cartoons in, say, The Wall Street Journal.

     But it must be said that The New Yorker seems more at ease with cartoons about relationships than with ones about dollars and cents. Lee Lorenz, longtime cartoon editor of the magazine (before Robert Mankoff, editor of On the Money, took over) and a contributor of more than 1,700 drawings to it, offers some samples of his work in the small but delightful Old Farts Are Forever. The title comes from a panel that could have gone into On the Money. It shows three older businessmen sitting together, apparently at a club, with one saying, “Wunderkinden come and go, but old farts are forever.” Most of the Lorenz drawings here, though, are about interpersonal relationships. Young woman to older man, at a party: “It's certainly refreshing to meet someone sixty years old who looks sixty years old.” Long-suffering wife to her husband: “Of course I still love you – it’s called the Stockholm syndrome.” Woman lying in a bed with two men, one on each side of her, both of them reading books, as she turns to the one on her left: “Howard, I’m seeing someone else.” Wife to husband when Death shows up at the door: “It’s the closure fairy.” Thoroughly bored dog’s thought as his owner pets his head: “Mr. Dennison is survived by his long-time companion, Rusty.” Futuristic scene with sweet and busty young woman talking to grizzled man: “Gee whiz, Mr. Collins – two hundred and six isn’t old!” Old Farts Are Forever offers more chuckles than guffaws, but there are plenty of them to be had, and Lorenz – who says he has become an “old fart” himself – is a fine companion in and chronicler of this age group’s amusingly skewed world.


’Twas the Night Before Christmas. By Clement Clarke Moore. Illustrated by Jon Goodell. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $17.99.

A Christmas Manger. By H.A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin. $9.99.

The Christmas Book: How to Have the Best Christmas Ever. By Juliana Foster. Scholastic. $9.99.

The Little Prince Deluxe Pop-Up Book. By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $35.

Dinosaur Park. By Hannah Wilson. Illustrated by Steve Weston. Kingfisher. $17.99.

     Christmas is not that far away – and here are some wonderful new books to help put you in the mood. The familiar verses of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas are enlivened in the handsome new Accord edition of the poem by illustrations that make use of lenticular animation – or “AniMotion,” as the publisher calls it. This is a technique in which pictures (or, in this book, parts of pictures) seem to move as you change the angle of the page, lending an animated element to the story. The Star of Bethlehem grows larger at the start of the poem as a comet whizzes past; a candle flame visibly flickers; those sugar-plums really do dance in a child’s dream; and, later, a toy train moves under the Christmas tree and Santa’s belly does indeed shake when he laughs. The naïve charm of the otherwise old-fashioned illustrations mixes pleasantly with the modern technology that makes parts of the book seem to move, even though Jon Goodell takes some liberties with the words of the poem: Santa is human-size, not a “jolly old elf”; there is no indication that “his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot”; and there is no sign of his pipe smoke encircling his head – the pipe seems to be a toy. Ah well – these pictures are not so much about accuracy as they are about enjoyment, and kids will certainly get plenty of that as they watch elements of this much-loved poetic tale appear to come to life.

     It is the religious elements of Christmas that come to life in A Christmas Manger, a wonderful crafts project for the whole family. Curious George creator H.A. Rey (Hans Augusto Reyersbach) was Jewish, but this 1942 work is entirely Christian, using words from the gospels of Matthew and Luke to tell the familiar tale of the birth of Christ, and then showing the animals, Three Kings and angels adoring the Holy Family. The book’s design is tremendously clever: every figure can be neatly punched out of the pages – no scissors or other tools required – and then folded so it stands up. Cutouts in the inside front and back covers are storage pockets for the figures, so they can be set up year after year. And when they are set up, they produce a traditional manger scene that kids can arrange as they wish and that parents can use to teach the story of Jesus’ birth visually – to go along with the Biblical words that the book includes. This is a lovely family activity and an effective way to recount the Christmas story, especially to young children.

     For a guide to the more secular aspects of Christmas, families can turn to The Christmas Book, which explains the origins of many Christmas traditions (cards, Santa Claus, caroling, Christmas trees, etc.) and offers suggestions on activities such as holding a Christmas party, preparing Christmas dinner (including for vegetarian guests), wrapping presents, and making edible gifts (several recipes are included). Stories of how Christmas is celebrated around the world are especially interesting: in Greenland, people feast on raw, decomposed auk meat; in Iceland, instead of one Santa, there are 13 imps; in Ukraine, revelers welcome spiders into their homes to commemorate a folktale about magic arachnids that turned webs into silver and gold. Add in the suggestions for games that kids can play – plus some for adults – and you have a winner of a book that will help keep your Christmas spirited.

     And speaking of Christmas gifts: anyone who loves Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella, The Little Prince, will be absolutely charmed by the new pop-up version, which would make a very generous gift for a child or a marvelous addition to a family’s own bookshelf of treasures. This is the complete story, not the sort of abridgment that would more usually appear in a pop-up book. And the illustrations are the original ones created by Saint-Exupéry himself for the first edition in 1943 – not modernized at all, just rendered into three-dimensional form through very clever pop-up designs. Adults encountering the book for the first time, or re-encountering it after some years, may be surprised at how…well, adult the book is, for all its reputation as a children’s work. The core statement in the book – “What is essential is invisible to the eye” – is scarcely what one would expect in a story for children. And the Little Prince’s adventures, on six planets inhabited by foolish adults and then on Earth, are far from the kind of mundane and innocent fun that so many children’s books offer. The fact is that The Little Prince is not a children’s book, or certainly is not wholly one, and the wonderful pop-ups in the new edition make that clear (and increase the work’s many ambiguities) by giving the author’s unusual illustrations greater prominence. This is a treasurable edition of a wonderful work, highly recommended as a gift for Christmas or any holiday.

     Even in pop-up form, The Little Prince will be a bit too much for younger children, but they too can have a wonderful time with pop-ups – in Dinosaur Park, which is nearly an entire play set in book form. Open this very cleverly designed book and you get four separate pop-up scenes set in a make-believe zoological park featuring dinosaurs – think Jurassic Park without the scares. Each scene bears unidentified footprints and is imprinted with questions, such as “Who hunts hadrosaurs?” and “Who is trying to eat the eggs?” Kids find the answers in the bound-in “Dinosaur Park Field Guide,” which tells about several dinosaurs and shows their tracks – which can be matched to the ones in the pop-up scenes. And the dinosaurs themselves are contained in a packet bound into the back inside cover of the book and marked “Warning!! Dinosaurs – Open if You Dare.” When kids do open the flap, out come perforated, press-out dinosaur pieces that easily stand up and can be placed within the pop-up scenes – or used for play elsewhere. For children ages 3-6, Dinosaur Park makes a wonderful gift: colorful, educational, filled with things to do and lots of fun to use. It’s a treat for any occasion in any season of the year.


29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life. By Cami Walker. Da Capo. $19.95.

Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently—Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage. By Kyle Pruett, M.D., and Marsha Kline Pruett, Ph.D. Da Capo. $15.95.

     Most of life is made up, not of grand triumphs and failures, but of small, everyday successes and less-than-ideal outcomes. And in the long run, the daily accumulation of positives and negatives turns out to be what matters most – not only to adults but also to children. In the case of 29 Gifts, the small successes were a way to pull out of a very deep and dark hole indeed. Author Cami Walker was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was in her early 30s, and soon found herself depressed, sleepless, in constant pain, and addicted to prescription drugs designed to keep the effects of the incurable disease at bay. Then Walker, a believer in alternative medicine, got some surprising advice from an old friend, a South African medicine woman: start giving gifts to others – 29 of them in 29 days. Initially skeptical, Walker soon embraced the concept as a way to change her perception of herself and her MS. By Day 29, she wanted to give a gift to the world, and did so by launching the Web site, www.29gifts.org. Thousands of people have signed on and are now doing their own forms of gift-giving. Interestingly, a reader need not believe in shamanism, “natural healing” or any of the other alternative-medicine buzzwords to understand how the 29 Gifts approach could work. It forces the participant to think outside herself and beyond her disease, focusing – even if only briefly – on other people and what they want or can use. The reason is that the gifts need to be mindful, not arbitrary. For example, you can give more money than you usually would to a street performer, and you can listen empathetically to a friend who is having a tough time; Walker did both these things. But you cannot do the reverse. Walker interweaves her own story with that of the movement that she now so strongly supports. For instance, she talks about her husband, Mark, not being a believer: “Though I’ve tried several times, I still haven’t managed to convince Mark to try the Giving Challenge and sign up to share stories. He thinks it’s uncool to ‘brag’ about the things you do for others.” Mark is apparently not an Oprah fan: this book practically exudes Oprah-ishness, with all sorts of heartfelt comments and teary moments and affirmations galore. In fact, it is so relentlessly upbeat (despite the sections devoted to Walker’s struggles) that it wears rather thin after a while. “While I was busy comparing our outsides, I lost sight of what we have in common on the inside.” “Over time, my relationship…evolved and we are now close friends.” “I want to send out a sincere thank you to every person who has chosen to take part in the 29 Gifts Movement.” And so on. It’s all very uplifting, potentially of genuine value in teaching people to look outside themselves and the daily grind of their lives, and often quite syrupy.

     Partnership Parenting is more matter-of-fact and more child-focused. Actually, its focus is the traditional family unit of mother, father and child; and the husband-and-wife team of Kyle Pruett and Marsha Kline Pruett focuses on the need for a “parenting team” to turn the “inherent contradictions” between male and female parenting styles into learning opportunities. The basic argument here is that men and women naturally gravitate to different styles where children are concerned: mothers tend to protect and nurture, while fathers tend to push kids toward independence and exploration. It is absolutely necessary to accept this underlying premise for this book to have any value – arguing with it undermines the foundation of the whole approach. Indeed, the authors are fond of absolute statements throughout. For example, when writing about discipline, they say, “By age two…shame arrives on the scene to help children control their impulses. It works now – as opposed to when they were younger – because the child’s growing moral sense and self-awareness combine, rendering her capable of figuring out embarrassment and, more importantly, its causes and effects.” Or, regarding “retaliatory behavior” such as pushing buttons on household media, it “isn’t expected until a child is closer to three.” And: “Even when mothers and fathers are equally involved in raising children, mothers may feel a sense of ownership of the children compared to fathers.” Readers who accept the Pruetts’ comments at face value – and, to be fair, many of them are backed up by solid research – will find suggestions in this book for embracing different styles of parenting instead of arguing about them and then seeking a “middle ground.” Think of parenting as a team sport, the Pruetts suggest: each parent plays a different position, and each needs to understand and appreciate – and support – what the other does. Partnership Parenting is mostly about ways in which to develop that support system, which the authors say will be good not only for children but also for parents themselves. One particularly useful idea is to be sure you and your partner agree on really major issues, such as schooling and values, and then allow yourselves to disagree on various everyday matters, even if that seems inconsistent. The Pruetts argue that this teaches children to handle diversity better. Much in Partnership Parenting is not intuitively obvious, and some elements will be questionable, especially if parents have significantly different styles. But the book’s suggestions for managing conflict, handling discipline effectively, and finding ways to strengthen the parental bond even when two people approach child-rearing differently, are certainly worth considering – and may make it easier to develop a family structure that works better for children and adults alike.


Gone from These Woods. By Donny Bailey Seagraves. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Road to Tater Hill. By Edith M. Hemingway. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Wild Girl. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

The Hanging Hill. By Chris Grabenstein. Random House. $16.99.

     Troubles come in all types in these books for preteens, but in only one size: big. Gone from These Woods starts with a hunting accident, but what it is about is the aftermath. Eleven-year-old Daniel Sartain goes hunting, unwillingly, with his Uncle Clay, and is happy not to shoot the rabbit that Clay points out – but, as Daniel straightens up, the gun goes off. Daniel panics, vomits, runs for help, can barely look at his uncle’s still form, but eventually gets help – only to find out that Clay is dead. And then Daniel has to cope. “The sandwich didn’t even taste like food as I tried to chew it.” “I just wanted to sink down into the warmth of my bed and disappear.” “Now I felt jagged edges all over. They hurt. Hurt like my whole body was nothing but broken bones jabbing through tender skin.” The path to healing is a long one and by no means a straight line, and Daniel’s family situation doesn’t help much: his mother is supportive, but his dad drinks, has a nasty temper, and has a family tragedy in his own life that still eats at him. It is eventually Daniel’s own memories of Clay that come to his rescue, as when he rediscovers in a closet the jacket last worn on the fatal day: “Couldn’t look at it without seeing blood that wasn’t there… I’d worn this same jacket when Clay took me to the county fair in Athens [Georgia] a few weeks ago.” And then Daniel’s thoughts turn to pleasant memories, and eventually to a “conversation” with Clay, whose voice Daniel hears saying, “When somebody you love dies, you don’t follow them. You keep going, for them and for yourself. You walk where they can’t walk anymore.” Daniel finds enough inner strength to confront his bullying father, and the result is a cautiously optimistic conclusion.

     Road to Tater Hill follows much the same story arc, despite being set in a different time: the summer of 1963. There is death here, too, and of a particularly cruel kind: 11-year-old Annie’s brand-new baby sister, Mary Kate, dies just one day after being born, shattering Annie’s family (whose last name, Winter, evokes the chill that comes over all of them). Annie’s father is absent – with the Air Force in Germany – and Annie turns increasingly inward as she watches her mother decline into depression. This book, like Gone from These Woods, has a rural setting, but Road to Tater Hill uses it differently. The Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina give Annie a stream to which she escapes, complete with a stone she calls her “rock baby.” They also make it possible for Annie to meet an elderly recluse named Miss Eliza, who is ostracized by the community because she just served 30 years in jail for killing her husband. Gradually, preteen and old woman come to trust each other, and Annie learns that her family is not the only one to have lost a baby or fallen victim to grief. And it is through Miss Eliza that both Annie and her mother finally come face-to-face with their own deep sorrow and their enduring love for each other.

     The love in Wild Girl is for a horse – whose name is the title of the book. The one who loves her is 12-year-old Lidie, a Brazilian girl whose father and brother have moved to the United States and who eventually joins them in Queens, New York. Lidie faces some expected adjustment difficulties and some unexpected ones. Like any immigrant with a language barrier, she has difficulty communicating with teachers and classmates. But she also has trouble communicating with her own family: everyone treats her like a little girl, and her father gives her an old, tame horse to ride – not realizing that Lidie has become an accomplished rider. And that is where Wild Girl comes in: Lidie is determined to ride the apparently untamable filly, believing (accurately, as it turns out) that she and Wild Girl are both having adjustment difficulties and will turn out to have a lot in common. “I knew what it was like to feel alone. I knew that terrible ache,” thinks Lidie while observing Wild Girl – whose own feelings are given in third-person sections that complement Lidie’s first-person narrative. A confrontation between Lidie and her father leads to greater understanding on both sides, and a conclusion that cements the notion that both Lidie and the filly are wild girls – both of whom eventually find contentment in their surroundings.

     There is nothing to be content about in The Hanging Hill, a sequel to Chris Grabenstein’s The Crossroads that moves the earlier book’s supernatural elements to a new setting. In fact, things had to move somewhere else after what happened to the home of 11-year-old Zack Jennings and his stepmother, Judy, in the first book. Judy is an author of kids’ books, and she and Zack are spending a few relaxing weeks (along with Zack’s dog, Zipper) rehearsing a new musical based on one of Judy’s works. At least they should be relaxing weeks, but unfortunately, Zack keeps seeing ghosts – this is something he does all the time – and the theater is haunted, and the director wants to raise the evil dead by doing dastardly things to a child born under a full moon. That would be Zack, who “was sort of short and kind of skinny and really didn’t look all that tough, even when he took off his glasses.” Grabenstein’s blend of spookiness and humor is somewhat more forced here than in The Crossroads, where the scary parts predominated. Zack makes a new friend, Meghan McKenna, who of course gets caught up in the supernatural mysteries that seem to follow Zack everywhere, including to the Hanging Hill Playhouse. Zack’s dead mother reappears, apparently not having given Zack enough trouble in the previous book, and there is a young Native American girl ghost who asks whether Zack is a demon, and the ghost of a killer named Mad Dog Murphy who unaccountably knows Zack’s name, and a bunch of good ghosts as well, including a onetime actor who declaims to Zack, “Be not afraid of greatness, lad!” The Hanging Hill is not quite a romp and not quite a chiller. By the time Meghan tells Zack that “there are so many other mysteries we still have to unravel,” things have gotten pretty thoroughly confused. Like the prior Zack Jennings novel, this one ends up being somewhat overdone even though it is often a lot of fun to read.


Beethoven: Complete String Quartets and Große Fuge. Borodin Quartet (Ruben Aharonian and Andrei Abramenkov, violins; Igor Naidin, viola; Valentin Berlinsky, cello). Chandos. $69.99 (8 CDs).

     One of the world’s longest-lived string quartets, the Borodin Quartet – which was founded in 1945 by Moscow Conservatory students as the Moscow Philharmonic Quartet and adopted its present name a decade later – is also one of the world’s most distinguished. It is best known for its relationship with Shostakovich, who consulted the quartet’s members on every one of his 15 works in this form. The group’s performances of the Shostakovich cycle are therefore as close to definitive (in terms of understanding the composer’s intentions) as anyone’s can be.

     But the Borodin Quartet also made a specialty of Beethoven, recording his complete quartets twice: once for Virgin Classics (2003) and again for a series of Chandos CDs building up to the group’s 60th anniversary in 2005. Chandos has now released the entire eight-CD set of its cycle in a single box, and it is an unusual and fascinating set to hear. The playing is powerful and focused throughout, and the sound is exemplary – unmarred by the sort of miking, unfortunately common these days, in which the musicians’ breathing is as audible as some of their notes. The works have the feeling of near-perfect live performances, which means they are not exactly done according to the score but are filled with small instances of emphasis and rubato in which the quartet members engage so naturally and with such apparent ease that they sound as if they are casually getting together to make music that just happens to be of the very highest quality. The weighting of the instruments is particularly good: even in tutti passages, individual voices stand out clearly (abetted, again, by the fine sound quality), and the result is a clarity of expression that comes through particularly effectively in the sudden, dramatic chords that are a Beethoven hallmark throughout the cycle.

     What is especially unusual about the Borodin Quartet’s approach is that it refuses to put Beethoven on a pedestal. This is some of the greatest quartet music ever written, true, and everything gets its full due here. But the unexaggerated songfulness of the performances, their unaffected lyricism, will come as a surprise to listeners used to hearing Beethoven’s quartets performed with all the intensity that they usually receive. The tempos tend to be fast throughout this cycle (although they never feel rushed), and there is a communicative brightness to the quartets that is often missing in performances that seem to emphasize their importance in musical history. The Borodin Quartet’s approach is especially attractive in the six Op. 18 quartets, whose generally light tone is mixed with a winning expressiveness. No. 5, in particular, is a marvel, showing Beethoven in a Mozart mood and with his folklike themes in full swing. The finale of No. 6 is worth special mention, too, for its unabashed joyfulness.

     But the players’ lyricism carries through from the earliest quartets all the way to the final ones, and that is a big surprise indeed. The cantabile elements of Op. 95 really sing, for example, and the latest quartets – Opp. 132 and 135 – here sound very modern, very symphonic, but far more directly communicative (which means far less dense and distanced) than in most performances. This is quite an untraditional approach to the late quartets, and it takes some getting used to – and well repays the time investment. There is boldness as well as the far more common quality of introspection in these late-quartet readings; and, perhaps through the players’ intimate familiarity with Shostakovich, these readings give a highly effective sense of just how far into the future late Beethoven actually looked.

     Power, focus, lyricism, songfulness, tonal beauty, and unanimity of approach – with never a sense that any player is going off in a direction even slightly different from that of the others – are the hallmarks of this excellent cycle. The one significant disappointment here lies at Chandos’ feet, not the quartet’s: the eight-CD set includes no information on the music whatsoever and only a very sketchy enclosure giving spare information on the Borodin Quartet’s history. This set deserves far better.

     Still, it is the music that matters, and the performances are as exemplary as they are (at times) unusual. This set stands not only as a wonderful 60th-anniversary marker for the players but also as a superb legacy for cellist Valentin Berlinsky, who held his position for an astonishing 62 years, retiring only in 2007, and who died in December 2008. Berlinsky was not an entirely uncontroversial figure: he was a Communist Party member who was accused of betraying other musicians to authorities (a charge he denied). What is certain, though, is that he left behind recordings of tremendous worth, including this Beethoven set – and that unlike political machinations, high-quality performances of great music will stand the test of time.

October 22, 2009


Never Smile at a Monkey (And 17 Other Important Things to Remember). By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin. $16.

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Sandpiper. $8.99.

Nathan Fludd, Beastologist: Book One—Flight of the Phoenix. By R.L. LaFevers. Illustrated by Kelly Murphy. Houghton Mifflin. $16.

     “This book is about creatures…whose dangerous nature may not be so obvious,” writes Steve Jenkins in Never Smile at a Monkey. To be more precise, it is about some creatures whose dangers are less than clear – and some that are dangerous in ways you might not expect. In the “non-obvious” category would be the amusing-looking platypus, which has venomous spurs on its hind legs; the electric caterpillar, whose hairy bristles can be dangerous to humans (although it turns into a harmless moth); and the tang, an attractive coral-reef fish often used in salt-water aquariums that has a sharp spine on either side of its tail and can inflict serious injury. In the “unexpected dangers” arena are the spitting cobra, whose bite most people would instinctively know to avoid – but which can also spit its venom accurately more than eight feet; the hippopotamus, whose huge size would keep most people away, but which will charge if its path to water is blocked; and the fierce-looking African buffalo, whose unpredictable temper means it may attack without warning even if you keep your distance. Jenkins does not sugarcoat the effects of getting too close to these creatures – several of them can kill people. His illustrations show everything clearly, without romanticizing or anthropomorphizing what he depicts. Black-bear cubs, for example, are shown in all their wide-eyed cuteness – along with a warning that the mother is usually nearby and can be aggressive and extremely dangerous. At the end of the book, Jenkins offers considerably more detail on where the various creatures live and just what makes them so deadly. Oh – and the book’s title? Showing teeth to a rhesus monkey is a sign of aggression, inviting an attack from a sharp-toothed mammal that does not understand that humans consider smiles to be indicators of friendship.

     Many of the creatures depicted in Jenkins’ book and others are far harder to find in the wild than readers might think. Among mammals, one of the rarest is the tree kangaroo, which, Sy Montgomery writes, looks “like something Dr. Seuss might have dreamed up. Impossibly soft, with a rounded face, button eyes, pink nose, pert upright ears and a long thick tail, it was about the size of a small dog or an overweight cat, with plush brown and golden fur.” There are 10 kinds of tree kangaroos, all hard to find and getting even scarcer as the forests where they live are cut down. Quest for the Tree Kangaroo is the story of a scientific expedition to New Guinea, a large island (second in size only to Greenland) where strange and rare animals abound: birds with poisonous feathers, egg-laying mammals called echidnas, and many more. At the center of the book is the team’s research leader, Lisa Dalbek. Readers follow her and the team on lengthy hikes through gorgeous countryside teeming with strange plants and animals. Also insects – lots of them. Anyone thinking that field research is glamorous will soon encounter the reality that the scientists did: steep and difficult climbs, slippery rocks, rotten logs, and rain. Lots of rain. The photographs by Nic Bishop are astonishing in their beauty and variety, and Montgomery’s text provides real insight into the scientific life, the animals and other creatures the expedition finds, and the villagers who act as guides and helpers. By the time Dalbek is quoted as saying “this is really intense work – this really challenges you on so many different levels,” armchair scientists will better understand not only the intensity but also the joy of coping with the many challenges.

     But all that is real-world stuff. Young readers looking for something more escapist as lighthearted fun can turn to Flight of the Phoenix, the first book in a planned series about 10-year-old Nathaniel (Nate) Fludd and his distant cousin, Phil A. Fludd, the world’s only living beastologist. Phil – Aunt Phil, that is (yes, Phil is a woman) – explains that beastologists study animals that most people think are just myths, such as basilisks, griffins and manticores. Actually, Phil herself doesn’t explain that – the dodo does. It seems that dodos are merely extremely rare, not extinct, and this one (whose name is Cornelius) talks quite well, thank you, and – well, there is certainly nothing real-world about Flight of the Phoenix. But then, R.L. LaFevers doesn’t intend there to be. Abetted by amusing illustrations by Kelly Murphy, LaFevers takes Nate and Aunt Phil to Arabia for the laying of an egg by the world’s only phoenix. Along the way, Nate befriends a gremlin; on arrival, he learns some Fludd family history (including the fact that the family has a “black sheep”); and eventually, he not only has to watch over the phoenix but also must figure out how to rescue Aunt Phil, who has fallen into the hands of Bedouins. And all this is just the start of Nate’s education in becoming a beastologist – not a real-world profession, true, but one that readers will surely enjoy imagining in all its glory (and without all that real-life discomfort and mucking about).

(++++) MAGICS

Thanks a LOT, Emily Post! By Jennifer LaRue Huget. Illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

The Magical Ms. Plum. By Bonny Becker. Illustrated by Amy Portnoy. Knopf. $12.99.

The Fairy Godmother Academy #1: Birdie’s Book. By Jan Bozarth. Random House. $7.99.

     An exceptionally inventive etiquette-related book for ages 4-8, Jennifer LaRue Huget’s Thanks a LOT, Emily Post! is about what type of etiquette still works – and what does not quite work – in the modern age. Huget’s wonderful idea here is to introduce a touch of magic into the whole etiquette issue. She takes fictional characters created by Emily Post for her original book of etiquette (published in 1922), and has them take up residence in a thoroughly modern household that is run by a mother who is trying to get her four kids to behave (there is no sign or mention of a father). These ghostly figures hover over the kids as their mom tries to enforce etiquette lessons – sometimes taking a direct hand in modern life (by lifting elbows off the table, for instance) and sometimes simply watching with appropriate reactive expressions (usually ones of dismay, given the way these kids behave). As clever as Huget’s approach is, what really makes the book work so well are the excellent illustrations by Alexandra Boiger, who shows the Post-created characters as blue-tinted adults in old-fashioned clothing, moving silently through the bustling household. But they do not stay silent forever. After the girl who narrates the book throws a two-page tantrum about the word “couldn’t” (that is, all the things Emily Post said the kids couldn’t do), the Post-created characters start interacting with her, explaining that Emily Post herself did not always have perfect manners when she was little – and, later, giving the narrator an idea about how to un-Post the house. How that works out – and whether or not it is all for the best – is the subject of the rest of the book, which is not only delightful in itself but also an excellent jumping-off point for discussing the value of a common-sense approach to manners and etiquette.

     The magic tends to be of a different – and, it must be said, more commonplace – sort in books for preteens. This is not to say that magic itself is commonplace, but it does tend to operate in more-or-less-expected ways in works for slightly older readers. The Magical Ms. Plum uses it for humor, The Fairy Godmother Academy for adventure. Bonny Becker’s work is a sort-of-chapter book, centered on one of those strangely wonderful adult figures around whom magical events just seems to cluster (think of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, for example). Ms. Plum runs a classroom in which teachable moments come in the form of things that cannot possibly be: a tiny horse that poops a lot and patches up the relationship between two girls; a head-perching parrot that gives a boy a lesson about talking too much; squirrels that teach neatness and organization to a girl with a messiness problem; and so on. The magical creatures come out of Ms. Plum’s supply closet (think of Mary Poppins’ carpet bag) and return there after accomplishing whatever they set out to do. Bonnie Becker’s book is loosely knit (each chapter is essentially independent of the others) and clearly very derivative, but it is certainly fun to read and deserves a (+++) rating because – well, just because.

     The Fairy Godmother Academy #1: Birdie’s Book gets a (+++) rating, too, but kids should be forewarned that not everyone will care for the premise. This book is part of a multimedia approach designed for preteen girls, in which the printed volume itself carries over to what is intended as an online community plus a series of real-life challenges. The basic idea of The Fairy Godmother Academy series – in which three books are due to be released per year – is that fairy godmothers are really humans with magical abilities that are to be used to make the world a better place. Each book will focus on a girl of a different “lineage,” who will discover her true calling and decide how to use her newfound powers. Twelve-year-old Birdie Bright, the first protagonist, is of the Arbor Lineage (birds go with trees, see?). Birdie’s Book focuses on Birdie’s quest for the Singing Stone, her family’s talisman, which has been broken. She picks up a helper named Kerka (who will be featured in the next book) in the search for the missing half of the stone; eventually, Birdie must repair not only the stone itself but also the relationship between her mother and grandmother. The themes here are highly familiar and the magical incidents mostly expected (there are mermaids, of course); the bound-in Wisdom Card, which is used at the Web site associated with this series, is a typical enhancement of a printed book for this age group. In short, there is nothing especially creative about the approach or story here; but girls with a taste for magic and for a mixture of printed and computer-based mild adventure will find The Fairy Godmother Academy a pleasant enough diversion.


Dark Days: #1, Nightwalker; #2, Dayhunter; #3, Dawnbreaker. By Jocelynn Drake. Eos. $7.99 each.

     In a world preoccupied with vampires and their many depredations, focused nearly incessantly on variations on the vampire legend and mystique – that would be our world – there are certain characteristics that vampiric protagonists inevitably possess. Call them the three S adjectives: sinister, sleek and sexy. It’s a good thing that Jocelynn Drake has a couple of S words of her own – steady self-improvement as a writer – because, unfortunately, her central vampire character, Mira, has a fourth S that does her no good at all: stupidity.

     Mira is supposed to be more than 600 years old (although she looks 25, having become a vampire at that age). But from the start of Nightwalker, she is put off her game with such ease that it is simply not believable that she has survived so long and risen to a position of significant power. Just drawing her attention to something disturbing is enough to send her into a thoroughly unbecoming tizzy. Furthermore, throughout the first three Dark Days books, Mira consistently makes rash decisions that imperil her existence and cost others their lives; and although she attributes many of her problems to bad luck, readers will notice that she makes a lot of that bad luck for herself by doing things that just don’t make sense (and then has enough good luck to survive). Drake shows how Mira gets away with making errors time after time, turning these books into modern-day “Perils of Pauline” stories (with bloodsucking); and taken one at a time, Mira’s escapes do indeed make sense. “Most of my decisions were made on the fly,” she comments at one point in her first-person narrative, “and the fact that I was still alive was testament to my own stupid luck.” Or, as she comments elsewhere, “No matter what I did, I kept wading deeper and deeper into the mire until there was simply no escape.” Six hundred years of this? Even in the urban-fantasy genre, that’s stretching credulity.

     Luckily for Drake, she writes more stylishly than many other novelists in this genre, and has some interesting plot twists as well. That makes the Dark Days novels highly readable despite their many frustrating logical flaws. (Not to mention less-than-adequate editing: the books are filled with typos and errors, some of which create unintended hilarity: “No one had ever anyone vocally sworn to protect me.” “His laugh caused my eyes to open my eyes and focus on his handsome face again.”) In Drake’s world, there are humans, vampires (nightwalkers), werewolves (lycans), witches, warlocks, and two older, mysterious “guardian” races that “the gods created…to maintain the balance. The naturi were guardians of the earth, while the bori were guardians of all souls. The naturi existed in five clans – water, earth, animal, wind, and light.” Well, all right – except that the naturi, it turns out, are pure evil, because…well, just because Drake needs Mira to have super-powerful enemies: “They were horrid creatures whose only goal was to destroy anything that was not of their kind.” The first novel in this series, Nightwalker, is mostly about Mira’s discovery of the extent of her powers and the limits on them (again, after 600 years); the initial attempts of the naturi to return to the world after having been banished to another; and the deepening mystery of a man (or part-man) named Danaus, a vampire hunter who tends to steal scenes from Mira because he is in many ways a more interesting character than she is. Mira and Danaus develop an uneasy truce and (of course) turn out to be powerful allies – although just how powerful is revealed only in the second and third novels. Unfortunately, Drake returns repeatedly and increasingly unbelievably to the notion that Mira and Danaus have every intention of fighting to the death once the whole business with the naturi is concluded – despite their obvious compatibility and growing attraction to each other (unconsummated: these books are surprisingly light on sex for their genre, with Mira having only one brief fling). As Mira and Danaus save each other’s lives again and again, only to return to the notion that one day each will try to kill the other, it becomes harder and harder to accept the underlying eternal-enemies premise (which Drake will hopefully drop soon).

     One thing Drake has going for her is the ability to set scenes effectively. When Mira is forced to go to England at one point, she muses about the difficulties her kind and other with extrasensory powers have with their usual perceptual abilities in Great Britain: “There was too much old magic in these lands. Too many old gods had been born and died on this island; too many powerful warlocks had stretched their arms here. Magic doesn’t just die – it fades into the air and seeps into the earth. After centuries, this ground was saturated.” And, to Drake’s credit, she does not make Mira a completely sympathetic character – certainly not when pushed to her limits: “A part of me was aching for a fight. A couple of naturi to deal with, something to rip apart; their flesh squishing warmly between my fingers and collecting under my fingernails. …I craved just the sight of blood. I wanted to see it splashed across the skin and soaking into torn and shredded clothing. I needed the violence, an outlet for the frustration and the fear. In the brief moment when you are struggling to stay alive, you convince yourself that you’re actually in control of your life and destiny. And when you kill that which was trying to kill you, you bask in a moment of true power.”

     Purple prose, to be sure; but effective. Dark Days is, at this point, essentially a single long novel, with the second and third books picking up where the first and second, respectively, leave off. By the end of Dawnbreaker, Drake has thoroughly mixed and remixed her characters’ loyalties, created tensions between individuals and among groups, and given Mira the opportunity to stop the return of the naturi once and for all – but has then, rather unbelievably, snatched that chance away. That’s too bad, because it means that the fourth book in this series will likely be yet more of what has gone before. Since the books are becoming increasingly stylish and better-plotted as they go along, Drake may soon have the self-confidence to make more of Mira and take the Dark Days plots in new and more interesting (rather than merely more complicated) directions. She does not need to do this – in our current vampire-fascinated milieu, Dark Days already contains everything needed to mount the best-seller lists. But there are signs in these books that Drake can write something more than effective potboilers – if she decides that she wants to.

(+++) FIRED UP

The Hunger Games, Book 2: Catching Fire. By Suzanne Collins. Scholastic. $17.99.

Century Quartet, Book I: Ring of Fire. By P.D. Baccalario. Translated by Leah D. Janeczko. Random House. $16.99.

     The first book of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – simply called The Hunger Games – established an ugly, violent, terrifying world in which young people from each of 12 Districts are forced to fight to the death by a controlling entity called the Capitol. This is a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which the former United States has dissolved in chaos, leaving behind a loose confederation called Panem. There was once a District 13, but the Capitol wiped it off the face of the earth after a failed rebellion. The Hunger Games told the story of District 12’s Katniss Everdeen, whose name was not picked in the games’ deadly lottery but whose sister’s name was – so Katniss volunteered to take her place, eventually winning (along with her teammate, Peeta) after a great deal of blood and some genuinely scary scenes. Catching Fire shows the aftermath of that hollow victory. Katniss and Peeta are now expected to tour together and eventually marry – but Katniss does not love Peeta and wants to be with another boy, Gale. The seeds of rebellion are being sown again, with consequences sure to be disastrous – in one scene, a grandfather who makes a mild show of nonconformity is shot through the head – and Katniss finds herself torn between trying to protect those she loves and wanting to help fan the flames of dissent. In fact, Katniss herself is becoming a symbol of defiance, against her will and initially without her knowledge. This is a particularly significant time for the Games: the third Quarter Quell is about to begin – these are special Games held every 25 years. The last time there was a Quell was the last time someone from District 12 won: Haymitch, a recording of whose victory Katniss and Peeta need to watch – which means watching Haymitch, mortally wounded, struggling to hold his intestines in until he comes up with a maneuver that results in the death of the only other remaining competitor. Collins is as relentless throughout this book as in the previous one, as people close to Katniss keep being brutalized, snatched from her sight, maimed in horrible ways, or killed. Katniss and Peeta themselves must take part in the Quarter Quell, because this Game is “a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol.” There are twists and turns aplenty here, but the unrelenting sadism of the Gamekeepers and the rulers of the Capitol becomes a lot to take after a while; and for all the nobility and self-sacrifice of Katniss and those who care about her, Catching Fire finally seems to revel a little too enthusiastically in the blood and gore that Collins conjures up. There is, in the end, something faintly distasteful about the book, which is undeniably exciting but just as undeniably exploitative.

     Ring of Fire is far less violent and far more concerned with unraveling an ancient mystery. This first of a four-book series, originally written in Italian by P.D. (Pierdomenico) Baccalario, includes a bound-in color section of clues that readers can follow as they read the story of four 12-year-olds in search of objects of power representing the old notion of four elements – fire, earth, air and water. The protagonists were all born on February 29 and do not have much individualized personality beyond the fact that they come from different parts of the world: Elettra from Rome, where the first book takes place; Harvey from New York City, where the second book will be set; Mistral from Paris; and Sheng from Shanghai. The four initially meet by chance (or is it by chance?), and receive a briefcase from a strange man who is soon murdered. The briefcase contains the first clue to the Ring of Fire, which is said to be responsible for the Roman Emperor Nero’s destruction of the city: “As though he were a god, he destroyed the very thing that gave him power.” The book tends to bend over rather far backwards to tie into the ethos that has made Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and his other religio-historical mysteries such big hits. For instance, the narrative is interrupted four times by a mysterious page called a “stasimon” (staisima were choral odes within ancient Greek plays, but will readers of this book know that, or relate to the quotations from Seneca sprinkled within the narrative?). There is even a Gypsy woman who warns Elettra to “speak softly. There are…shadows…listening. Shadows that make the river howl.” In short, the plotting and prose are, respectively, overcomplicated and overwrought; but the mystery is often fascinating to follow, and its twists and turns will likely be attractive to many preteen and young teenage readers.


Ives: Decoration Day; The Fourth of July; Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day; The General Slocum; Overture in G Minor; Yale-Princeton Football Game; Postlude in F. Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus conducted by James Sinclair. Naxos. $8.99.

Beatles Go Baroque. Peter Breiner and His Chamber Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

     Charles Ives’ music was always a mixture of high art and low, even crude humor, drawing its expressiveness from highly complex rhythms and multitonality on the one hand and from the extremely simple harmonies of hymns on the other. Indeed, Ives often seems to be more than one composer inhabiting the same musical mind – as is clear in the very well played but rather oddly assorted works on a new Naxos CD in which Swedish forces are led by one of the top American Ives scholars and conductors, James Sinclair. The major piece here – three-quarters of it, anyway – is the Holidays Symphony. Therein lies the CD’s oddity. The symphony’s first movement is absent (Sinclair previously recorded it for Naxos with the Northern Sinfonia). Its second, third and fourth movements – Decoration Day, The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day – are given in order here, but not one after the other; they are separated by mostly shorter works that serve as what might be called punctuation points. The Holidays Symphony was never a musically unified piece; this disc’s arrangement treats it as separate tone poems, which is pretty much correct from a musical standpoint but is also a bit different from what Ives intended. All the movements are, in any case, played with considerable skill and, in the case of Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day, with the warmth that this piece – built by Ives from two of his early organ works – requires. As for the additional works here, The General Slocum portrays in music a horrendous 1904 explosion on an excursion boat – a disaster in which more than a thousand people died. The explosion itself resounds with considerable power and terror after Ives juxtaposes upbeat popular tunes of the day with ominous forebodings. Overture in G Minor is an early work that Ives wrote while studying music at Yale University. It sounds a bit like Tchaikovsky and other late Romantics, although even here, Ives’ unusual ideas about rhythm peek through. Postlude in F is an even earlier work – Ives wrote it for organ at age 15 and then orchestrated it while at Yale – and also quite a Romantic one, showing the influence of Wagner. Yale-Princeton Football Game is “low” Ives all the way, commemorating a famous 1897 game by re-creating the cheers, referee’s whistle and general enthusiasm. It originated as a piano improvisation, and even in Ives’ later, orchestrated version, it zips by quickly with a thoroughly uninhibited feel.

     The issue of high and low art – to the extent that it is an issue – is scarcely confined to Ives’ music. Beatles Go Baroque mixes things up to a quite delightful degree. This is scarcely the first time the Beatles’ songs have been recast in the form of older music – decades ago, there was even an LP called The Baroque Beatles Book. But the new Naxos CD, arranged and conducted by Peter Breiner, does not simply take Beatles tunes and set them in Baroque overture and dance formats. Instead, Breiner creates four works, each called a “Beatles Concerto Grosso” and each in the style of a different composer: Handel, Vivaldi, Bach and Corelli. The first, Handelian work includes “She Loves You,” “Lady Madonna,” “Fool on the Hill” and two other songs. The second piece, in Vivaldi’s style and also in five movements, starts with “A Hard Day’s Night” and ends with “Help,” and its use of violins – both solo and as a group – does indeed reflect Vivaldi’s approach. The third work, in the style of Bach, is more in the form of a Baroque suite than in that of a Concerto Grosso, opening with an Overture (“The Long and Winding Road”), continuing with four songs set in dance forms (including “Hey Jude” as a Polonaise!), and concluding with “Yellow Submarine.” The final piece on the CD, a four-movement work, is not specifically labeled as being in anyone’s style, but it reflects Corelli in its use of solo cello and violin and the overall feel of its arrangement. Beatles Go Baroque is not intended to be anything more than fun – Naxos even labels it as one of its “Light Classics” – but it offers an interesting melding of the structure of “serious” music with the catchy tunes and overall lightness of the popular-music world.

October 15, 2009


Henry and the Crazed Chicken Pirates. By Carolyn Crimi. Illustrated by John Manders. Candlewick Press. $15.99.

Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies. By Carolyn Crimi. Illustrated by John Manders. Candlewick Press. $6.99.

Where’s My Mummy? By Carolyn Crimi. Illustrated by John Manders. Candlewick Press. $7.99.

“Shwatsit!” No One Knows Just What It Means. By Christin Ditchfield. Illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw. Golden Books. $15.99.

The Yellow Tutu. By Kirsten Bramsen. Illustrated by Carin Bramsen. Random House. $15.99.

     Oh, the places you’ll go, as Dr. Seuss might have said (and, actually, did say). These books for preschoolers through third-graders (roughly ages 4-8) represent wonderful journeys to places exotic, spooky, or just like the home next door. Carolyn Crimi and John Manders are a particularly happy pairing of writer and illustrator for books targeting this age range: their books’ stories are simple (but not too simple), the pacing quick, the pictures very clever, and the overall effect delightful. In Henry and the Crazed Chicken Pirates, the young rabbit Henry finds a threatening note from an unknown enemy of the Buccaneer Bunnies and worries about disruption of their idyllic lifestyle (check out the very first illustration, showing the bunnies having fun by shooting each other out of cannons and swinging from their ship’s masts). No one else takes the note seriously, so Henry decides to write a book about what to do if the threat in the note comes true. Despite being derided by the Buccaneer Bunnies, he keeps thinking and writing – and when an airborne pirate ship full of crazed chicken pirates finally does appear, it is of course Henry who (hilariously) saves the day. And so he decides that it is time to write another book – one he will call Henry and the Crazed Chicken Pirates. That perfect circle of self-reference is typical of the amusements throughout this Crimi-Manders delight.

     This is not Henry’s first appearance but his second. His debut, Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies, is now available in paperback, and is just as delightful as it was when originally released in 2005. This is the book in which readers learn just who Henry is: the son of Barnacle Black Ear, pirate captain and “the baddest bunny brute of all time.” The book-loving Henry is a real disappointment to his dad – why, Henry won’t even keep a parrot on his shoulder until he reads about proper parrot care. But Henry’s book learning soon comes in mighty handy – not when a huge storm wrecks the pirates’ ship (they all ignored Henry’s warnings), but when the shipwrecked crew is fed, housed and clothed by Henry, using knowledge he gained from books. The message about the importance of reading and learning is clear here – and the way it is presented (particularly in a picture of the pirates decked out in elegant Henry-made costumes) is absolutely hilarious.

     For an equally funny but very different sort of book, there is Where’s My Mummy? This one is about Little Baby Mummy, who insists on playing just one more game of “Hide and Shriek” before bed – only to find himself separated from Big Mama Mummy. So he searches for her, encountering plenty of weird sounds and such creatures of the night as Bones, Glob and Drac – each of them warning Little Baby Mummy about the really scary things he may run into at night. Manders’ drawings of the monstrous creatures are wonderfully funny – Drac’s bat-covered pajamas and bedroom slippers are simply hysterical. But eventually, Little Baby Mummy does encounter something really scary – only to be rescued, just in time, by Big Mama Mummy, who takes him home and puts him peacefully to sleep. This is a very offbeat bedtime story indeed, and a thoroughly enjoyable one from start to finish.

     The amusement in “Shwatsit!” is summed up in the second part of the title: no one knows just what the baby means when saying the same nonsense word over and over again. There is nothing special about the setting here; the story could happen in anyone’s home. Christin Ditchfield keeps readers focused on the mystery of the incomprehensible word, while Rosalind Beardshaw’s pleasantly homey illustrations show all the things the word could mean and all the family’s attempts to figure it out. This book is a good vocabulary builder as well as a gently amusing story: kids will enjoy finding all the items in each illustration to which “shwatsit” could refer. Eventually, the family figures out what the word is really all about – and the solution is enough of a surprise to justify the big smiles on the faces of everyone (parents and three kids in addition to the baby). This is a sweetly told story that will be particularly appealing to families whose youngest children spend a lot of time trying to communicate, not always successfully.

     Sisters Kirsten and Carin Bramsen communicate very clearly indeed in The Yellow Tutu. Their message is to be yourself, see things your own way, and bond with like-minded people. Those are a lot of potentially heavy-handed lessons to learn from a single birthday present – the tutu of the book’s title – but they are communicated in a decidedly non-instructional way. It happens that Margo gets her birthday tutu on a school day, so she just has to wear it to school – on her head. Why there? Because the bright yellow makes her feel like sunshine. Margo’s sheer joy in her tutu comes through clearly in both words and pictures, as she heads for school wondering whether her sunniness will make flowers grow, birds sing happily and bees buzz more loudly. Unfortunately, Margo’s school friends are more down-to-earth about her costume, mocking and teasing her for wearing the yellow tutu on her head. Margo’s glistening eyes as she tries unsuccessfully to understand her friends’ reaction are heartbreaking. But one friend, Pearl, speaks up for Margo, saying she looks just like a sunflower (and we see Margo as a sunflower)…and Margo chimes in that she may look more like a lion (and we see her with a yellow-tutu mane, letting go with a really loud roar). So “Margo and Pearl skipped away from the other kids.” Later, they have an after-school tea party at which they both wear tutus on their heads (Pearl’s is pink). They imagine themselves as roses – and the final picture, showing two tutu-topped girls amid yellow and pink roses galore, is a gem. In fact, the entire book sparkles.


The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek: The Complete Sunday Comics 1903-1905. Edited by Peter Maresca. Sunday Press Books. $60.

     In the earliest years of newspaper comic strips, through the 1910s and even beyond, no one quite knew what to make of them. The result was an era of extraordinary inventiveness and exploration, with publishers allowing many artists to take up full Sunday newspaper pages – or at least half pages – for forays into everything from domestic strips to works so surrealistic that they might as well have sprung from the mind of René Magritte. The vast majority of the very early strips soon fell by the wayside and are virtually unknown today. Very few remember Harry Grant Dart’s weird “The Explorigator,” Herbert Crowley’s peculiarly poetic “The Wiggle Much,” Raymond Crawford Ewer and Stanley Armstrong’s strange slapstick “Slim Jim,” or Charles Forbell’s never-the-same-layout-twice “Naughty Pete.” Yet this era also included one of the very greatest strips of all time, Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” And it produced one of the most inventive and strange, Gustave Verbeek’s “The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo.”

     The inventiveness of Verbeek’s strip can scarcely be overstated. It was a six-panel work that was read in the usual way, then turned over and continued for an additional six panels of narrative – using the same art, but now upside-down. The notion of requiring newspaper readers to turn their paper the other way around in order to keep reading was revolutionary enough. The ability to create characters that would be inversions of each other – and a total of more than 60 stories whose narrative would work in this format – was nothing short of extraordinary. But that is just what Verbeek did during this strip’s run, from 1903 to 1905.

     Sunday Press Books, which has established itself as the preeminent restorer and reprinter of early comic-strip art, has now added The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek to a catalogue that already includes collections of Winsor McCay (not only “Little Nemo” but also his less-known but almost equally delightful “Little Sammy Sneeze”) and Frank King (Sunday “Gasoline Alley” strips). Gorgeously produced in large enough pages to allow Verbeek’s comics to be restored to their original size, The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek includes all the Lovekins/Muffaroo strips as well as a sampling of Verbeek’s other work. More than a century after Verbeek (1867-1937) drew these strips, their creativity remains astonishing – even after a reader looks carefully at them and discovers the many tricks Verbeek used to make the format work (including panels showing reflections, such as a lake; backgrounds such as brick walls; and characters with potato-shaped heads). What Verbeek did so well was to pull the artistic elements together to create a series of adventures – for these are adventure strips, despite their many amusing elements. In one, Lovekins and Muffaroo encounter a tiger and huge snake; in another, a “bad tramp” is a threat; an ostrich, a lion and an ogre are dangers elsewhere. Most of the strips lack dialogue, but when there is some, Verbeek letters it so it works upside-down in the second half of the strip – an amazing feat in itself. And there is an occasional panel that is hysterically funny, such as one in which Muffaroo and Lovekins try to grab a fish and end up in a three-character spinning wheel filled with hands, eyes and faces. The Upside-Downs really have to be seen to be believed.

     And it is doubly fascinating to see the strip in the context of Verbeek’s other work. This book includes some of Verbeek’s book illustrations, plus cartoons he drew for Judge magazine and, in Paris, for Le Chat Noir (including a hilarious sequence – risqué by U.S. standards – in which a naked man and woman paint bathing suits onto each other before going swimming in an area where nude bathing is not allowed). Verbeek’s later strips are represented, too: “The Loony Lyrics of Lulu” (1910), in which a girl and her father encounter weird creatures about which the girl writes limericks; and “The Terrors of the Tiny Tads” (1905-1914), Verbeek’s longest-running strip, in which four boys discover all sorts of weird creatures with portmanteau names: Hippopautomobile, Pantaloonatics, Flaminghost, Tamalligator (an alligator’s head with a tamale body!), a Dodoughnut and many more. The wordplay and clever drawings of these strips help explain their longevity and their popularity, for a time, as advertising vehicles (and, by the way, the cartoonist spelled his name “Verbeck” for this series).

     The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek also includes essays that put Verbeek and his work into perspective; an amusing newspaper article about the artist becoming a U.S. citizen (he was of Dutch ancestry but was born in Nagasaki and, because of an oddity in law, was considered a Japanese citizen – at a time when Japanese were ineligible for U.S. citizenship); and many more tidbits that make the book endlessly and delightfully fascinating. The world may have turned upside-down in the century since Verbeek drew his upside-down strips, but his version of an upside-down world remains as enthralling today as it did in those heady early days of newspaper comics.


Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. By T.S. Eliot. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Harcourt. $16.

Cat Dreams. By Ursula K. Le Guin. Illustrated by S.D. Schindler. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Epossumondas Plays Possum. By Colleen Salley. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Harcourt. $16.

The Two of Us: Why I’m Nuts about You. By Bob Elsdale. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     There is something about the silence, the slinkiness, the inherent mystery of cats, that makes them fascinating, at least on the page, even to many people who are not cat lovers in the everyday world. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was a source of delight long, long before it became the basis for the musical Cats. T.S. Eliot did his own cover illustrations for the first (1939) edition, and the entire book has been illustrated by Nicolas Bentley (1940) and Edward Gorey (1982). The whimsicality rather than some of the slightly more serious elements of Eliot’s poems comes to the forefront in the wonderful new illustrations by Axel Scheffler; and, happily, this new edition keeps the poetry intact, even if that may confuse some young 21st-century readers unfamiliar with “caviare, or Strassburg Pie,/ Some potted grouse, or salmon paste.” All 15 of Eliot’s cat poems are here, including “Cat Morgan Introduces Himself,” which was added to the original set in 1952. The cats’ names roll off the tongue as elegantly as ever: Growltiger, the Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistoffeles, Macavity, Bustopher Jones and all the rest. And the creativity of the verse makes this book as much fun to read aloud as silently: “I have a Gumble Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;/ Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.” Eliot was as superb a versifier in these lighter poems as in The Waste Land and his other far more intense and serious works. Scheffler’s illustrations are a joy, too: Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer talking to a friendly policeman, old Gus the Theatre Cat looking bemused as smiling rats play around and even on him, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat supervising “the bagmen playing cards” – all these and more are as lively as the words they support.

     S.D. Schindler enlivens Ursula K. Le Guin’s very simple but evocative text in Cat Dreams with a series of dreamlike but realistically drawn depictions of things that a cat just might enjoy while asleep: a rain of mice, a fountain spouting cream, a catnip tree. The animals here, including the cats and birds in the dream, are beautifully rendered, and there is a sense of spaciousness in the pictures that belies the reality of the cat asleep inside an ordinary house. But when the dream turns briefly (and not very frighteningly) nightmarish, the cat wakes up and realizes, “I need a lap” rather than a pillow to lie on, and climbs over to its human companion: “Her lap is the best, best place for a nap” – to fall purringly, peacefully asleep again, perchance to dream once more.

     There’s a cat in Epossumondas Plays Possum, too, but this one is “a ferocious, terrifying ol’ critter-eating swamp cat” that leaves Epossumondas alone when the possum plays dead – saying, “I don’t eat no dead meat.” The hero here is of course Epossumondas himself. He is an animal variant on the character Epaminondas, once popular in the tale Epaminondas and his Auntie but no longer well known because Epaminondas, like Little Black Sambo, was a stereotypical black character. Colleen Salley’s transformation of the human into the possum (abetted by Janet Stevens’ delightfully humorous illustrations) works quite well, since the essential naïveté and tendency to get into trouble are preserved without any hint of what would nowadays be considered racist overtones. The original tale’s “you ain't got the sense you was born with,” for example, is transformed into: “He’s not a naughty possum. But he is a forgetful possum.” In Epossumondas Plays Possum, the possum forgets the warning he has been given against wandering into the scary swamp, where the terrifying loup-garou (a sort of werewolf) is thought to roam. Epossumondas, following a butterfly, goes where he shouldn’t, gets lost, and responds by “playing possum” whenever he hears a sound. And it works – not only with the swamp cat but also with a snake and a swamp hog. But the fourth time Epossumondas plays dead, he almost gets into real trouble. He escapes, though – thanks to being ticklish – and his human mama finds her “clever little patootie,” and all ends happily. This is the fourth Epossumondas book, and it is every bit as enjoyable as the first three.

     There have been who-knows-how-many books comparing humans to animals, and the small-size, hardcover gift book called The Two of Us: Why I’m Nuts about You continues the trend. With that title, you might think the featured animals are squirrels, but no – they are chimpanzees, which are so closely related to humans genetically that their human-like behavior is scarcely a surprise. For that reason, and because some of the pictures do not quite match the text, Bob Elsdale’s book gets a (+++) rating. It will still be fun to give to a lover or really good friend, because some pictures are wonderful: the serious face that goes with “but you also think deep thoughts”; the wide-open-arms photo for “unabashedly affectionate”; the heartfelt hug for “fiercely protective.” The descriptions of the recipient’s positive qualities are always well chosen, even if it is hard to see what “an unwavering sense of right and wrong” has to do with a chimp on a sofa offering ones of its hands to its companion. But it’s hard not to like the final closeup of two chimp hands clasped tightly together – a single photo encapsulating what a close relationship, both human and almost-human, is all about.