September 30, 2010


Art & Max. By David Wiesner. Clarion. $17.99.

Who Said Coo? By Deborah Ruddell. Illustrated by Robin Luebs. Beach Lane. $16.99.

Kindergarten Cat. By J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrated by Ailie Busby. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Disappearing Desmond. By Anna Alter. Knopf. $17.99.

Dog Loves Books. By Louise Yates. Knopf. $16.99.

Hallowilloween. By Calef Brown. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

     Kids can learn as much from fictional animals as from taking care of real ones, and many top-notch books for young readers rely on most children’s immediate attraction to animal stories to teach or simply entertain. Art & Max is one of those rare books that do both things equally well. On the surface a supremely silly story about two amazingly well-drawn lizards having a sort of artistic competition, David Wiesner’s book is in fact about art itself – what it means to create art, who decides what art is, and how art is constructed and deconstructed. That seems like a heavy load for a short picture book to carry, but the book handles its subject so cleverly that kids (and parents, for that matter) may not even realize how much they are learning – they will be too busy having fun. The very title has a double meaning, because the larger, well-trained artist is named Art, while the smaller one – eager but thoroughly unskilled, and inclined to make messes – is named Max. So the story is about Art the lizard and Max…and also about small-a art and Max. Told that he can paint if he doesn’t get in Art’s way, Max asks what he should paint, and Art says he could paint him – that is, Art. So Max does – throwing colors all over the larger lizard, and making things worse (and funnier) when he tries to “fix” what he has done. He eventually gives Art water that dilutes the colors so much that Art loses all color and becomes an outline, which Max then unravels and has to reassemble into Art’s shape. The best pages here are wordless or nearly so, as Wiesner lets his really exceptional drawings carry the story along, which they do brilliantly (in two senses: they do so exceptionally well, and their colors are brilliant). Highly unusual – highly entertaining.

     Who Said Coo? is more conventionally plotted but has some unusual elements of its own, since its animal stars are a pig, a pigeon and an owl – not at all a typical combination. The pig, Lulu, simply wants to sleep, but noises keep her awake – not just the pigeon’s coo and owl’s whoo but also some noises that the birds make purely for fun, such as “moo.” Fed up, Lulu shoos the birds away, then feels bad when she hears “boo-hoo” – she has made them sad. So she invites them inside, everyone has cocoa, and all three friends have a nice rest. Until another bird suddenly starts making a racket – setting up an amusing conclusion for everyone. Robin Luebs’ pleasantly soft-edged drawings nicely complement Deborah Ruddell’s amusing text, which makes much use of the “oo” sound: Lulu, coo, whoo, boo-hoo, snooze, and more.

     Cats are much more common animals in kids’ books, but Kindergarten Cat is a special one: she learns along with the class, even though she can only make kitty sounds. A stray, found and rescued by the school custodian, she knows what sort of animal likes to go after mice and birds: “ME-ow,” she says. She knows that if a little rabbit falls out of bed, it would say, “me-OW!” She tells a little boy two things that go together: “ME-YOU.” The class names the kitten Tinker Toy and thinks of her as Thinker Tinker Toy – and everybody learns a little something. J. Patrick Lewis’ rhyming story is just right for kindergartners, and Ailie Busby’s illustrations do a fine job of capturing the fun and learning that the kids and Tinker Toy experience together.

     The cat named Desmond has something to learn, too, but it is not a traditional school lesson. Anna Alter’s Disappearing Desmond is a book about shyness – and how, with kindness and friendship, it can be overcome. Desmond hides among statues in the museum by covering himself with baby powder; he hides behind a snowman while other kids throw snowballs; he hides at school, also finding clever ways to do so during field trips (swimming with the turtles at the aquarium while wearing a wet suit and flippers that make him hard to see). Desmond even manages to hide in plain sight from his teacher – until, one day, a new student named Gloria, who likes to be noticed, shows up. And she notices Desmond, even when he is standing still and trying to be unnoticeable. Gently but persistently, Gloria says hi to Desmond again and again, until one day they start reading together, then doing other things together; and after a while, Desmond “couldn’t remember why he ever wanted to disappear in the first place.” And soon he is able to help other shy kids – a wonderful lesson in obtaining knowledge (in this case, social knowledge) and passing it along.

     Desmond and Gloria make their first major connection through a book, and books are also at the heart of Louise Yates’ Dog Loves Books, about a dog that loves books so much that he decides to open his very own bookstore. That seems a bit anachronistic in these days of computer screens and e-readers, and indeed things do not go well for Dog at first: a lady comes in, mistakenly, to order tea, and a man comes in to ask for directions, but nobody wants to buy books. So Dog, downhearted but refusing to stay that way, decides to read books while waiting for people to buy them. And Yates beautifully (and age-appropriately) conveys the magic of books: Dog “forgot that he was alone,” “forgot that he was in the bookstore,” and started on a new adventure as soon as he finished the old one. The pictures showing Dog’s reading adventures – dinosaurs, kangaroos, space creatures – are a wonderful encapsulation of the charm of reading. And then Dog gets a nice surprise when a little girl comes in actually looking for a book. Thanks to his own reading, Dog knows which ones to recommend – and he realizes that the best thing about books is sharing them with others. What a heartwarming and uplifting message!

     Hallowilloween is supposed to be bone-chilling (at least a little bit) rather than heartwarming, but Calef Brown can’t control his penchant for amusement in this book of “nefarious silliness,” as the subtitle has it. The animals here are appropriately ghoulish (a wolf – that is, a werewolf – plus ants and alley cats and even “the oompachupa loompacabra,” whose habits combine those of the famous fictional chocolate factory’s oompa loompas with those of the scary chupacabra of the Western plains). There are sort-of-people as well as sort-of-animals here, such as the Vumpire (who only works night games), Duncan the shrunken head, and “the horrible portrait of Gory René,” which for some reason keeps getting more handsome over time (kids may need an explanation of Oscar Wilde to understand that one completely). Intended, of course, as a book for the Halloween season, Hallowilloween is actually fun anytime – perhaps because, as the biography on the back flap notes, “Calef Brown is a blue phantom elephant” who “is mostly sane, except when he is otherwise.” There’s certainly a lesson in there somewhere.


My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. Edited by Kate Bernheimer, with Carmen Giménez Smith. Penguin. $17.

Three Classic Children’s Stories. Drawings by Edward Gorey. Text by James Donnelly. Pomegranate Kids. $17.95.

The Fairy Tale Book. Adapted by Liz Scoggins. Illustrated by Lisa Jackson. Scholastic. $9.99.

The Bedtime Story Book. Adapted by Jen Wainwright. Illustrated by Angel Dominguez. Scholastic. $9.99.

     With contributions by such well-known writers as Neil Gaiman, Aimee Bender, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Kim Addonizio, the new collection edited by Kate Bernheimer (who also contributes a story of her own) is an outstanding book – provided that you do not take its subtitle at face value. This is not a set of new fairy tales but a reconsideration, revamping, retelling and reinterpretation of dozens of old tales – not 40, either, since some are used by more than one contributor (and just to confuse things even more, there are actually 41 stories in the book). There are reworkings of Grimm and Perrault stories here, and of the Disney version of old tales, and of stories by Goethe and by Italo Calvino. Every single piece in the book is far more overtly (if not psychologically) complex than the originals – which were never intended for children but were explanations of aspects of the world and the way it works (or should work, or might work). There have in fact been many, many instances of fairy tales being redone, updated, interpreted through the lens of (for example) feminism or psychoanalysis, and generally turned into something different from what they originally were – whether something more or something less is a matter of opinion. The title of this new collection is a pretty good echo of the sort of underlying theme that gives fairy tales continued resonance – even, to some extent, in the Bowdlerized versions in which they have been known since the Victorian age. Specifically, the title refers to the theme of the Grimms’ “The Juniper Tree,” and therefore to Alissa Nutting’s “The Brother and the Bird” rewrite, which uses the title’s exact words. The stories in the collection, all of them well written (although stylistically very different), sacrifice the simplicity and straightforward nature of fairy-tale narrative (in which fantastic events happen often, but are always described matter-of-factly) in favor of styles that call attention to themselves and themes that extract underlying content from the tales or, in some cases, add additional material to them (whether weighty or merely heavy is, again, a matter of opinion). Thus, in Michael Martone’s “A Bucket of Warm Spit” (based on “Jack and the Beanstalk”): “The water rained from the ground pouring into the sky sighing as it went. The water, it up and went.” From Rabih Alameddine’s “A Kiss to Wake the Sleeper” (based on “Sleeping Beauty”): “I was a mess. I had SCID (no dirty jokes about skid marks, not that kind of mess – ha, ha), Severe Combined Immunodeficiency. No B cells, no T cells, nothing to protect me from any organism wishing to penetrate my body.” From Joyelle McSweeney’s “The Warm Mouth” (based on “The Bremen Town Musicians”): “What does it signal? What can it mean? This pattern in the blinds and shades. This blind pattern. And how a gunshot’s made a sunburst of the cashier’s booth.” And “Cinderella,” that prototypically simple title, becomes, for Stacey Richter, “A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in the Urban Facility.” Each of these stories – and each of the others in the book – is interesting to read, and most have unusual approaches to fairy-tale themes even if those themes connect only vaguely to the events narrated by the modern authors. It can be especially interesting to read alternative approaches to similar tales – there are two takes on “Bluebeard” and two on “The Little Mermaid,” for example. The writing is by and large modern or post-modern, which means it tends to be self-referential and sometimes self-conscious – pretty much the opposite of typical fairy-tale narration, which in many cases was written down from oral traditions that, of necessity, valued simplicity and repetition above stylistic elegance. There are also a few stories here based not on what are usually called fairy tales but on such myths and legends as “Cupid and Psyche” and Homer’s “Odyssey.” In all, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is a mixed bag, as anthologies tend to be, but it is an unusually high-quality one in terms of its writing; and if many of the authors overwhelm the fairy tales that inspired their works, at least they demonstrate – through their interpretations and reinterpretations – the enduring power of those old tales’ underlying themes, no matter how filtered those subjects may be through 20th- and 21st-century thinking and 20th- and 21st-century prose.

     There is filtering going on as well in Three Classic Children’s Tales, which hew fairly closely to the original fairy tales but are directed at somewhat older children than those to whom those tales are usually told. The age-related reason is not Edward Gorey’s illustrations – they are quite wonderful and quite appropriate to the subjects, but there is nothing in them to disturb young kids’ minds or their sleep. However, James Donnelly – even though his text gets second billing to Gorey’s pictures, and his name appears in smaller print – manages to enliven three familiar stories with some very fresh and funny writing. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, right after Red meets the wolf (who arrives with a “WHUMP and a minor cloud of dust”), Donnelly writes, “Little Red Riding Hood had heard her share of wolf stories – how the sleigh carrying Count Mazurka and all his gold had been found, horseless and Countless, overturned in the snow among a welter of sharp-clawed pawprints; how Lame Edgar’s beard turned white overnight while he clung terrified to a high branch, the Black Mountain pack gazing hungrily up at him till dawn.” In “Jack the Giant Killer,” Donnelly gives the giant a name, Gawr, and says of one of his depredations, “Passing an abbey, he plucked up and devoured a monk distracted by prayer; then he ate the abbot’s milch cow, and then he ate the abbot.” And in “Rumpelstiltskin,” whose heroine, the miller’s daughter, is given the name Omoline, the A-to-Z list of “common names” that Omoline tries out on the little man includes Egismund, Hortipher, Kidneigh, Lupinaster, Roygedowdy, Turlock, Venividivici and Wobshire. Later, when – in an amusingly extended scene – Omoline learns the true name from a faithful but long-winded courtier, she deliberately draws out her revelation of it, using such phrases and sort-of-names as “rumpled storkskin,” “purple stickpin,” “Crumble Skunkstink” and “Simple Rumpsplint.” The breezily offbeat writing beautifully sets off Gorey’s immediately recognizable and wonderfully detailed drawings, which date to the 1970s. And Gorey really does a marvelous job of implying violence without showing it: in “Little Red Riding Hood,” the only visible part of the cut-open wolf is his feet; Jack brains the giant with a shovel, but except for the word “WHANG,” there is no attack shown; and Rumpelstiltskin does not tear himself in half, but rather stamps a “jagged, smoke-filled hole” in the floor and sinks into it, after which the hole heals itself. By retaining the narrative of the tales while expanding it both verbally and visually, Three Classic Children’s Stories becomes a very special experience that will bring considerable pleasure to children and parents alike.

     Most fairy-tale books for children hew much more closely to the simplistic versions of the stories, though; indeed, the Victorian forms of fairy tales (which began to appear in later editions of the Grimms’ collection, although not their first edition) have proved remarkably durable and have themselves produced even-more-watered-down stories through Disney renditions and others. The Fairy Tale Book and The Bedtime Story Book both contain fairy tales and are both subtitled “Classic Tales from Childhood,” so families can rest assured that there will be nothing unexpected or particularly disturbing here. It is, however, interesting how many of these stories are taken from the works of Hans Christian Andersen, whose original tales are quite gloomy and generally offer solace only in the form of adherence to the tenets of organized Christianity (several of them are, in fact, anti-Semitic). Andersen’s stories are inevitably adapted for collections like these. “The Tinderbox” becomes far less gritty and far less violent; “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” gets a happy ending instead of a bittersweet one; “The Little Mermaid” retains some of the original’s ambivalence but none of the religious reasons for it (Andersen has the mermaid lacking a soul and needing to work diligently after her final death and transformation to obtain one); the wonderful “goblin mirror” opening of “The Snow Queen” is barely mentioned, so the tale can become a story of innocent love. All these are in The Fairy Tale Book, along with other stories from several sources. The Bedtime Story Book includes Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as well as Grimm and Perrault tales and legends from Norway, Africa and elsewhere. Both of the books are well-made small-size hardcover volumes that will fit nicely into a child’s personal library and make pleasant, if unchallenging, daytime or nighttime reading. They get (+++) ratings because, while they do what they do well, what they do is not particularly special or innovative. Indeed, kids may have all or at least most of these stories already, in other volumes and perhaps other versions. But for children who do not have similar collections, these two are just fine and should be quite enjoyable.


Built to Last. By David Macaulay. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.95.

The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City. By Stephen Dando-Collins. Da Capo. $25.

     We live today in a throwaway world, for all that the environmental movement is trying to encourage reuse and recycling. Actually, in a sense, even reuse and recycling can be a form of throwing away, if the original objects disappear or are put to different uses from those for which they were designed. The tendency to tear down and redo extends far beyond everyday consumer goods – houses, for example, are often torn down so new ones can be built in their place, sometimes reusing certain old materials but sometimes not. Even modern monumental works were not necessarily intended to last for ages: the Eiffel Tower, for example, was planned as a temporary display before it became iconic. Some human constructions, however, were planned to remain long past their builders’ lifetimes, and David Macaulay discusses three examples in considerable detail in Built to Last. Two-thirds of the book is, ironically, recycled: Macaulay wrote Castle and Cathedral more than 30 years ago, and now they are reappearing together, along with a new section called Mosque. The older material has been well updated – Macaulay explains some of the “how” in introducing the book – and the three sections blend well while still retaining distinctive identities (Mosque is the only one using watercolors, for example). Although this is essentially an architecture book, it is one with a strong narrative voice, as Macaulay explains how his fictional structure in Castle is closely based on ones built between 1277 and 1305 to help King Edward I conquer and hold Wales; how the imaginary Cathedral is constructed using methods employed from the 12th through the 14th centuries in the building of European cathedrals; and how the fictional complex of buildings discussed in Mosque is modeled on actual architecture built in Istanbul between 1540 and 1580. Because the castle, cathedral and mosque are not real, Macaulay is not required to deal with the history of specific buildings – he can focus instead on how certain types of buildings were constructed so they would serve their purposes for many centuries. This lets him choose specific elements to which to pay attention. For example, he can show how the pipe from the cistern runs into the castle kitchen and where the garderobes (toilets) were placed so that waste would accumulate in a cesspit at the foot of the wall, to be cleaned out periodically. He can easily explain and illustrate how a cathedral’s window frameworks were made (they were cut from templates) and how wooden centerings were constructed to make it possible to build the flying buttresses that would prevent the structure’s heavy ceiling from pushing the walls outward. And he can explain the unfamiliar-to-many-readers parts of a mosque, such as the hypocaust and hamam, while also showing what sort of work could be done during winter even when snow and ice covered the building’s foundation. Built to Last is a fascinating piece of historical reportage as well as architectural explanation, and its very extensive illustrations – attractive in themselves – clarify the text and make the buildings and some of those who erected them seem very much alive.

     Older and longer-lasting than anything in Built to Last are the remains of some of the structures of ancient Rome. The Roman ruins – and some elements of the city that remain in use, such as parts of its ancient aqueducts – have survived not only time and periods of deliberate destruction by invaders and Christian rebuilders, but also catastrophes that occurred within Rome’s glory days themselves. One of the most infamous of those destructive events was the great fire that happened in the year 64 A.D. – the one during which, famously, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” Except that that never happened. For one thing, fiddles did not exist. Nero did play the lyre – likely doing so, among other times, on the night that the fire broke out – but that does not mean he played it from madness or some sort of grotesque joy at the city’s destruction. Australian historian Stephen Dando-Collins demolishes this and many other myths about Nero and the Rome of his time in the very well-written and very well-paced The Great Fire of Rome. Dando-Collins is in fact something of an admirer of Nero, to whom history has been less than kind. Nero was the last of the Roman emperors in the Caesarean line, and his eventual suicide in the year 68 – when he was just 30 years old – led to civil war that produced the infamous Year of the Four Emperors: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian all held power in 69 A.D., and the first three were toppled that year. Nero, as Dando-Collins tells it, was young, naïve, artistic, bisexual, and the subject of the unremitting hatred of numerous powerful Romans. He was certainly no saint, although his relatively modest depravities (by the standards of the time) scarcely compare with those of his predecessors (Caligula comes immediately to mind). And Nero was a builder: not long before the great fire, he began construction of a 160-mile shipping canal, and his creation of the Golden Palace (at whose entrance stood a 120-foot-high statue of the emperor himself) is famous (or notorious), and later became the site of the Colosseum (its name perhaps taken from Nero’s statue, which was called the Colossus). Dando-Collins weaves a wealth of historical information, much of it from primary sources, through his tale of the flames that broke out in a shop beneath the Circus Maximus and eventually spread through most of Rome, nearly burning the Eternal City to the ground in one week. But if Nero did not “fiddle” during the inferno, and did not blame the Christians of Rome for setting the blaze (a longstanding innuendo), then what really happened, and why did Nero become the scapegoat for the disaster? What Dando-Collins does so well, in addition to re-creating the sense of Rome 2,000 years ago, is explain both the confluence of events leading to the fire (including problems with the city’s water supply and poor firefighting arrangements) and the later circumstances that led to the besmirching of Nero’s name: he had no heirs (his wife, Poppaea Sabina, died while pregnant, along with their child), and the history of his reign was written by political enemies who had many reasons for vilifying the unfortunate emperor. The Great Fire of Rome will not, of itself, reverse nearly two millennia of anti-Nero propaganda, but it is a clearheaded, intelligent look at what sort of man the last Caesar seems really to have been, and how the devastating fire for which he was wrongly blamed led to the ruin of his rule and reputation – but not, it should be noted, to that of Rome, a city that was truly built to last.


Z. By Michael Thomas Ford. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Ghost Huntress, Book 4: The Counseling. By Marley Gibson. Graphia. $8.99.

As You Wish. By Jackson Pearce. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Love Sucks! By Melissa Francis. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Vampire Boy’s Good Night. By Lisa Brown. Harper. $16.99.

     There are scary things out there, wherever “there” may be, in most novels about the supernatural. And those things have to be handled carefully and with the utmost attention and seriousness, because lives are at stake, and sometimes souls, and sometimes even the whole world – and if you do not buy fully into the ethos in which all this is occurring, there is a risk you will spend your reading time noticing the holes in the books’ plots or even laughing at the wrong places (assuming there are any right ones). So Z, which if nothing else deserves an award for the brevity of its title, is about hunting zombies (called z’s with a small letter) in virtual reality, and also about a mysterious drug (called Z with a capital letter). But soon enough, the game at which Josh is an expert Torcher (torching being the preferred method of eliminating zombies) leads him to an “In Real Life” (IRL) game – if it is a game – played on the streets. His entry to IRL comes through a girl named Charlie, the best virtual-game player of them all – assuming everything she is involved in is virtual. It is very easy to see where Michael Thomas Ford’s book is going; it is somewhat more interesting to know where it has been. In this world, there really were zombies, some 15 years earlier, and there really was a zombie war that devastated families – Charlie’s father, for one, turns out to have survived only through a desperate measure. Now the real-world game and the hologame both exist, and the real-world one must (of course) be kept secret. Why? Well, of course there is great evil afoot, and of course it is tied into the drug Z, and eventually Josh and his friends must confront a horde of real-world zombies, and learn the horrible ways in which the creatures have been deliberately created…. Well, it is all nonsense, but fast-paced and often thrilling nonsense that it does not pay to question too closely.

     Nor should the Ghost Huntress series be looked at too carefully. Marley Gibson, herself a self-described ghost huntress, says that series protagonist Kendall Moorehead has feelings and experiences like those of real-world psychics; and maybe that is hype to sell books, and maybe not. In any case, Kendall’s teen troubles are intended to be taken very seriously: her psychic gift has actually led to her death (temporarily), and so she is understandably wary of it at the start of The Counseling. Therefore, Kendall goes to a special sort of “retreat” in northern California, where she and other psychically gifted young people confront their abilities, fears and worries. But Kendall’s ghostly visitors do not take time off, and one in particular keeps appearing to her asking Kendall to “find” her. Even more strangely, this ghost, Hailey, also appears to someone else at the retreat – a boy named Patrick, to whom Kendall is attracted, but who has deep fears of his own to confront. Oh – and he and Kendall communicate telepathically. Gibson seems never to have met a plot point she could not smooth out by introducing a new one, usually supernatural but not always (the use of Skype is actually a nice touch). Eventually, Kendall and Patrick and the other teen psychics solve the mystery surrounding Hailey, and Kendall and Patrick give in to their mutual attraction, and everything is nicely set up for the next book. It is all unnaturally, or supernaturally, neatly tied together.

     After all this seriousness, it is nice to find a touch of humor in a book with a supernatural focus. Jackson Pearce’s As You Wish has an even more absurd plot than do most fantasies and most romances – but then, it is a fantasy-romance, so it comes by its multiple layers of silliness naturally. It is the story of a girl named Viola who wants desperately to be loved again (her boyfriend has broken up with her) and wants equally desperately to belong, to fit in with other people. So she unwittingly summons a jinn from the world of Caliban. Never mind how (Pearce never bothers to explain); it just happens. And the jinn (whom Viola soon calls Jinn, with a capital J, thus giving him a name) will not only grant her three wishes but also must grant them in order to free himself from Earth – where he most decidedly does not want to be – and return home. But it turns out that wishes are not all that easy to make. For instance, a wish for world peace will be immediately granted – but as soon as someone fires a gun, the peace will be broken. Tricky. Even trickier are Viola’s developing attachment for Jinn – and, trickier than tricky, the possibility that he may be falling in love with her as well, despite the fact (if it is a fact) that a jinn cannot fall in love. Throw in an ifrit (sort a jinn boss), some wishes that misfire, a trial on Caliban, and a few other offbeat items, and you have a book that rushes headlong to a foregone conclusion but at least retains something of a sense of humor along the way.

     There are touches of humor in Love Sucks! as well – following up on the same sorts of touches in Melissa Francis’ previous book, Bite Me! (not to be confused with a Christopher Moore book with the same title). AJ Ashe, teenage vampire and newly minted official adult (she has just turned 18), has to learn in Love Sucks! to control her vampiric superpowers (by dating her trainer, who is also a mindreader) and also control her impulses toward her ex-boyfriend (who has ended up as her stepbrother). Oh – and get used to the idea that her mom is about to have a baby. Let’s see, what else? Her father still wants to take over the world, with AJ’s help, and the prom is coming up, too. By page 17, AJ and readers are already encountering a demon that is “part gorilla, part human, with long arms and a giant head. It was kinda like a furless Sasquatch with fangs” that talks “in a gravelly voice, like Kathleen Turner after too many cigarettes.” AJ is the “key holder,” which is really important, and she is sort of bound to the bad guys because she is “Serpentine,” but not full-blooded, so maybe not totally bound to them. And if all this sounds both ridiculous and confusing – well, the first adjective is correct, but the second not so much so, because it is just impossible even to try to take all the whosits and whatsits seriously here. Francis deserves plenty of credit for making the book fun to read: “There was a lot to be said for a man who could make me laugh while I was being wooed to the dark side by Hooded Evil.” And having a search for powerful runes coexist with prom planning is pretty neat. The line, “This was going to be very messy,” refers to an important plot element, but could just as well describe the plot as a whole. It is messy, and silly, and sometimes the serious elements and amusing ones coexist very uneasily indeed. The climactic confrontation, intended to be very intense, is less so because of the overhang of amusement and confusion; but the followup to the climax does a good job of setting the scene for the next book. Francis has a fine little series going here.

     For start-to-finish humor in a jugular vein (as Mad magazine used to put it), you need to look at vampires very differently and go to books for much younger readers – say, ages 3-7, the target audience for Vampire Boy’s Good Night. From the child-size coffin in which “the vampire boy wakes up thirsty for breakfast” (brought to him in a glass by a helpful butler) to the visit he pays to his friend, Morgan the witch, who tells him that “children don’t really exist,” this is a book that plays the supernatural and scary entirely for amusement. It all takes place at Halloween, with vampire Bela and witch Morgan unsure of what is going on because the party at which they arrive while searching for children seems not to include any kids at all – just familiar supernatural creatures such as ghosts, a monster and a mummy. It is only at the party’s end that Bela and Morgan realize, when they see the other guests unmask, that children are indeed real. And the kids’ looks of surprise as Bela and Morgan fly away on Morgan’s broom are just right. The book ends with Bela going back to sleep until the next night, as Morgan flies off. The pleasant but not overdone story and well-made but not overly scary illustrations earn this twisted Halloween tale a (++++) rating – thanks in large part to the gentle, age-appropriate humor with which it is told.


John Philip Sousa: Sousa’s Greatest Marches. Royal Artillery Band conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Shakespeare Overtures, Volume 1—Julius Caesar; The Taming of the Shrew; Antony and Cleopatra; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Tragedy of Coriolanus; Twelfth Night. West Australian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny. Naxos. $8.99.

Debussy: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (excerpts); Khamma: Légende dansée; Le roi Lear; L’enfant prodigue (excerpts). Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $8.99.

     Thirty-four Sousa marches can come perilously close to being too much of a good thing – and in fact it is not the best possible idea to listen to the new Naxos two-CD set of these marches straight through. Sousa was a very inventive composer in many ways, and marches were scarcely the only sort of music he wrote. But he was known, of course, as the March King, and if Keith Brion’s bouncy and idiomatic performances confirm that designation, they also show the inherent weakness of the march form in large doses: similar length, similar structure, bright keys nearly all the time, and (after a while) the sense that, for all Sousa’s thematic skill and brilliance of orchestration, enough is enough. And yet Sousa’s marches are so upbeat, so enthusiastic, so, well, marchable, that having several dozen of them in one exceptionally well-played collection is really a delight. Making this set especially interesting is its mixture of the highly familiar with the almost totally unknown. Yes, The Stars and Stripes Forever is here, along with The Liberty Bell, Riders for the Flag, Semper Fidelis, The Thunderer, and The Washington Post. But so are such gems as Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Wisconsin Forward Forever, The Minnesota March (composed for the University of Minnesota football team), The Atlantic City Pageant (yes, written for the beauty pageant), and The Invincible Eagle, among others. This compilation, taken from individual CDs that Naxos has released previously, provides an excellent overview of Sousa’s greatest hits (and some lesser ones). It helps to be in the right frame of mind when listening to this recording: no cynicism, and a bright and sunny attitude toward the United States and the future. And it helps to hear the music in modest doses. Those who do so will find themselves marching off with renewed energy.

     Some of the little-known Shakespeare Overtures by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) are energetic, too, and all 11 of them show the composer’s continuing fascination with Shakespeare’s works. The six that have just been released in fine performances by Andrew Penny and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra were written as early as 1930 (The Taming of the Shrew) and as late as 1947 (both Antony and Cleopatra and The Tragedy of Coriolanus). Rather than trying to portray all the events of a play, Castelnuovo-Tedesco employed large orchestral forces to highlight specific scenes or dialogue. Thus, he offers pervasive fanfares in Julius Caesar, lyricism in The Taming of the Shrew, and a single leitmotif in The Tragedy of Coriolanus – appropriate for a play whose hero is doomed by his single-minded nobility. Listeners will find little in common with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture here. But they will inevitably think of Mendelssohn when listening to Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, for the later composer pays tribute to the earlier with an opening featuring repeated woodwind-and-horn chords. All these works show skillful orchestration (sometimes including two harps plus celesta and piano), wit, fine pacing, interesting themes and a strong sense of involvement in the Shakespeare plays that inspired them. Indeed, it helps to know the plays to get these overtures’ full effects. These are certainly works that deserve to be better known.

     There is a bit of Debussy music for a Shakespeare play – King Lear – on the fourth fine Naxos CD of the French composer’s orchestral music, with Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Debussy intended to create incidental music for the whole play, but completed only two numbers and did not orchestrate them – that was done by J. Roger-Ducasse. The short fanfare and sleep sequence are evocative elements of what might have been. The more-substantial works on this CD are Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, which is well known, and Khamma, which is not. The first of these works is represented here by préludes, fanfares and symphonic fragments, which present episodic elements from a piece once placed on the Catholic Index of banned works because of its homoerotic nature. The music is typical of Debussy in its atmospheric tone painting. Khamma, a “danced legend” set in Egypt, has a number of interesting orchestral touches, both in the portion orchestrated by the composer and in the latter part, whose orchestration is by Charles Koechlin. Written in 1911-1912, it has some of the exoticism of Stravinsky’s contemporary Rite of Spring, but none of the Russian composer’s tonally and rhythmically challenging elements. It is effective scene painting, if not an especially compelling work. The final piece on this disc, The Prodigal Son, was a very early work – written in 1884, when the composer was 22 – that was revised more than two decades later. The work as a whole is a cantata; Märkl here conducts a Cortège et air de danse portraying a pleasant pastoral scene and providing a delicate conclusion to this CD.


Suzuki Evergreens, Volumes 1-7. Takako Nishizaki, violin; Terence Dennis, piano. Naxos. $8.99 each.

Suzuki Violin School, Volumes 1-8, revised. William Preucil and Koji Toyoda, violin; Cary Lewis and Linda Perry, piano. Alfred. $15.95 each.

     One of the many misconceptions about Shinichi Suzuki is that he was primarily interested in developing a new way of training young musicians. Another is that his sole focus was the violin. Yet another is that following the Suzuki Method is a sure path to virtuosity. And still another is that the “Suzuki school of performance” exists at all.

     In fact, Suzuki (1898-1998 – he died nine months before what would have been his 100th birthday) saw music as a means to something far more important: the development of what he called “a beautiful heart” through the “sensitivity, discipline and endurance” associated with hearing music from birth and learning to play it. Suzuki wanted to make wonderful people; if they were wonderful musicians, that was a bonus.

     Thus, the Suzuki approach – which includes, among other things, learning mostly by ear, starting to play at a very young age, playing in groups as well as on one’s own, and having a parent present supervise every practice session and attend every lesson – can theoretically apply to any instrument. And indeed it has been adapted for viola, cello, bass, guitar, flute, recorder, piano, organ and harp – and even voice – in addition to being used for the violin, which was Suzuki’s own instrument. But Suzuki was trying to develop good people, not great virtuosi, and in fact discouraged competition among players. Instead, he insisted on collaboration and mutual encouragement for players of every ability, at every label – no doubt in part because his approach was created in part as a way to help raise and bring beauty to the Japanese generation that would be forever scarred by World War II.

     But there is no “Suzuki school of performance” along the lines of, say, the French or Russian school. Students of those approaches can be easily identified through the specific techniques they use in performance. Not so with the Suzuki approach. The one element of Suzuki’s ideas that tends to be cited as identifiable among Suzuki students is the emphasis on what Suzuki called “tonalization,” meaning the student's ability to produce and recognize a beautiful, ringing tonal quality. But in fact, although Suzuki invented the word (which parallels “vocalization” to emphasize the way his musical approach parallels that through which children learn language), the production of beautiful tone – on any instrument – has been integral to Western musical education for hundreds of years.

     Yet even if the Suzuki method is not specifically designed to produce virtuosi, it can do so, and has. The very first person to complete the Suzuki course was Takako Nishizaki – in 1953, when she was nine years old. Nishizaki went on to study with a variety of major teachers and performers and to have an outstanding international career of her own. And now she has returned to her musical roots with a seven-volume Suzuki Evergreens CD series that presents a great deal of the Suzuki-method music – and, fascinatingly, many of the original works on which the Suzuki arrangements were based. Thus, anyone participating in or interested in the Suzuki method can hear not only the common repertoire that Suzuki students learn (which guarantees that they have something in common with fellow students worldwide – and can play at any time with anyone who has progressed to the same level), but also the more-elaborate works from which Suzuki drew the music for his pupils. Thanks to the depth of the Naxos catalogue (Nishizaki is married to Naxos founder and chairman Klaus Heymann), Volume 2 of this series can draw from other recordings to offer the harpsichord original of a Bach gavotte and the orchestral one of Dvořák’s Humoresque as well as Nishizaki playing the Suzuki version; Volume 3 can present sung versions of lullabies by Schubert and Brahms, in addition to Nishizaki’s performance of the Suzuki form of the music, and can feature Nishizaki as soloist in Bach violin concerti (with orchestra) as well as performing the Suzuki versions with piano; Volume 4 can offer similar complementary performances of a Vivaldi violin concerto and the original gavottes from Bach’s Cello Sonata No. 6; Volume 5 can include Corelli’s “La Folia” on Baroque violin and harpsichord as well as in Suzuki’s arrangement; and so on.

     This approach gives Suzuki Evergreens an interest level that the Suzuki music itself does not have for anyone not involved in Suzuki-based education. Suzuki Evergreens booklets also include some wonderful historical photos – not in themselves a reason to buy the CDs, but certainly an attractive element of the presentation. From the perspective of the current or potential Suzuki-method student, the Nishizaki recordings can provide excellent listening experiences that can be used for the “ear training” that is integral to the Suzuki approach for helping students learn a work’s notes, phrasing, dynamics and rhythm. There is no sense in these recordings that Nishizaki is “playing down” to a young audience – rather, she seems to be reliving elements of her training that were crucial to her later development and international success.

     Still, the Suzuki Evergreens are not 100% focused on the Suzuki method itself. That is where the eight-volume Suzuki Violin School recordings come in. These are strictly for current or would-be Suzuki students and their families. Each volume is a no-frills presentation of Suzuki-method violin music, followed in the first five CDs by tracks containing only the piano accompaniment – so students can practice along with the CDs. Thus, the second volume contains 12 tracks of Suzuki-based violin-and-piano performance, followed by 12 tracks containing only the piano accompaniment; the third volume contains seven tracks of violin and piano, then seven of piano alone; and so on. There is some variation from this pattern: Volume 4, for example, contains nine tracks each of violin-and-piano performances and piano-only ones – plus two violin-and-piano tracks giving only the first-violin and second-violin parts from Bach’s D minor two-violin concerto, BWV 1043. Volumes 6 through 8 include only violin-and-piano or violin-and-orchestra performances, all featuring Koji Toyoda with unnamed and unexplained accompaniment. By and large, the Suzuki Violin School recordings are uninteresting to hear: both Toyoda and William Preucil generally sound as if they are holding back their adult virtuosity in order to accommodate the supposed age and skill range of the young people who are presumably the audience for the recordings. The result is performances that mostly sound even more constricted – from a listener’s standpoint – than Suzuki playing usually does. The Suzuki method has proved itself very useful and durable for students and their families, but scarcely leads to highly listenable CDs.

     There is a bargain-basement feel to the Suzuki Violin School series, for all that its CDs cost significantly more than the Naxos Suzuki Evergreens recordings. A few examples among many: the first five Suzuki Violin School volumes provide, as ancillary material, only brief biographies of the artists, while Volumes 6-8 provide no information at all on either the music or the performers. The helpful elements of BWV 1043 in Volume 4 are inexplicably presented all over again in Volume 5. And none of the CDs even provides timings – not for individual tracks or for the disc as a whole. The result is a feeling of sloppiness, or amateurishness, about the whole series. (For the record, the eight volumes’ lengths are 45, 42, 46, 60, 68, 37, 34 and 35 minutes.)

     Nevertheless, Suzuki Violin School gets a (+++) rating, because it has a potentially valuable place for families immersed in Suzuki-method teaching: they may find the very simplicity of the presentation attractive, and in terms of “ear training,” it is good to let students have a chance to hear accomplished violin-and-piano performances and then be able to try out their own violin skills with the same piano accompaniment, as they can do with the first five Suzuki Violin School volumes.

     But for a real sense of what the Suzuki method can do and where it can lead – for all of Shinichi Suzuki’s protestations that his approach was not designed to produce virtuosi or create a “school” of playing – Suzuki Evergreens is of significantly greater value. Certainly few Suzuki students will go on to the accomplishments and international career of Takako Nishizaki. But there is not the slightest doubt that it was the Suzuki method that provided the foundation on which Nishizaki’s career was built. Suzuki Evergreens thus stands as a tribute to Nishizaki’s teacher, a return of sorts to the roots of her career. For listeners, the Suzuki Evergreens series provides a most unusual chance to hear the very grown-up and highly accomplished work of the first child to complete a form of instruction in both music and life that has now spread far beyond Japan, far beyond the violin, and – as Suzuki himself hoped – far beyond music lessons themselves.

September 23, 2010


Princess Baby on the Go! By Karen Katz. Schwartz & Wade. $7.99.

Bosco’s Busy Morning. By Chuck Murphy. Robin Corey Books. $12.99.

Somewhere So Sleepy. By Diane Muldrow. Illustrated by Jui Ishida. Golden Books. $7.99.

Samuel’s Baby. By Mark Elkin. Illustrated by Amy Wummer. Tricycle Press/Random House. $15.99.

Zigzag Kids—No. 1, Number One Kid; No. 2, Big Whopper. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Illustrated by Alasdair Bright. Wendy Lamb Books, $12.99 each (hardcover); Yearling, $4.99 each (paperback).

     Kids of all ages love books about what other children – or animals with childlike characteristics – do with themselves during the day and at night, at home and at school. Finding such books is easy. Then you just have to decide which ones your particular kids will consider most enjoyable. Princess Baby on the Go! is a lift-the-flap board book with a built-in carrying handle, designed for girls up to age four and featuring the ever-adorable, crown-wearing title character (not a real princess but a baby who likes to act like one) getting ready for a sleepover at Grandma’s. But she can’t find something she needs to take with her – so she looks all over her room for the mysterious item. Everywhere readers help her look – the book is full of flaps to lift – Princess Baby finds something, but not the particular thing she wants…until the very end, of course, when she and her prince (a crown-wearing teddy bear) are all set for their sleepover. Cute characters, simple ideas and a nice design all come together here.

     Bosco’s Busy Morning is for the same age range, but both boys and girls will delight in this board book that includes lots of flaps, popups and pull tabs. Bosco is a puppy, but he thinks like a child – and narrates the book, which is a very busy one indeed. Characters pop up while other characters talk in the margins. For instance, Bosco looks through a hole in one page to see his friend Pepper, a kitten, asleep. While he gets her to wake up and play, ladybugs mention colors and numbers that are shown on the page; butterflies talk about what they see; and folding out a flap reveals three mice who are also trying to get Pepper to wake up. Lots happens on every page here – the book is exceptionally well designed, filled with elements that will attract young children (but the popups can be a bit fragile, so watch out for little hands that may unintentionally tear them). The mice lead Bosco, Pepper and their friend Pete (another pup) on a merry chase around the playground as the one-to-10 counting progresses from page to page. The final two-page spread features a really extraordinary popup of a big slide; a tab that, when pulled, makes Bosco slide down it; and a flap that reveals 10 number blocks. There is an amazing amount of material and creativity packed into Chuck Murphy’s winner of a book.

     Things are quieter in Somewhere So Sleepy, a board book featuring full-page flaps, in which animals “somewhere” are getting ready for sleep – as is “a boy or girl just like you.” Quiet charm is the watchword in this book for ages 2-5: a baby elephant sloshes in the mud, and opening the flap shows mother elephant giving him a bath; a little lion tries not to yawn, but does when the flap is opened; a puppy fluffs up her bed, and opening the flap shows her lying down comfortably in it. Some flaps open from the bottom, others from the left, and parents should check them before starting the book to avoid any bedtime frustration. Certainly nothing in the book itself will be frustrating, though – the adorable animals falling cutely asleep (a droopy-eyed little hippo is especially notable) will give young children pleasant thoughts as they themselves prepare to drift off for a night’s rest.

     Samuel’s Baby, for ages 3-6, is a delight in its own way as it takes the day-in-a-life theme into a school setting. At show-and-tell the Monday before spring vacation, Samuel tells his kindergarten class that he is about to have a baby – and even though one of the girls says only women can have babies, soon everyone in the class is preparing for a baby of some sort. All the kids put things under their shirts, from dolls to a truck to a dinosaur toy to a puppy; and when one girl says she is having twins, another says she is having triplets. The kids practice holding their “babies,” carrying them and diapering them – but as they do, Samuel starts to worry about what will happen when the real baby arrives in his house. What if the baby breaks his toys, cries all the time, has stinky diapers? The amusing story and the more-serious one about Samuel’s worries coexist seamlessly – teacher and first-time author Mark Elkin balances them adeptly, and Amy Wummer’s illustrations nicely capture the chaos and creativity of a kindergarten class in full fantasy mode. After spring break, Samuel returns to class – with his dad and his new baby sister. And all the other kids take their “babies” out, too, including a fish in a bowl of water and a hamster in a plastic ball. And then Samuel reveals that despite the crying and stinky diapers, his sister is perfect – a delightfully (and believably) upbeat ending to a wonderfully told story.

     Samuel’s class is an ethnic melting pot, as are many classes in kids’ books these days, but Elkin and Wummer do not make a big deal about it; this casual acceptance of differences in appearance is highly effective. The class diversity is laid on more thickly and overtly in the new Zigzag Kids series, and as a result seems more intrusive – although the first two of Patricia Reilly Giff’s new books still get (+++) ratings. This is an after-school series – set in a center where kids stay after their class day at Zelda A. Zigzag School has ended – so things can be more freeform than they would be within a structured school day. The result is books for ages 6-9 in which the interactions among the 11 kids focus on friendships and interpersonal relations. Number One Kid is about Mitchell McCabe, the new kid at school, who worries about friends, fitting in, and the “#1” shirt his grandmother gave him. Giff’s determination to ensure multiracial and multiethnic diversity is abundantly clear not only from the children’s pictures (you see their heads at the start of the paperback books, their whole bodies at the start of the hardcovers) but also from the names (such as Habib and Ramón) and some of the dialogue (Sumiko says “hai” for “yes” and teaches that “koun” means “good luck”). This is not much of a big deal in the first book, in which Mitchell’s shirt ends up inspiring the lunch lady to make cupcakes with the number “1” on top. But it comes to greater prominence in Big Whopper, in which the focus is on Destiny Washington. Readers (adult readers familiar with naming trends, anyway) might expect that to be the name of an African-American girl, but in fact the black girl in this group is named Yolanda – and Destiny Washington is blonde and Caucasian. More importantly for the plot, she cannot think of anything to “discover” for “Discovery Week,” so when someone comments that a picture Destiny is drawing looks like a president, Destiny announces that she is descended from President Washington. Except that she isn’t – and she gives the president’s first name as “Abrehem.” Destiny then spends the rest of the book trying to figure out how to correct the lie (the “big whopper”) that she has told – and learns in the process that she is special anyway, and that she is not the only kid in the group prone to a touch of exaggeration. The straightforward lessons and pleasant interactions are the enjoyable parts of this series by the author of the Polk Street School series, which is about kids during the school day. Alasdair Bright’s pleasant illustrations help move the stories along nicely. Young readers who match their identity to that of one or another of the various Zigzag Kids will be the ones who enjoy this series the most.


The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition. By Robert Franek, Tom Meltzer, Christopher Maier, Erik Olson, Julie Doherty, Eric Owens, Anne DeWitt, Kristen O’Toole, Adam Davis and Mukul Bakhshi. Princeton Review/Random House. $22.99.

     Want to know the top 50 “best value” private colleges in the United States? The list is in this book – on half a page. The top 50 “best value” public colleges? That’s the other half of the page. The 20 colleges with the worst food? One-fifth of a page. The 20 with the best college newspapers? Another one-fifth. The information in The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition is so compressed that the two pages allotted to each individual college seem positively generous.

     And those two pages are really packed. Every campus profile includes basic descriptive and statistical information, from student-to-faculty ratio to class sizes to ethnic makeup of the student body; ratings for quality of life, fire safety and being “green”; student comments on academics, campus life and more; Princeton Review staff comments on admissions and financial aid; and a blurb (rarely of value) from each school’s admissions office. Tucked away in small type on one side of one of the two pages is a fascinating item called “applicants also look at and often prefer…and sometimes prefer.” Sometimes it says “and rarely prefer.” This is a wonderful, if unconventional, place to start using this top-notch college guide: find a college in which you know you are interested and get an instant cross-reference (a hyperlink, but in print) to other institutions that other applicants also tend to consider. If you are thinking of Scripps College, for example, this could lead you to Pomona, Occidental, Stanford or Georgetown – which you might not have previously thought of (at least not all of them). Considering Miami University of Ohio? You might also check out Washington University in St. Louis, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. And so on. The “prefer” data are not given for all schools, which is a shame (nothing for New York University, Sarah Lawrence College or Harvard College, for example), but when they do appear, they can be a great entry point for a college search.

     The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition can be overwhelming if you don’t find some simple way to get into it. It runs more than 800 oversized pages and is so stuffed with college information, lists, percentages, financial facts, selectivity ratings and more that it can make the already difficult task of choosing the right college seem even harder. One look at this book can be enough to send a high-school student racing to his or her guidance counselor for a lengthy session of personal help. Except that few high-school guidance counselors nowadays can offer students lengthy sessions – and many are so overloaded that they cannot personalize their advice very much, either. That makes The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition a very valuable research tool – at least a supplement to in-person counseling, and at most a substitute for what no one in a student’s high school is able to provide.

     The comments by each college’s students can give real insight into what a school is like. You will fit right in “if you’re a liberal, artsy, indie loner who likes to throw around the phrase ‘heteronormative white privilege,’” says an Oberlin College attendee. “Swordfights in dorm courtyards are not uncommon,” observes a student at Harvey Mudd College. “The typical student here [at Skidmore College] seems to be the atypical student elsewhere: super-liberal and socially conscious, ‘creative’ or artsy, weirdly dressed,” runs another remark. At St. Bonaventure University, on the other hand, the typical student “is white and Catholic, with a desire to do well and succeed but a stronger desire to have fun while doing so.” Combining these comments with the many statistics – including the very useful “average cumulative indebtedness” – can go a long way toward helping a student choose schools at which he or she expects to fit in and do well.

     The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition is certainly not perfect. The “373” number seems quite arbitrary – even more so when you read a list such as “Fire Safety Honor Roll” and discover that 11 of the 16 named schools do not appear in the book at all. And with so many statistics, some are bound to get messed up: Babson College is listed as having a student body that is 57% male and 45% female, which is quite a neat trick. But The Best 373 Colleges, 2011 Edition is not intended as the be-all and end-all of college research, and should not be approached on that basis. It is a guidebook, as useful for eliminating certain colleges from consideration as it is for helping students find ones they might never have thought of without this or that cross-reference. Ideally, it will supplement the work of a knowledgeable and involved guidance counselor; but even students who do not have someone like that to whom they can turn can rest assured that they can rely on the information here to help them make more-intelligent and better-informed college choices.


A Zombie’s Guide to the Human Body: Tasty Tidbits from Head to Toe. By Paul Beck. Designed by Rosanna Brockley. Scholastic. $9.99.

The Body Book for Boys: Everything You Need to Know about Growing Up. By Jonathan Mar & Grace Norwich. Scholastic. $8.99.

Sid the Science Kid: Why Did My Ice Pop Melt?; Why Are My Shoes Shrinking?; Why Can’t I Have Cake for Dinner? Adapted by Susan Korman (Ice Pop); N.T. Raymond (Shoes); Jodi Huelin (Cake). HarperFestival, $3.99 each (Ice Pop; Shoes); Collins, $5.99 (Cake).

     The question about putting twists in books about the real world is how twisted you want to get – and how twisted an approach parents want for their kids. A Zombie’s Guide to the Human Body goes for the gross from start to finish, even including a final picture of “Professor Zombie” and his “zombified” niece, “Unggh,” to whom the book is dedicated. Laid out in splatter style, with fake blood everywhere and pictures of people made up as zombies throughout (plus some pictures of grinning skeletons and the like), the book buries its accurate information beneath as big a heap of nastiness as it can. “Your skeleton has different types of joints that move in different ways,” the narrative explains in ordinary type, but sometimes joints wear out and “can be replaced with artificial ones.” Unfortunately, this information is far less prominent than the huge, pseudo-hand-written comment next to an X-ray of an artificial joint, “Shiny metal bones not good to gnaw on, BUT MAKE GOOD WEAPONS!” Similarly, straightforward text says, “The brain stem connects the rest of the brain to the spinal cord.” But the picture of the brain shows a drawing of a salt shaker dropping crystals onto the organ (right next to a picture of a cockroach), and the large words say, “SERVING SUGGESTION: LIGHTLY SALT BRAIN.” The whole book is like this. A discussion of bone marrow gets the large-type comment, “Good on Toast.” The heart is accurately labeled, except for the large-type note, “DARK MEAT,” with an arrow showing the right atrium. The book is too silly and too overdone to be scary, but it certainly tries to be ugly – and frequently succeeds. Whether it also works as an educational tool will depend entirely on whether a child is really into zombies.

     Boys who are not will do much better with The Body Book for Boys, whose gimmicks are much milder: periodic “test yourself” pages; a layout that includes lots of large type, arrows, boxes and other attention-getting devices; and headlines such as, “Body Odor: It’s the Pits!” The book’s five sections move steadily down the body: head and neck, upper body, “your private parts,” lower body, and finally “the stuff that happens on the inside during puberty.” The book covers ages 10-17, making it clear that typical body development happens at different times for different boys, and gets into everything from shaving (including how to go about it) to braces to possible breast growth in boys because of hormonal changes. The book offers specific suggestions on better eating and on convincing yourself to exercise if it is not something you really want to do; information on wet dreams and penile size; an explanation of the difference between strains and sprains; and how to cope with common worries, such as, “All the other kids are going through puberty faster than I am.” Plainspoken and filled with good sense, The Body Book for Boys does go a little overboard in text sometimes as it tries to be cool: “Most ’rents want this for their sons.” “The average dude shoots up nine to eleven inches during puberty.” But its solid information and generally engaging (but not overdone) design make it a good choice for parents to give their preteens.

     Much younger children, ages 3-7, can also get some information on how the world works from books – including ones based on the TV show, Sid the Science Kid. Each of three new, short books about Sid and his friends offers one simple-to-understand lesson. Why Did My Ice Pop Melt? is about reversible change (always italicized in the text) – that is, something frozen can melt, and the melted liquid can then be frozen again. The story includes Sid’s melted ice pop (he leaves it out overnight by mistake) and some fresh fruit frozen in ice at Sid’s school (the class figures out how to melt the ice and get the fruit as a snack). Why Are My Shoes Shrinking? is about growth – Sid’s shoes are not really shrinking, but he is getting bigger. Here the lesson at school involves lining up four little plants from youngest to oldest, and the concept taught is transformation (again, always italicized) – something turning into something else, such as a seed into a plant. Why Can’t I Have Cake for Dinner? is in a different format from the other books: it is a Stage 1 book in the “Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science” series, designed to teach basic concepts to preschoolers and kindergartners. It is longer than the other books (32 pages vs. 24) and somewhat more complex. Its subject is nutrition, and it starts with Sid preparing for his birthday by telling his parents that he wants cake, not after dinner but for dinner. This book is a little more preachy than the others, with lots of “too much sugar” comments and with Sid’s school friends themselves coming up with anti-cake arguments. “Nutritious foods have all the things in them you’ll need to grow strong and healthy,” says Teacher Susie, and the book goes into food groups and balanced meals and ends with three pages showing what foods are in which groups, what foods are “A-OK,” and which ones are “OK Sometimes.” The message here is solid and valuable, but a trifle heavy-handed. Still, it should go down fairly easily for preschoolers who enjoy watching Sid on PBS.


Come Fall. By A.C.E. Bauer. Random House. $15.99.

The Toymaker. By Jeremy de Quidt. Illustrated by Gary Blythe. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

Wildfire Run. By Dee Garretson. Harper. $16.99.

Saving Sky. By Diane Stanley. Harper. $15.99.

Genius Trilogy No. 3: The Genius Wars. By Catherine Jinks. Harcourt. $17.

     Even in ordinary sleep, the line between dream and nightmare can be thin, with experience shading almost imperceptibly from one to the other. In these novels for preteens and young teenagers, the lines are more clearly drawn, and the sense of dislocation and of being unsure how to escape is clear as well. Come Fall is a middle-school story with magic in it: three kids outside the school mainstream are just becoming friends when they are trapped in skirmishes between none other than Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen made famous by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The jealousy of the fairies is played out in their handling (or mishandling) of Salman Page, the new kid at school, and Lu-Ellen Zimmer, who starts the new year in a funk because her best friend moved away over the summer. The third member of the threesome is Blos Pease, a rather obvious alteration of “Peaseblossom” from Shakespeare’s play. And then there is Puck, of course, as mischievous and meddlesome as ever. And to flesh (or feather) things out there is Bird, a crow with a penchant for collecting shiny things. Separate short chapters focus on various characters, and mundane school assignments are nicely intermingled with magical occurrences as Oberon repeatedly reminds Puck to “sow discord.” The mixture of mundane and otherworldly elements is not always seamless, but the blend is interesting; and although there is nothing particularly outstanding about most of the characters, the intersections of the story with Shakespeare make for an unusual tale.

     The Toymaker starts as a not-very-nice dream and rapidly becomes worse. Here too the worldly and otherworldly are mixed, but there is little benign in the motivations of most of the characters. The protagonist is a circus boy named Mathias, raised by an unloving grandfather and conjuror from whom he takes a small piece of paper when the old man is dying. Soon enough, lots of people are after the paper, and all of them are malevolent. It is only when Mathias, injured while escaping from one of the bad guys, encounters a street-smart kitchen maid named Katta, that he finds an ally; and soon thereafter he has two more people helping him seek the secret of the paper. Gary Blythe’s atmospheric illustrations add considerable interest to a dark tale of secrets that are buried and perhaps ought to remain so. As for the title, there is nothing amusing whatsoever about any toys – or things that are toylike – in this grim story.

     There is no magic in Wildfire Run, but there is nightmare aplenty. Set in a real-world place – the presidential retreat at Camp David – this is the story of the chief executive’s son, Luke, and his friends, Theo and Callie, who are together at Camp David under the ever-watchful (perhaps too watchful) eyes of the Secret Service. Then there is a forest fire, and then an earthquake, and suddenly the book becomes a story of escape and survival, complete with computerized security that needs to be hacked and an impassable gate that needs to be, well, passed. There is a lot of screaming and yelling here and a lot of formulaic adventure dialogue: “Sal will be dead in a few minutes if he doesn’t move!” “Do it, Theo!” “Run! Run! They’re going to crash.” A dog named Comet is often more interesting than the human characters, and the piling-up of trouble after trouble (even a poisonous snake) is overdone, but the book can be a thrill ride for kids who do not think too closely about its implausibilities.

     Saving Sky is also set in the United States, but this is an alternative-world story in which the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 prove even more horrific than in the real world. In this tale, the president was killed in the attacks and the nation became involved in an ever-escalating war both at home and in the Middle East. The government is setting up detention camps along the lines of the ones used for people of Japanese descent in World War II – and this creates a major moral dilemma for Sky Brightman, the 13-year-old girl whose first name appears in the book’s title. One of Sky’s classmates, Kareem, is sure to be rounded up and placed in a camp; and Sky – who lives on a rural New Mexico ranch and has been little touched by all the nation’s turmoil – finds that she has the inner strength to stand up for what is right even when it is not popular. The book deliberately sets up World War II echoes, not only in the camps but also in the idea of hiding Kareem in a 10-foot-square area reminiscent of places where Anne Frank and other Jews were hidden, often unsuccessfully, from the Nazis. Indeed, the parallels between Nazis and agents of the U.S. government are overdrawn and even somewhat offensive. But the point of Saving Sky is really about saving American values – and about the way a 13-year-old, or two of them, can change many adult minds even when the entire nation is living through nightmarish times. This book is, on many levels, pure fairy tale, but young teens who want to feel empowered in a difficult world that they have not made may well find it inspiring.

     The nightmarish events in The Genius Wars follow from those in the two previous books in this series, Evil Genius and Genius Squad. The original premise of the books was a fascinating one: a focus, for once, on the traditional bad guy, and how he got that way. Soon enough, though, the books became far more conventional, as Cadel Piggott Greeniaus came over from the side of evil to that of good, and began fighting back against all that he had formerly espoused. The Genius Wars is the natural climax of Cadel’s new commitment to being on the side of the angels, as he travels long and hard to track down Prosper English, his onetime mentor (and very obvious father figure) and now his nemesis. There is an eventual, inevitable confrontation between Cadel and Prosper, just the two of them aboard a flimsy dinghy, with Prosper accusing Cadel of pettiness and mediocrity while Cadel thinks – but does not say – that “he was no longer a warped little puppet with a blinkered view of the world” and now simply wants a normal life. A fight, a stalemate, a near-drowning, and Prosper is gone for good, unless he isn’t, quite – in the tradition of far too many stories in which the bad guy must be dead but maybe, just maybe, isn’t. Well written and frequently exciting, The Genius Wars is nevertheless disappointing for anyone trying to figure out the title, because there seems little of the genius in Cadel, and not much more of the evil type of genius in Prosper. Cadel lives through a nightmare; Prosper doesn’t (unless he does); but unfortunately the whole good-vs.-evil structure of the book (and the series) has by now become so formulaic that readers are supposed to take it at face value when Cadel is given the promise, “This time, I swear to you, he won’t come back.” Maybe he will; maybe he won’t; maybe there will be another installment in the “Genius” books and maybe not (the series is designated a trilogy, but authors and publishers have been known to extend such things). In any case, it seems unlikely, if there is yet another book, that it will recapture the clever (if perhaps not genius-level) concept that launched these novels in the first place.