Anna Maria’s Gift. By Janice Shefelman. Illustrated by Robert Papp. Random House. $12.99.
Lawn Boy Returns. By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.
A book of historical fiction with music at its heart, Anna Maria’s Gift is a work set in the sort of place that will have to be explained to today’s children before they will fully understand the story. Its setting is an orphanage that is also a music school – a difficult-to-comprehend combination, more so at a time when orphanages themselves are nearly extinct in much of the world. So it will take a special sort of child to be interested in Janice Shefelman’s book – but those who do have the interest will be entranced. This orphanage, the Pietà in Venice, is well known to music historians as the place where, for many years, Antonio Vivaldi taught the young girls and composed hundreds of his concertos for them to perform. Vivaldi looms large in the narrative, but the primary focus is on the fictional Anna Maria, a nine-year-old girl with great musical talent and great sadness already in her short life. Shefelman makes her the daughter of a celebrated luthier – a violin maker – and has her most prized possession be the violin that her father gave her before his death. This is one meaning of the “gift” of the book’s title. A second gift is Anna Maria’s musical ability, which quickly brings her Vivaldi’s recognition and makes her the composer’s favorite among the orphan girls. And there is a third gift here as well: the gift of forgiveness, about which Anna Maria truly learns only after another girl, out of jealousy, throws Anna Maria’s violin into the canal. Anna Maria’s Gift is partly a story of the search for the violin, partly a story of Anna Maria’s search for calm amid terrible loneliness, and partly a story of the search for a miracle – the recovering of the missing instrument. This is a lot of material to pack into a book intended for ages 6-9, and some of this narrative may well be above young readers’ heads – not in the writing style, which is age-appropriate, but in the intertwining of classical music with early-18th-century customs and with the concept of forgiveness (within a clear religious context, although a downplayed one). Robert Papp’s illustrations help readers make the long-ago events and people seem alive, but the book will still be of most interest not to the general reader but to budding musicians and classical-music lovers of our own time.
Lawn Boy Returns is a story of our own time, for slightly older readers (ages 9-12) and with an older protagonist (age 12). This is Gary Paulsen’s sequel to Lawn Boy, and it brings back many of the oddball characters from the first book – the sorts of creations in which the prolific Paulsen specializes. Readers who have not read that earlier book really ought to do so before tackling this one, because Lawn Boy Returns, like many sequels, is really designed to keep the story going rather than to interest new people in it. The first book was a six-week whirlwind adventure for Lawn Boy, who intended to use an old ride-on mower to earn enough money to buy himself a new inner tube for his bike, but who soon found success beyond his wildest dreams and biggest plans. In Lawn Boy Returns, the success starts to catch up to him. Lawn Boy has become the sponsor of a boxer called Joey Pow, which is fine; but Joey’s long-lost, unsavory and greedy relative, Zed, has shown up and parked his trailer at Lawn Boy’s home, which is not fine. Lawn Boy is still making lots of money, which is fine, but the IRS is taking a significant interest in him, which is not fine. Lawn Boy is getting plenty of attention from the media and from girls, which is fine (all right, sort of fine), but he never has a moment’s rest or any time in which to be an ordinary 12-year-old, which is not fine. So in addition to all the slapstick – and there are plenty of funny scenes here – Lawn Boy Returns contains a message about knowing who you are and being true to yourself. Paulsen’s use of first-person narrative is especially effective in this story: “Grandma is amazing and fun, but there are times when she makes no sense. Still, if you think really hard, you can usually figure out what she means.” “My tongue was still stuck to the roof of my mouth. Which tasted like—well, never mind. It was bad.” And the chapter titles are part of the enjoyment here: “The Prudence of Adding Personnel to Manage Material and Financial Well-being,” “Brains Good, Brawn Sometimes Better,” and more. Paulsen’s devil-may-care style fits Lawn Boy Returns well, and if the book seems somewhat overdone and is not quite as innovative or amusing as its predecessor, it will certainly satisfy readers who wanted to know what happened after the original Lawn Boy story ended.