November 24, 2010


Because of Mr. Terupt. By Rob Buyea. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

How Tía Lola Learned to Teach. By Julia Alvarez. Knopf. $15.99.

Penny Dreadful. By Laurel Snyder. Drawings by Abigail Halpin. Random House. $16.99.

Rascal: A Dog and His Boy. By Ken Wells. Illustrations by Christian Slade. Knopf. $16.99.

     Although set in recognizable places, these novels for readers ages 8-12 all have a whiff of fantasy and fairy tale about them, with interactions and lessons planned as neatly as they are in stories of wonder and magic. Because of Mr. Terupt not only features the oddly named teacher of the title but also is told in the voices of seven different fifth graders: Jessica, Alexia, Peter, Luke, Danielle, Anna and Jeffrey. There is a different type style used for each name at the start of chapters told by that student. And as in a fairy tale, each fifth-grader stands for something rather than having a fully fleshed-out personality. Luke, for example, is the smart kid who uses big words; Jeffrey hates being in school; Peter is the troublemaker, whose pranks lead to a serious accident in the middle of the book – toward which the first half builds and around which the second half is constructed. This is Rob Buyea’s first novel, and if the author’s inexperience is responsible for some awkwardness and some obviousness, it is also the source of a refreshing willingness to go beyond the standard elements of what could easily have been just another of the oft-told tales of a good teacher who inspires students by making the classroom fun while still enforcing appropriate discipline. Told on a month-by-month basis that tracks the school year, with the climactic mid-book event happening in the middle of the year and influencing everything that comes afterwards, Because of Mr. Terupt becomes a more thoughtful and involving book in its second half than in its first, even as its chapters get shorter. There is some mawkishness as the story winds down, but the uplifting ending will certainly please preteen readers – and it has the satisfying ring of many fairy-tale conclusions.

     How Tía Lola Learned to Teach is a school story as well – a followup to Julia Alvarez’ How Tía Lola Came to Stay. The book is set in Vermont, where Tía Lola now lives with her nephew, Miguel, and niece, Juanita, and their Mami. Miguel is in fifth grade, but Tía Lola never finished fourth grade, so when the school’s principal asks her if she would like to teach Spanish, she is understandably nervous (and is sort of tricked into the whole thing). Nevertheless, she agrees, and throws herself into the task with her usual ebullience, good humor and nontraditional approaches (which include a Carnaval fiesta and Spanish treasure hunt). The book is laid out in 10 “lessons” rather than chapters, each introduced by a Spanish phrase that is also translated into English – for example, “Camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente – The sleeping shrimp is carried away by the current.” These “lessons” tie into the events of the book, which include a variety of family matters – in particular, Miguel’s gradual adjustment to his unhappiness at living so far away from Papi, who has a new girlfriend. The prospect of Papi marrying this woman, Carmen, brings in one of the overt fairy-tale elements here: “Now, Miguel’s not a big reader like Juanita. But anyone who has read even a handful of fairy tales knows stepmothers can be pretty evil.” Still, the family issues are initially soft-pedaled here, taking a back seat to the school events – until an immigration matter becomes a very serious real-life situation indeed. The tone of the book makes it obvious that everything will be resolved happily, which is indeed what happens. And the pleasant nature of the characters, and warmth of their interactions, will have readers looking forward to the next Tía Lola story.

     Penny Dreadful is also family-focused, but the family situation is quite different. As in many fairy tales, this is the story of people who are rich, become poor, and discover new values. Penelope Grey’s father is president of a family firm where he hates his work – so he abruptly quits his job. The Greys live in an inherited house (a mansion, actually) in the city, with servants, but can no longer afford the upkeep of home and staff after Dirk quits so he can write a novel. They do not know what to do – but then the mother, Delia, gets a telegram (of all things) saying she has inherited a home in a rural area. Penelope considers herself responsible for all this – she has been terribly bored with her pampered life in the city and has made a wish for things to change – so she takes it upon herself to tell her parents what a wonderful change it would be to live out in the country. Of course, it is inevitable that the house in Thrush Junction will be run-down, but that people will make “homemade cinnamon applesauce” and otherwise be good, solid, non-city types, with kids who have worm battles. And the money troubles will not end (the rural house has some odd encumbrances attached to it), but Penny (having renamed herself from Penelope) will find the strength to face some grown-up issues – and will discover some real magic out in the boondocks. And, let’s see, Delia will get a job, and Dirk will discover he has a previously unrecognized talent, and everything will get a sprinkling of fairy dust (figuratively if not quite literally) so the family ends up realizing that what matters isn’t money and city life, but the good, honest, homespun warmth of the rural countryside. The book concludes with Penny thinking that things would have worked out better financially if she had been a character in a book, and with her friend, Luella, telling her that “things never happen the way they would in a book.” But if the way things happen in this book is not really surprising, Laurel Snyder’s character sketches and Abigail Halpin’s just-right drawings do guarantee that this almost-fairy-tale of the wonders of rural life goes down easily.

     Ken Wells’ Rascal partakes of different magical-story traditions – those of Aesop and the Br’er Rabbit tales. “A dog’s about runnin’ and chasin’ and eatin’ and barkin’. And love, love, love!” Rascal tells us early in the story – yes, the dog is the narrator. This is a Louisiana story, Cajun Louisiana, filled with dogs and cats and other wildlife, all the animals talking to each other while finding their own ways to communicate with humans. The humans and animals have similar names: Miss Henrietta and Big Maw and Nonc Noon Voclain and Tubby and Tante Lo-Lo and, best of all for Rascal, Meely, his boy. Rascal is all dog thought and all dog talk, if dogs could talk: “The scent is so warm and strong that I see it with my nose ‘bout the same way a person sees a white line painted down the middle of a blacktop road.” The big problem for Rascal is snakes. One of them, a cottonmouth (water moccasin) named Ole Swamp, tells Rascal, “Us snakes ran the place till them Two-Footers took over. …This is the thang about snakes – we’ve got long, long memories.” Ole Swamp, who turns out to be a pretty good guy, is a really great character who takes over most of the scenes in which he appears. Rascal asks him if maybe bobcats used to be in charge of things, and Ole Swamp says, “How could cats run anything? You get three cats together and you get seven opinions on everything.” Turns out Ole Swamp has a special interest in Rascal, because he has a special interest – for reasons we eventually learn – in Meely. And turns out there’s another cottonmouth, a one-fanged monster called Pick (“it’s short for Ice Pick”), that is the real enemy and real danger to dogs, cats, humans and just about everyone and everything else. So Rascal is a story of what it’s like to be a dog in Cajun country, and what it’s like living around all the other wildlife in the swamps, and what happens with a dog and his boy and the other dogs and cats and snakes and all the other personality-packed critters out there. Written largely in dialect and telling a story from an unusual place and several unusual angles, Rascal will be a very appealing book for young readers seeking something outside the ordinary. With apt illustrations by Christian Slade and a consistent tone that includes Cajun words and a Louisiana cadence throughout, the book moves inevitably to a thrilling climax that follows naturally from all that has gone before – and leads to an understanding, which even a beagle puppy such as Rascal can make clear, about all animals, including humans, having their proper place, even though every species has some good members and some bad ones. Rascal is not a romp but a ramble, filled with real threats and worries and even deaths. But it is, in the end, a celebration of life and the joy it brings to all species, each in its own way. It is certainly not for everyone, but it will be a very special treat for young readers looking for an offbeat story told from a series of surprising angles.

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