October 07, 2010


Dirtball Pete. By Eileen Brennan. Random House. $15.99.

Dust Devil. By Anne Isaacs. Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

The Cold Water Witch. By Yannick Murphy. Illustrations by Tom Lintern. Tricycle Press/Random House. $16.99.

Water, Weed, and Wait. By Edith Hope Fine and Angela Demos Halpin. Illustrated by Colleen Madden. Tricycle Press/Random House. $15.99.

A Place Where Hurricanes Happen. By Renée Watson. Illustrated by Shadra Strickland. Random House. $17.99.

     Ah, the wonders of water – or the lack of it. Eileen Brennan’s Dirtball Pete certainly needs a good cleaning: he is a constant mess, and stinky, too. But one day he has to get clean, because he needs to do a school presentation dressed as one of the 50 states (Pennsylvania). Scrubbed and polished by his mother and dressed in a suit and tie, Pete – whose head is larger than the rest of his body – looks great, but he still smells pretty ripe. Reason: his pet ferret, which he is trying to take to school. So – keep the ferret at home. But then the dog, Jack, runs over to see Pete, complete with muddy paws. And on the way to school, Pete lies down in the car, on top of his leaf collection. And even though his mom gives him “one final tidying,” Dirtball Pete becomes a complete mess, anyway – because his Pennsylvania speech blows away, and he has to chase it through a sprinkler, under bushes, into a trash can…. Well, the soggy and stained Dirtball Pete looks “like a scraggly weed in a vase of flowers” by the time he joins the other kids. But then Dirtball Pete, clopping and squishing to the front of the stage, delivers his speech “with the loudest and clearest voice of all,” and everyone in the audience realizes how special he is under all that dirt. Great story – but make sure the kids don’t use it as an excuse to avoid baths for, say, a month or two.

     Another great story – one that kids can’t imitate – is Dust Devil, which picks up after the end of Anne Isaacs’ and Paul O. Zelinsky’s Swamp Angel, a tall tale about a tall gal who, in the tradition of the American Wild West, is the wildest wildcat in Tennessee. Eventually she outgrows the whole state and moves to Big Sky country, where a dust storm whose “wind tore across Montana faster than a baby ripping a newspaper” wrecks pretty much everything, “tossing buckets, goats, and pitchforks in every direction.” But Angel rides that storm for two days and two nights until, finally, it begins to rain – and as the dust washes away, Angel finds a giant horse in the middle of the dust cloud, rides him to calmness, and names him Dust Devil. And all that dust and water and wind and such is just the prelude to an adventure that also includes the evil Backward Bart (“half rattlesnake, half badger, and half mad hornet”) and his mosquito-riding gang (they have big mosquitoes in Montana). Well, with Bart talking backward – and Angel having to do the same to make him understand her – there’s a big battle that Angel eventually wins with biscuits, and the whole thing explains Montana features such as the Sawtooth Range and the state’s geysers. And a big Yippee (or, as Bart says it, “Pee-yip”) to all the dust and rain and lightning and the rest of it.

     Water is quieter – frozen, in fact – in The Cold Water Witch, a modern fairy tale in which the title character tries to entice (or, if necessary, force) a little girl to take her place as ruler of a distant, frozen land. Yannick Murphy twists fairy-tale themes around, having the witch defeated by a method similar to the one used by Gretel to get rid of her witch – but, here, without a fatal outcome, as in fact the witch turns out to be an unhappy creature who was herself enticed into her current state by the previous Cold Water Witch, who came to her on the coldest night of the year. With appropriate fairy-tale-like illustrations by Tom Lintern complementing the story, Murphy has the witch’s iciness actually melt as she thinks of her own loneliness, until eventually there are two little girls keeping each other company throughout the cold, cold night, both making believe “they were at a white sandy beach…under an imaginary summer sun.” The result is a wonderful feeling of transition from frigidity to warmth.

     Warmth is helpful in Water, Weed, and Wait, too, as the kids at Pepper Lane Elementary School learn how to start a garden, and even grumpy old Mr. Barkley – who happens to be a fine gardener – ends up pitching in. There is plenty of solid real-life information here, from the need for water “but not too much water” to the book’s title, which describes exactly what the students need to do. There is even information on worm poop: “Plants love it. Pests hate it,” explains one character. It is a little hard to imagine kids being quite so enthusiastic at the sight of radishes, but the fun of planting, watering and growing a garden certainly comes through clearly here. And the big smiles on all the faces at the end of the story – when everyone is dressed in a garden-related costume – certainly convey the joy of helping things grow. Two pages of information on how to create your own school garden, with a checklist and a set of online resources, make the book useful as well as enjoyable.

     Of course, gardens are not the only things that suffer from too much water. So do people – even whole cities – which is the story related in A Place Where Hurricanes Happen. The place is New Orleans; the hurricane, Katrina. The story is told in a series of first-person narratives by children affected by the big storm five years ago: Adrienne, Keesha, Michael and Tommy. They talk about boarding up their houses, sitting in traffic to get out of town, watching the city flood (Michael’s family does not leave and is eventually moved to a shelter), and dealing with the loss of homes and possessions – and the eventual return to the city and the slow start of the process of rebuilding. The book seems to be written more as self-affirmation for Hurricane Katrina survivors than to give kids in general a strong sense of the storm and its aftermath. It is very well-meaning and respectful – it has the feeling of a tribute – but sometimes seems almost too glib about the survival instinct, as when the friends hang a picture and flowers on a tree so “if any of our neighbors ever come back or if they can see us from Heaven, they will know that we didn’t forget about them.” A Place Where Hurricanes Happen deserves a (+++) rating as a heartfelt remembrance, but families who were not personally affected by Katrina may find it a bit difficult to make a strong connection with the tale as it is told here.

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