October 28, 2010


I Shall Wear Midnight: A Tiffany Aching Adventure. By Terry Pratchett. Harper. $16.99.

The Edge Chronicles X: The Immortals. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $19.99.

     The words “fantastic” and “fabulous” have fascinating dual meanings. In common use, both mean “excellent” or “wonderful.” But each also ties, in its derivation, to the world of myth and fairy tale: “fantasy” and “fable.” Therefore, in a certain sense, calling a work a “fantastic fantasy” or “fabulous fable” is repetitiously redundant. But it is hard to escape those phrases in discussing these two books, because that is exactly what they are: fantastic fantasies and fabulous fables.

     I Shall Wear Midnight is the fourth and presumably final book in Terry Pratchett’s series about Tiffany Aching, onetime apprentice witch of the Chalk on Discworld and, at this point, full-fledged witch – which does not mean magic-maker, although it does mean rider of a broom (whose workings, however, she does not understand). In common with Pratchett’s other books ostensibly intended for younger readers – including the three previous Tiffany Aching Novels, The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith – this latest entry deals with more-serious and more-subtle issues of life and death and wonder than Pratchett handles in his books ostensibly for adults. Never mind the “why” of this; just accept it. Tiffany is only 15 as the book opens, but Pratchett makes it clear that she is 15 in a place where people not only have love affairs but also bear children at 13, so Tiffany is a teenager (and thus in the target age range of the book’s readers) but is also something more. Indeed, she is a lot more, as readers of her earlier adventures already know and as ones new to her story will soon find out. Pratchett weaves his wonders with such subtlety that it is entirely possible to read I Shall Wear Midnight and understand the whole thing without having read the earlier Tiffany Aching books – although reading this one will make you hunger to get to the others as quickly as possible. Unlike Pratchett’s Discworld books for adults, which tend to be picaresques, this and the other Tiffany Aching books have a strong emotional core, which Pratchett brings out expertly in as few as two words. For example, Tiffany at one point explains that, as a witch, she takes care of things, because “‘it’s what we do.’” But no, she realizes. “Only it’s just me; there is no ‘us,’ she thought as she flew through the mists of morning to the place of flowers. I wish, I wish there was.” Those two words – the extra “I wish” – convey Tiffany’s burdens, concerns, cares and responsibilities more effectively than would a long-spun-out description of her feelings. Pratchett is brilliant at this. The story of I Shall Wear Midnight grows from Tiffany’s continued association with the Nac Mac Feegle, the “wee free men” for whom she is a very special “bigjob” (why is explained in detail in earlier books). These tiny blue folk (also known as Pictsies – the Picts painted themselves blue when going into battle) are among Pratchett’s most wonderful creations: profane, brawling, knuckleheaded little thieves whose hearts are too big to fit in their tiny frames, and who are utterly fearless in battle because they believe they are already dead and so, at worst, can be sent back to an earlier world. They are Tiffany’s highly imperfect guardians and helpers, but in I Shall Wear Midnight, something is stirring against which the Wee Free Men, who are scarcely masters of deep thought or subtlety, cannot act – something dark and frightening that is fanning anger against Tiffany and witches in general. “‘Every few hundred years or so, suddenly everyone thinks witches are bad,’” one character explains to Tiffany, but what is happening is more than that, involving events of a thousand years ago as well as ones still developing. The core of the book – included not only in the story but also in Pratchett’s note at the end of it – turns out to be, “If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going.” What happens in this book is that Tiffany finds out where she is going – and it turns out to be a place where she wants to be. The adventures, challenges and frights are only adornments of an inner journey on which readers will be delighted to accompany her.

     The timespan is much greater and the structure much more epic in The Immortals, the 10th and final book in the amazing saga called The Edge Chronicles, which Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell started in 2004. Stewart does the words and Riddell the ornate and exquisitely detailed illustrations, but this is so intimate a collaboration that joining the two men as authors with “&” between their names is the only adequate way to show what they have done. The first nine books of The Edge Chronicles were actually three trilogies, although published in rather confusing order: books 1-3 were “The Twig Trilogy,” books 4, 9 and 10 “The Quint Trilogy,” and books 5-7 “The Rook Trilogy.” Each trilogy is named for its central character – and each takes place at a different time in the long history of The Edge, that astonishing world where Stewart and Riddell set their tales. The Edge is literally the edge of something – what, we are never told – with gigantic storms sweeping in from the nothingness beyond and a variety of civilizations, or (perhaps more accurately) stages of a civilization, lying at a lesser or greater distance from the great blackness out there. The Immortals, which at nearly 700 pages is by far the longest book in The Edge Chronicles, takes place later than any of the other books and echoes all of them. Pretty much everything in the first nine books reappears here, one way or another, not excluding Twig, Quint and Rook, or something (somethings?) like them. The strange and fascinating creatures of The Edge are here in profusion: waifs, banderbears, wig-wigs, cloddertrogs, goblins of various types, and many more. Every once in a while, an echo of an earlier book shows up subtly and unexpectedly, as when the Professor – a key character here – sits at an old table, once kept in a tavern, and reads the names carved into the wood, including that of Cloud Wolf, Twig’s father. Amid all the bits of the past, the tale moves smartly ahead with the adventures of Nate Quarter, a humble lamplighter forced to flee for his life because of some of the nefarious doings that alone seem to survive unchanged from age to age on The Edge. The Edge in the time of The Immortals is a far less intricately settled place than it was in the past, as Riddell’s wonderfully detailed maps make clear – but within the few settlements, it is as complex as ever, as those maps also show. Nate and friends flee for their lives, with enemies on their heels and war preparations in the air, while in the darkest and deepest forest of all, the Night Woods, a waif guards the precious waters of Riverrise…and, equally far in the other direction, a storm even vaster than those typically threatening The Edge is building, bringing with it the unknown and the certainty of change. By the end of this far-reaching, wide-ranging adventure, pretty much every character from earlier books will be seen in a new or expanded light, and the mysterious and mystical caterbird that long, long ago took an oath to protect Twig will turn out to have made a decision that has resonated for hundreds upon hundreds of years. Sky pirates, shipbuilders, academics, phraxcrystals, prowlgrins, sumpwood, gabtrolls, the gloamglozer – the vocabulary has great resonance here, not only recalling the earlier books but also serving to establish an economy and ecology in which a reader can quite easily become enmeshed and enchanted. The Edge Chronicles has always been targeted at a very narrow age range – officially, ages 10-12 – but these books, including The Immortals, reach well beyond the bounds of preteen adventure even as they pile battle upon battle, treachery upon treachery, friendship upon friendship. Very interestingly, Stewart and Riddell give The Edge Chronicles a bittersweet rather than strongly affirmative ending, indicating at the conclusion of The Immortals that there are always new things to explore, new places to go, new adventures waiting to be experienced. The journey here has been a very, very long one – or rather the multiple journeys have been – and readers lucky enough to have stayed with The Edge Chronicles from the start will be left thinking, as in any superior work of fantasy, of all the things that might, just might, happen next.

(++++) A WARM WELCOME FOR 2011

2011 Calendars: 365-Day—Cul de Sac; Eats Shoots & Leaves; Wall—Central Park; Universal Classic Monster Movies; Desk—Posh Planning; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Andrews McMeel and Universe/Andrews McMeel, $13.99 each (365-day); Universe/Andrews McMeel, $13.99 each (wall); Andrews McMeel, $14.99 (Posh); Universe/Andrews McMeel, $13.99 (Wizard).

     Those of you who cannot wait to say goodbye to all the trials and tribulations of 2010 and start anew can bring 2011 closer – or at least feel that it is closer – by buying next year’s calendars as soon as possible. If you are sufficiently eager to dispose of the old (or rapidly aging) year, consider buying 2011 calendars of several types. Then you can put them around the house or office, unopened, and just glance at them from time to time to remind yourself that 2010 will end and 2011 will get here soon.

     Pick 365-day calendars – the ones whose pages you tear off – for amusement, either verbal or visual. Cul de Sac provides the visual element. Richard Thompson’s comic strip about suburbia, built around four-year-old Alice Otterloop and her eight-year-old brother, Petey, is one of today’s wittiest and best-drawn newspaper strips. At her preschool (with friends Dill and Beni), at home with her bemused parents, or anywhere in between, Alice makes trenchant but appropriately four-year-old-ish comments on life. She is happy to help her mom plant a vegetable garden as long as everything is going to be sold at a roadside produce stand so she doesn’t have to eat that awful stuff; she is glad to romp in the yard, as her parents wish, but only in the back yard, because the front yard is too big; and so on. Whether doing just what her parents want her to (but in a skewed way), or doing exactly the opposite, Alice is a delight – and Thompson’s art, in which he can extract emotion from Alice’s eyes even while keeping them pinpoints, is simply wonderful. His writing is literate, too, but for a calendar with a real verbal focus, try Eats Shoots and Leaves, whose title comes from the now-famous (or notorious) badly punctuated wildlife book that says a panda “eats, shoots and leaves” (the comma implying use of a gun at every meal). Lynne Truss is an expert at uncovering this sort of unintentional punctuational hilarity, and this 2011 calendar is filled with it. Truss provides rules for correct punctuation – yes, including the troublesome apostrophe – as well as examples of misuse, making this calendar educational as well as amusing. But she does not insist on intense grammatical lectures – each entry is only a few lines long, and makes its point in a pithy and insightful way. Not for grammar sticklers only (although for them, it is a must-have).

     Choose wall calendars for beauty – or at least for their sheer visual attraction. Unlike 365-day calendars, the wall type shows you the same picture for a full month, so you had better be sure it is something you want to see. New Yorkers, ex-New Yorkers and all admirers of urban parkscapes, for example, will find the 2011 Central Park wall calendar a delight. This verdant gem in the middle of Manhattan is well known as an oasis of greenery and calm right smack in the middle of one of the world’s most intensely active cities; the park’s design, by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, has been tremendously admired (and, in part, imitated) for a century and a half. The 2011 calendar follows the park through the seasons. There is a snow-covered statue for one winter month; a picture of trees just blooming in spring; lush greenery and crowds enjoying the outdoors in summer; and gorgeous autumnal colors in fall. People familiar with the park will recognize the specific areas and objects in the photos, but really, that sort of specificity is less important than the knowledge that there exists, in the heart of a fast-paced place of concrete, asphalt and towering buildings, an everyday reminder of a quieter life.

     Too relaxing? Not dramatic or offbeat enough? Well, if you prefer a wall calendar that reminds you all year of the great “B” movies of old, take a look at the overdone gruesomeness (although underdone by modern film standards) of a dozen Universal Pictures “creature features” in the 2011 Universal Classic Monster Movies calendar. Some of these full-color advertising posters were made for black-and-white films that quickly became classics, such as Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, both featuring Boris Karloff – and The Mummy, another of Karloff’s famous roles. Here too are the posters for Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera, plus Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Wolf Man. There are also some campier movies on display here, including The Old Dark House (another Karloff vehicle) and House of Dracula (a lesser Lon Chaney effort). The posters are so overdone that they will likely bring a chuckle to anyone seeing them for the first time. But you know, as you keep an eye on them for a whole month apiece – or as they remain on the fringes of your vision and consciousness – the strange poses and huge eyes and overstated copy may just start to seep into your dreams. “It comes to life!” “The monster demands a mate!” The calendar demands your attention….

     Desk calendars, in contrast, ask politely for you to spend time with them. Although their popularity has faded as people have turned to electronic planners, desk calendars have an ease of use and attractiveness quotient that handheld devices cannot match; and they are easily visible in all sorts of light, and never need recharging. They also let you display a full week of appointments or plans – along with highly attractive art – at one time; no scrolling or button-pushing required. In fact, the Posh Planning Calendar lets you display either a week or a month at a time. Available in several attractive designs, the calendar offers full-month displays at the start – with enough room for a note or two for each day – and double-page week-at-a-glance spreads for the full year, with lots of space to write in plans, appointments, meetings, birthdays or anything else you need or want to remember. The subtle colors and designs of the calendar’s cover are carried through the entire book in single-color form – blue for backgrounds and dates, for example. The result is a desk calendar that looks good all year, is illustrated pleasantly and unobtrusively, and provides plenty of planning room – including pages for looking ahead to 2012, as well as a section for names and addresses that you want to keep handy at all times.

     Illustrations take a more central position in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz calendar for 2011. This is, philosophically, a different type of desk-calendar design. The calendar is spiral-bound to lie flat, and one page of each two-page spread (sometimes the left, sometimes the right) is devoted to an excerpt from L. Frank Baum’s first Oz book – an illustration by W.W. Denslow, a chapter opening, or a sample of Baum’s text with its accompanying picture. It has often been remarked that Baum’s book is much richer and more complex than the Judy Garland movie through which most people today know Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Wizard. And even the brief excerpts in this calendar confirm the novel’s richness. “‘Take care,’” warns the Guardian of the Gates as the friends set out to rid Oz of the Wicked Witch of the West, “‘for she is wicked and fierce, and may not allow you to destroy her.’” On their quest, the bees – which do not appear in the film – “found no one but the Woodman to sting, so they flew at him and broke off all their stings against the tin, without hurting the Woodman at all. And as bees cannot live when their stings are broken[,] that was the end of the black bees…” And here you will find Denslow’s picture of smiling winged monkeys carrying Dorothy, Toto and the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion using his tail to wipe away his tears, and Dorothy grabbing Toto by the ear as the tornado sweeps her house away, several green-tinted illustrations of events in the Emerald City, and much more. With so many illustrations, this calendar has only a small amount of space for writing appointments and notes: each one-week page is divided into six small boxes (Saturday and Sunday share space). But this is not a calendar for intense family or business planning – it is one to keep the magic of Oz alive all year while providing room enough to jot down a few notes, remarks and appointments. For helping keep 2011 in perspective, it may be just the thing – either on its own or in combination with a calendar for the wall and one that changes day after day.


The Hand Book. By Pat Murphy and the Scientists of Klutz Labs. Klutz. $19.99.

Make Your Own Music Video. By Kaitlyn Nichols. Klutz. $16.99.

Doctor Frankensketch’s Monster Drawing Machine. By the Editors of Klutz. Klutz. $16.99.

The Truth about My Name and What It Reveals about Me! By Karen Phillips. Illustrations by Hennie Haworth. Klutz. $16.99.

     Klutz does not publish books. It publishes activity kits that just happen to include, or be built around, books. Call them “books-plus” and you will have an idea of the approach. All three of these new wire-bound Klutz offerings are – as usual with Klutz – well researched, well designed, well produced, well packaged and fun. And The Hand Book is educational as well. It presents information about the human hand accurately and with the usual Klutz flair – for example, by showing how the skeletal structure of the limb of a box turtle, a bat and a dolphin is similar to or different from that of a human being. The correct scientific names of hand bones are given, along with interesting things your hand can do or not do – in the latter category would be trying to raise your ring finger when your had is on a flat surface, palm down, and your middle finger is folded under your hand so the finger’s tip touches your palm (the same muscle lifts the middle and ring fingers, and the palm-down position stretches it – so it is not available for moving the ring finger). There are challenges to try when using only one hand, experiments to do to find out if you have a steady hand, and a test to show how sensitive your fingertips are. And of course there is something to create: a skeleton hand, from 22 snap-together pieces packaged in a plastic case bound into The Hand Book. The book explains just how to build the hand (it is not difficult – everything snaps together with just a slight twist here and there), and also shows how to use the pieces to invent new sorts of hands, such as one with fewer but much longer fingers or one with a thumb with extra-long reach (the better to play video games or send text messages). Big, bright illustrations, clear explanations, hands-on (so to speak) learning, and amusing features such as “The Klutz All-Purpose Mix-and-Match Personality and Fortune Teller” (based on finger shapes and palm lines) add up to a book that is equal parts information and sheer enjoyment. And that is frequently the Klutz formula.

     It works very well in Make Your Own Music Video, too. In the deep, dark days of the dim, desolate past – that would be before MTV, then known as Music Television, went on the air in 1981 – few people even knew what a music video was, and fewer cared. But these onetime throwaway showcases for new pop songs exploded into the entertainment world with the advent of MTV and quickly became a huge business of their own – to the point that every 21st-century would-be rock, pop, country or hip-hop star knows you have to make one, if not several, to get your career going, and get the video(s) out to the world in any way possible (most of those ways, such as Facebook and YouTube, not even being in the idea stage when MTV started). Klutz cannot guarantee that its book will turn anyone into a rock star – it probably helps to have some musical ability, you know? – but Make Your Own Music Video is certainly packed with material showing how to give the video presentation of music your best shot. The book omits “the hard parts,” such as “endless practicing [and] playing at a concert where nobody shows up,” and focuses on “the fun stuff,” such as “film tricks, rock star costumes, [and] rock star moves.” Included is a green screen – essential for making you seem to be someone or somewhere that you are not – plus downloadable backgrounds and editing software. Those are the “sizzle” of the book. Its meat includes a set of suggestions for music-video themes, a series of storyboards for planning out the video, and suggestions for everything from costumes to use for different music styles to the best way to lip-sync. There are even a couple of pages of air-guitar lessons, ending with one being smashed (“never try this with a real guitar”). Make Your Own Music Video is in some ways a quintessential Klutz books-plus offering, since it is packed with educational information, teaches a real skill, includes the essentials needed to do what you want to do, and is tremendously enjoyable (although not always easy) to read through and figure out.

     But information-plus-fun is not always the Klutz recipe. Some Klutz books are just about 100% enjoyment, such as Doctor Frankensketch’s Monster Drawing Machine (which will likely appeal more to boys) and The Truth about My Name and What It Reveals about Me! (which is designed specifically for girls). The first of these comes with three two-color pencils and a graphite pencil; the second, with materials to make five fashion-jewelry charms to wear on a bracelet or necklace. Monster Drawing Machine is a Klutzish variation on mix-and-match-bodies books. There are 20 monsters depicted on cardboard pages, each page perforated for easy removal from the book – and also perforated horizontally in two places, so the monsters can be divided into top of head, middle of face and body. The idea is to take the monsters apart (the book contains a bound-in pouch in which to store the pieces for safekeeping), then mix and match to create, well, mix-and-match monsters. And then you take your mixed monster to the “machine” at the back of the book, which has a place for each of the parts and a plastic flap to fit over everything. You close that flap, put a sheet of tracing paper (included, of course) over the closed machine, trace the hybrid monster, then tear out and color the tracing paper to make your very own individual mixed-up monster thingy. The original (pre-taken-apart) monsters range from a toothy, one-eyed tentacled thing to a robot with scissors for hands, a skeleton with nasty-looking eyes, and a really angry-looking baby with huge teeth – wearing a diaper with skull designs all over it. All right, they are so overdone as to be more silly than scary, but that’s part of the Klutz approach: nothing too frightening. True, there is a zombie that has lost one hand and part of an arm, but it is holding a skateboard under the other arm, so everything is fine. The book urges kids to “Be Weird!” when creating the monsters – and shows how, sometimes, it can be fun to make a creature out of only two parts, not three. Klutz specializes in guiding kids toward creativity, not mandating what they do with it.

     The My Name book is considerably gentler, although it does contain a wheel you can turn to find out your “vampire name” by using your ordinary one – “so simple and yet so evil,” says the text. This is only one of several wheels in the book: there is one to find your “candy name,” one to find what your name would be if you were a guy (remember that the book is for girls), and one to find an appropriate title based on your name (such as High Priestess, Monarch, Prima Donna, Diva or Czarina). This is a book that plays with numbers as well as names: in addition to saying how to interpret your signature, it creates numbers from your name and the name of your crush to test your compatibility, develops a “countdown number” using the vowels in your first name, and shows how to find a “friendship number” that will tell you something about you and your BFF. There are also pages on “the power of your initials” and on using the number of letters in your name to find an answer to questions by reading specified sentences from random books (and if it doesn’t work, “try again with a different book”). My Name is silly, yes, but in a mentally amusing way. And for a bit of physical activity, there are five blank, square charms with clear overlays, 30 patterned stickers and 164 letter stickers of all styles and sizes – which can be combined in about a zillion ways to make personalized charms, including ones to give as gifts. Like many Klutz “books-plus,” this one is itself a gift – of creativity and enjoyment, with enough silliness folded in to keep hands as well as minds occupied and interested.

(++++) BOY BOOKS

The Little Prince, adapted from the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. By Joann Sfar. Translated by Sarah Ardizzone. Color by Brigitte Findalky. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $19.99.

Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys. By Bob Raczka. Art by Peter H. Reynolds. Houghton Mifflin. $14.99.

The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future. By “George Beard and Harold Hutchins” (Dav Pilkey). Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Although many books for young readers are aimed at both genders, many others are intended primarily for girls, who are frequently more avid readers than boys. But some books, either overtly or through their subject matter, are created with boys in mind. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is not really a children’s book at all, except in some aspects of its outward form. Rather, it is a strange, moving and surrealistic book whose words resonate even in translation: “It’s quite poetic, but it’s not very serious.” “It’s useful because it’s beautiful.” “‘Why do you speak in riddles all the time?’ ‘Because I solve them all.’” So contemplative and philosophical a book may not seem appealing to action-oriented young boys, but in the new graphic-novel format given it by Joann Sfar, it has a whole different level of appeal from that in its standard, lightly illustrated version. With the approval of the Saint-Exupéry family, Sfar, a French comic-book artist, has taken the primary elements of The Little Prince and illustrated them with empathy and a kind of rough beauty. The drawings make perfect sense in context: the distinctly human pilot stranded in the desert; the huge-eyed and human-like but not human Little Prince; the talking cigarette smoke, snake and plants; the peculiar denizens of the planets visited by the Little Prince before he arrives on Earth; and more. The emotion of the Little Prince comes through with unexpected force in this version, as when the viewpoint and the Little Prince’s appearance change significantly between two sentences: “Where I come from, I once watched the sun setting forty-four times in a day. You see, when you’re feeling very sad, you like sunsets.” The personified proud flower, the tentacle-nosed king, the star-counting five-eyed businessman, the huge-eared fox who says “we only understand what we tame” – the drawings of all these and more are interpretations, to be sure, but they are ones that fit the story well and make the graphic-novel format seem extraordinarily well-suited to Saint-Exupéry’s tale. Whether this style will interest more boys in The Little Prince may not be certain, but Sfar (who, by the way, is a man) has certainly managed to make the book…not more interesting, but interesting in a different way.

     The Little Prince is poetic, and that is one reason it is often thought not to appeal to boys. But there is no particular reason that boys cannot enjoy poetry, as Guyku is designed to show. Bob Raczka has a real flair for creating haiku that conform to the required syllabification (five-seven-five) of their three-line format while partaking of young boys’ unique view of the world: “If this puddle could/ talk, I think it would tell me/ to splash my sister.” “We follow deer tracks/ in the mud, pretending that/ we too are wild beasts.” Peter H. Reynolds’ watercolor and digital-color illustrations beautifully capture the exuberance, joy and occasional thoughtfulness of boys, and the book’s design – haiku for all four seasons – is both a brash tribute and a loving one to the ways in which boys’ feelings follow the year. Sometimes it is a picture that makes a page special, such as the one of the very broadly smiling barefoot boy, standing with hands clasped in anticipation: “Pine tree invites me/ to climb him up to the sky./ How can I refuse?” At other times, although the illustration is apt, it is the words’ power that is most impressive: “With the ember end/ of my long marshmallow stick,/ I draw on the dark.” Guyku is a quiet joy, a celebration of both boyhood and poetry for any time of any year.

     It is not, however, as exuberant as The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, or as unremittingly silly. George Beard and Harold Hutchins, the fourth-graders who are creations of Dav Pilkey and who (in Pilkey’s thoroughly odd world) created Captain Underpants, here bring their slightly skewed (okay, very skewed) sense of humor to caveman times, when dinosaurs and cavepeople live together and giant mechanical monsters rampage, while the intensity of kung-fu training leads to remarks such as, “Boy, philosofy make my brain hurt.” Throw in some flip-o-ramas (two consecutive pages designed to be flipped back and forth repeatedly to show people punching each other and stuff) and you have a heaping helping of misspelled absurdity that is utterly ridiculous and completely enjoyable from start to finish. The story, to the limited extent that it matters, involves two boys from ancient Caveland, Ohio, and their sworn enemy, “Big Cheif Goppernopper,” whose travel through a time portal to the year 2222 A.D. unleashes Goppernopper’s descendant’s mechanized hordes upon ancient times “to steal all the trees and oil and water from the caveman days.” That is, until Ook and Gluk, equipped with kung-fu if not brains, foil the nefarious plans with the aid of a baby dinosaur named Lily who helpfully vomits when necessary. A lot of typical elements of modern boy-oriented entertainment are here – killer robots, poop and armpit jokes, and plenty of meaningless violence – but it is all so overdone and so ridiculous that it is hard not to smile at the absurdity even while condemning the stereotypical notions of what boys “must” find entertaining. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional heaping helping of mindlessness – although to avoid a steady diet of it, don’t take Ook and Gluk without at least an occasional dose of The Little Prince and Guyku.


The Fantastic 5&10¢ Store: A Rebus Adventure. By J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrated by Valorie Fisher. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion. By Hilaire Belloc. Pictures by Mini Grey. Knopf. $19.99.

Six Crows. By Leo Lionni. Knopf. $16.99.

Emily’s New Friend. By Cindy Post Senning, Ed.D., and Peggy Post. Illustrated by Steve Björkman. Collins. $16.99.

Scat, Cat! By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Paul Meisel. Harper. $16.99.

Mia and the Too Big Tutu. By Robin Farley. Pictures by Aleksey and Olga Uvanov. Harper. $3.99.

Pinkalicious: Pink around the Rink. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $3.99.

Mac and Cheese. By Sarah Weeks. Pictures by Jane Manning. Laura Geringer/HarperCollins. $3.99.

Frances. By Russell Hoban. Pictures by Lillian Hoban. Harper. $11.99.

Superman: Superman and the Mayhem of Metallo. By Sarah Hines Stephens. Illustrated by Mada Design, Inc. HarperFestival. $3.99.

     Cleverness comes in many forms, some of them more overtly instructional than others. The Fantastic 5&10¢ Store is a “decoding” book that uses a delightfully old-fashioned form: the rebus, in which pictures must be identified so as to form words or parts of words. That is, a buzzing yellow-and-black insect next to the word “cause” creates the word “because,” the number 2 is the word “to,” and the letters “u” and “r” are read as the words “you are.” J. Patrick Lewis’ writing and Valorie Fisher’s excellent illustrations combine to make the book into a good story as well as a visual curiosity. There is a certain Alice-in-Wonderland feeling to this tale of a town with weird weather, in which a strange store appears atop a hill. A boy named Benny (the second syllable of his name indicated by a picture of a knee) decides to check things out and learns that the store is run by Mr. Nickel (indicated by a five-cent piece) and Mrs. Dime (shown by a 10-cent piece). The store’s offerings are highly unusual: flying toasters, nails hitting a hammer, condiments dancing on the counter, and so on. The mixed-media collages illustrating the book are simply delightful – and have an old-fashioned feel that goes well with the rebus approach. And there is a race between a pot and teakettle that really seems like something that Lewis Carroll could have created. Kids ages 4-9 will have a wonderful time looking at the pictures and figuring out the rhyming text – and just in case they or their parents find the whole approach a little confusing, there is “a rebus adventure without the rebuses,” which is to say just the poetry, at the end, along with some advertisements that certainly look as if they really came from the old “five-and-dime” stores.

     Equally clever and equally visually striking is Mini Grey’s retelling of Hilaire Belloc’s “cautionary tale” about a young boy named Jim who comes to a dreadful end on a visit to the zoo. Belloc (1870-1953) wrote his Cautionary Tales for Children as a satirical antidote to pure-as-the-driven-snow Victorian moralistic stories. Belloc’s kids do what they ought not to do and suffer extreme, even terminal penalties. Originally illustrated by Basil T. Blackwood, the stories later, not surprisingly, attracted the art of Edward Gorey and influenced the work of Roald Dahl. Grey puts her own stamp, and a very vivid one, on Jim’s tale, with a book that includes pages that fold out (one becomes a whole poster of “Zoo Rules and Bylaws”) and others that pop up, most notably one of a huge lion pouncing on Jim after the boy goes off on his own. Although intended for children as young as age three, this book may scare younger kids – and they are unlikely to understand the sarcastic humor underlying it, including the inside-front-cover samplers bearing clichés such as “if you can’t be good, be careful,” transformed on the inside-back-cover pages to ones such as “children should be eaten and not heard.” Indeed, Belloc’s Cautionary Tales were always more for parents than children. So modern parents should heed the front-cover notice here, which reads, “Warning: Contains a dangerous beast and a miserable end.” Kids who do find this sort of thing amusing will find the story of Jim very delightful indeed (in the twisted way in which Belloc intended). Grey’s pointed pictures, which include ones of the not-very-tearful mother who is not surprised at Jim’s end, and the imperious father “who was self-controlled,” fit the story as well, in their own way, as did the decidedly more adult-oriented illustrations by Blackwood and Gorey. And that is really saying something.

     Leo Lionni’s cut-paper illustrations are immediately recognizable as his, and his animal tales, such as Six Crows, have their own distinct points to make. Lionni (1910-1999) tended to offer serious and straightforward morals, as he does in this book, which was originally published in 1988. The story here is about a farmer in India who is plagued by the noisy crows of the book’s title. To prevent them from eating his grain, the farmer erects a scarecrow. The crows are indeed frightened, but instead of leaving, they decide to scare the scarecrow out of the field, so they create “a fierce and very ugly bird,” which in turn terrifies the farmer so much that he hides in his house. So the farmer decides to build an even scarier scarecrow – which leads to the crows creating “an even larger and more ferocious” anti-scarecrow. It takes the timely intercession of an owl to get the two sides to stop escalating their war and agree to talk with each other instead. When crows and farmer meet, both sides agree that they miss the way things used to be, and “soon they were laughing together.” The owl flips the fierce scarecrow’s frowning mouth around so it becomes a smile, and everything ends happily – although kids will notice that the original issue of the crows stealing the farmer’s grain remains unresolved. Still, the notion of talking rather than fighting, if perhaps a rather obvious moral and one not so easily applied in the real world, is appealing, and the distinctive whimsicality of Lionni’s drawings makes Six Crows fun to look at as well as to read.

     The lesson is even more obvious in Emily’s New Friend, the latest practical etiquette guide in the guise of a story from Emily Post’s descendants: great-granddaughter Cindy Post Senning and great-granddaughter-in-law Peggy Post. This is a determinedly nice book, with sweet pictures by Steve Björkman complementing a story that is more didactic than narrative. Emily feels lonely and wishes she had a friend in the neighborhood; Ethan is just moving in and he too feels lonely; and the two become friends. That is the whole plot – a trifle thin even for ages 4-8. Most of the book tells kids how to make friends: Emily “introduces herself and smiles,” then “offers to help” Ethan’s family move in, and then “shows Ethan around.” Later, they visit each other’s homes, where Emily “is considerate…and offers a special snack,” and Ethan “shows her his favorite toys.” The two swim and read together, and “when it is time to go home, Ethan and Emily always help each other clean up.” And so on and so forth. Emily’s New Friend gets a (+++) rating: its heart and etiquette are certainly in the right place, but its story is not really very interesting; and its admonitions, although parents will appreciate them, are somewhat overdone: “They don’t brag or tease. They are not mean or bossy.” In the final analysis, Emily and Ethan do not really have much personality – they are simply conduits for etiquette ideas. The last page, addressed to parents, makes those ideas even more explicit. And they are certainly good ones – but they do not make for a compelling story.

     The stories in the I Can Read! series are the instruction, since the series is written for children just developing reading skills. The hardcover Scat, Cat! and paperback Mia and the Too Big Tutu are at the “My First” level, for preschoolers and kindergartners just starting to read, while Pinkalicious: Pink around the Rink and Mac and Cheese are at Level 1, for kindergartners more comfortable with reading. All four tales are at about the same level of difficulty, but the cat’s story and Mia’s are presented in larger type than the Pinkalicious and Mac-and-Cheese tales. Scat, Cat! features a lost, unnamed cat wandering from place to place and repeatedly encountering animals and people that tell him to go away. All he wants is a home – a place to belong, where no one will say “scat” – and at the end, that is just what he finds. The Mia book features a different kind of cat: Mia is a kitten, but a thoroughly anthropomorphized one. She accidentally packs her older sister’s tutu for ballet class instead of her own, so it is too big and she is worried about tripping. She talks to another student who also worries about tripping: Ruby the giraffe, who tends to fall because of her long legs. The two find they can enjoy Miss Bird’s class anyway, and get to take a bow at the end. In Pink around the Rink, Pinkalicious is unhappy that her brand-new skates are not pink, so she colors them with a marker – but she has never skated before, so she keeps falling on the ice, and she leaves pink trails behind her. Her family supports her, though, and she ends up skating with her father and happily looking ahead to taking lessons. And in Mac and Cheese, the two cats of the title have completely opposite personalities: Mac is outgoing, playful and silly, while Cheese is glum and a complainer. But then Mac loses his hat and Cheese has to act Mac-like to retrieve it – after which both friends act Cheese-y and just do nothing together for a while.

     Somewhat more advanced in plot and vocabulary, a packet of three Level 2 “Reading with Help” books from the 1960s about Frances, the little raccoon, shows that this character retains her charm (despite some slightly dated plots) even after 40-plus years. Bread and Jam for Frances (1964) starts with Frances insisting she wants only bread and jam to eat – and ends when she realizes that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and that variety is better than sameness. Best Friends for Frances (1969) shows that boys and girls can play together and all be best friends with each other. A Bargain for Frances (1970) has the most complicated plot of the three, in which Frances is tricked into buying a plastic tea set from her friend, Thelma, and then tricks Thelma in turn – until the two decide that being friends is better than having to be careful when dealing with each other. The point of all these (+++) books, and others in the I Can Read! series, is to pull young readers gently along into works of increasing complexity by giving them nicely illustrated stories that are fun to look at and that use vocabulary that gradually becomes more difficult as the series moves through Level 4. The books do not so much teach reading as encourage kids to become better at it by spending time with characters they enjoy, in stories that are not too challenging but are interesting enough to hold young children’s interest.

     There are also (+++) books that are outside the I Can Read! series and that use popular superheroes to interest kids in reading. A typical one is Superman and the Mayhem of Metallo, which in its own way demonstrates the same friendship lesson that Mac and Cheese presents. But this one is super-friendship, because when Superman is immobilized by Kryptonite while fighting a giant robot, Batman shows up and removes the harmful element – after which Superman helps with the damaged Batwing airplane and the two friends thank each other. The comic-book violence here is not too significant – this is one of those stories in which buildings and vehicles get crushed and thrown around without apparently hurting anyone – so the help-each-other-out message comes through clearly. The superhero-focused books will not be to all families’ tastes, but if they help get some kids interested in reading in a way that books with gentler characters would not, then they can be just as successful as the works featuring more-benign protagonists. It’s all a matter of how the reading lessons get taught most effectively – something that each family needs to decide for itself.


Sarasate: Music for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 2—Fantasy on “Carmen”; Concert Fantasy on Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”; Canciones rusas; El canto del ruiseñor; La chasse; Jota de Pablo. Tianwa Yang, violin; Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra conducted by Ernest Martínez Izquierdo. Naxos. $8.99.

Kreutzer: Violin Concertos Nos. 17-19. Axel Strauss, violin; San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Andrew Mogrelia. Naxos. $8.99.

Schumann: Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra. Florian Uhlig, piano; Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Christoph Poppen. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.

Ries: Concerto Pastoral, Op. 120; Piano Concerto in C minor, Op. 115; Introduction et Rondeau Brillant. Christopher Hinterhuber, piano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uwe Grodd. Naxos. $8.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 7: Miaskovsky—Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3; Liszt—Nuages gris; Lugubre Gondola No. 1; Scriabin—Five Preludes; Rachmaninoff—Prelude, Op. 3, No. 2. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

     Whether strings are bowed (violin family), plucked (harpsichord family) or struck (piano, which is essentially a percussion instrument), they consistently produce some of the most interesting of all classical music – including some that has become highly familiar and some that is rarely heard at all. Actually, in the case of Pablo Sarasate, his own music can be categorized that way: heard constantly or very rarely. The second Naxos volume of Sarasate’s music for violin and orchestra, played by Tianwa Yang with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra under Ernest Martínez Izquierdo, opens with the hyper-famous Carmen Fantasy, which here gets a strongly virtuosic treatment that also flows well as the music progresses from theme to theme. The much-less-known Roméo et Juliette fantasy makes a wonderful contrast, with its long, singing lines and beauty of tone throughout. The remaining pieces on the CD all have something special to recommend them. Canciones rusas is a setting of two Russian folk songs and includes balalaika-like pizzicato effects. El canto del ruiseñor (“Song of the Nightingale”) is, like the fantasy on Gounod’s Shakespeare-based opera, a work of emotion in which the virtuosity is largely secondary to the expressiveness. La chasse combines a suspenseful opening with a series of unusual techniques, especially the bowing toward the end. And Jota de Pablo is a personal work that, on the one hand, let Sarasate display his showmanship; and, on the other, gave him the opportunity to surprise the audience with a muted pianissimo conclusion. The élan of the performances here does full justice to the music without attempting to give it depths that it does not, and was not intended to, possess.

     Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831) did intend his violin works to have both depth and scale, and his final three concertos – especially the last two, in E minor and D minor respectively – are impressive. Kreutzer is best known as the dedicatee of Beethoven’s Op. 47 sonata for violin and piano, but he was a considerable violinist in his own right (although he never played Beethoven’s Op. 47 in public), and was also well known as a teacher. He composed a number of stage works, but is best known as a composer for his pieces for violin, which remain largely classical in style even when using a Beethoven-size orchestra. Axel Strauss and Andrew Mogrelia have clearly looked closely at what Kreutzer had to offer, for their recording of his final concertos showcases them impressively. No. 17, in G major, is most interesting for its lyricism in both the first and second movements. No. 18 has an unusual aria-like section marked Grave in the first movement, plus a very expressive central Adagio. No. 19 alternates dramatic and lyrical sections to very fine effect, with a central movement that is stately rather than highly emotional. The weakest movements – although they are still very pleasant – are the finales, which tend to be significantly lighter than much of what has gone before. Kreutzer clearly planned his concertos this way, though, and certainly Strauss and Mogrelia make everything as effective as it can be.

     Turning to strings that are struck and to a 200th-anniversary celebration leads to an excellent disc of all Schumann’s works for piano and orchestra – and there are not as many of them as a listener might expect. Aside from the famous Piano Concerto, there are two showpieces that were unknown for a long time but have come more firmly into the repertoire in recent years: Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92, and Konzert-Allegro with Introduction, Op. 134. The first of these, in particular, stands up quite well both for its virtuosity and for its expressiveness. And its orchestration is unusually well constructed, providing warmth and depth that go well with the piano part. The later Konzert-Allegro is brighter and more cheerful, and the piano is more dominant than in the earlier work. Florian Uhlig plays both these pieces, and the Piano Concerto, with freshness and enthusiasm, allowing the music to sweep through its many moods effectively; and he is well served by Christoph Poppen and the fine playing of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern – this sounds like a true partnership. The CD also includes two works that are heard very rarely heard indeed. One is a concerto movement in D minor, written two years before Schumann began work on what would become his Piano Concerto. Left incomplete and reconstructed only in recent years – a version was first performed in 1986 – this movement is of some historical value and is worth listening to, but is not in itself highly creative. Of more interest is the piano-and-orchestra version of the Abegg Variations, Schumann’s Op. 1. These variations are very early Schumann indeed, dating to 1830, when the composer was 20 years old. The variations are known as a virtuoso work for solo piano, but the version heard here has never been recorded before. It uses Schumann’s directions for an orchestration that he never completed, and gives the work a solidity and scale that it does not have as a solo piano piece. Like many other rediscoveries in connection with Schumann’s bicentennial, it helps provide a fuller picture of the composer.

     A full picture of Ferdinand Ries’ piano concertos is emerging disc by disc as Naxos releases volume after volume of these well-constructed, frequently very interesting and long-forgotten works. The latest collaboration between Christopher Hinterhuber and Uwe Grodd – the fourth in this series – again offers very fine performances of pieces that contain many interesting elements even though, taken as a whole, they are more well-crafted than truly original. The numbering of Ries’ concertos is very confusing – he wrote nine, but the first was for violin, and he numbered all nine sequentially – and their exact dates of composition are not always clear. Concerto Pastoral got its title from the composer, who probably knew it would be compared with the sixth symphony by his teacher, Beethoven. It has some resemblances to the symphony in the speed of its movements and the way the themes unfold, but they are more uses of conventions of the time than imitations of Beethoven’s creation. There is one especially intriguing element: a solo horn in the finale playing in a meter different from that of the piano and orchestra. The C minor concerto, Op. 115, harks back both to Beethoven’s in the same key and to Mozart’s minor-key concertos, and again has an unusually interesting finale, its headlong motion interrupted by an Adagio section. Also on this CD is a late work by Ries (1784-1838): the Introduction et Rondeau Brillant is known to date to 1835 and combines an impressive slow introduction with a very virtuosic faster section. Rather formulaic in structure, it is very well put together, and Hinterhuber and Grodd give it – and the rest of the music here – a strong and forthright performance that highlights Ries’ skills as both pianist and composer.

     The highlights in the latest Idil Biret Archives release are this very thoughtful pianist’s treatment of the very different works of three 20th-century Russian composers. This interesting but brief Biret recording – most of it originally issued by the short-lived Finnadar label in 1980, with the result that the CD, like most LPs of 30 years ago, lasts only three-quarters of an hour – offers an unusual chance to hear significant works by Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950), whose music is still not often played outside Russia. His Sonata No. 2 predates the Russian Revolution; No. 3 postdates it. No. 2 includes repeated use of the Dies Irae that was to permeate the works of Rachmaninoff (and that had been used throughout the Romantic era since Berlioz’ day). Both the sonatas are, in effect, extended first movements, yet they sound complete in themselves, and Biret handles them with strength and her typical thoughtfulness. Her playing of Scriabin’s Five Preludes is also especially good, with a fine sense of balance and texture. The Liszt pieces fit rather oddly here, being nicely enough played but not especially distinguished; they were in fact not on the original Finnadar release and were recorded in 1978, a year earlier than the rest of the music here. As for the Rachmaninoff showpiece in C-sharp minor, while certainly well performed, it lacks a bit of the fire and drama that it can have in a somewhat less controlled and more abandoned performance. Nevertheless, this latest entry from the Biret archives continues to prove, if proof were still needed, that the Turkish pianist has both intelligence and technique to spare, and a willingness to tackle both familiar works and ones that remain distinctly unusual.

October 21, 2010


Harry Potter Magic Eye Book: 3D Magical Creatures, Beasts and Beings. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Fly Guy #9: Buzz Boy and Fly Guy. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

Captain Sky Blue. By Richard Egielski. Michael di Capua/Scholastic. $17.95.

On the Go. By Leslie Jonah. Illustrated by Joshua Nash. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

How Do Dinosaurs Laugh Out Loud? By Jane Yolen. Illustrations by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $7.99.

     Imagination soars in all these books, which have a variety of ways to pull young readers skyward into their world. And some of the books show ways in which “the death of print” is vastly exaggerated – for the books do things that are simply not adequately reproducible on E-readers or computer screens. For example, the upcoming release of the first of two films based on J.K. Rowling’s final novel about Harry Potter has led to the creation of a new “Magic Eye” book – one of those fascinating creations that frustrate some people completely while delighting others to an equal degree. These books use complex interweavings of similar but not identical pictures to create three-dimensional effects that readers must extract for themselves by using special eye-focusing techniques. Once you learn them, the techniques are easy – and part of the fun lies in learning and then applying them (which distinguishes this 3D from movie 3D, for which all you do is don glasses). A lot of the Harry Potter Magic Eye Book involves flying. There are no scenes from the not-yet-released film, but there are two of Hedwig the owl, one of Buckbeak aloft, one of a Dementor hovering menacingly, one of a Hungarian Horntail Dragon, and plenty of pictures that will let readers’ thoughts take wing even though the characters are on the ground: Fluffy the three-headed guard dog, Dobby the house elf, a centaur, Harry’s Stag Patronus, a mermaid, a werewolf, and others. Imaginatively laid out, with non-3D pictures from the Harry Potter films integrated into the 3D elements, the Harry Potter Magic Eye Book is a feast for the imagination as well as the eyes.

     Tedd Arnold’s odd flying character, Fly Guy, takes wing again in Buzz Boy and Fly Guy, one of the cleverest entries in this series. It is a book within a book: Buzz, who owns Fly Guy, draws a comic in which the two of them are the same size and are superheroes – and both of them can fly. And Fly Guy can talk, not just say the name “Buzzzzz.” The two take part in a suitably silly story, in which pirates come during the night, pick up their house, and take it to a dragon’s cave on a distant island. After a series of misadventures, everything turns out just fine, the now-friendly dragon joins the good guys, and Fly Guy proclaims them “herozzz.” Very neat and very in-character.

     The title character of Captain Sky Blue is superheroic, too, but what makes Richard Egielski’s book special is less the adventure but the way it is told: in pilot lingo. The inside front cover gives a list of 24 terms used by pilots – every one of which appears in the book. These phrases propel a story in which the captain – who is a toy and looks like one – has a great Christmas adventure after, or maybe before, arriving at the home of a young boy named Jack. The time confusion is deliberate and is part of the book’s attraction: Jack and the captain (whose eyes are pinpoints, keeping him toylike even though he does human things) build the captain’s plane together, and then Captain Sky Blue takes off on aerial adventures above Jack – until a storm brings the plane down and the captain finds himself underwater, entangled with a whale, and then inside a mysterious somewhere that he recognizes. Captain Sky Blue finds his way back from that place by packing himself in a box that is loaded aboard Santa’s sleigh – which the captain has to help Santa pilot through a bad storm to get to Jack’s house. But didn’t the whole story start at Jack’s house after Captain Sky Blue arrived? Kids will enjoy puzzling out the mystery while learning some unfamiliar terms and looking at illustrations created with Egielski’s usual high level of skill and attention to detail.

     On the Go features a pilot in an airplane on the cover, too, but that is just one way in which things and people move in this little board book featuring lenticular animation – what Accord Publishing calls “AniMotion.” This is the process by which stationary objects are made to move – or seem to move – thanks to a vertical black-and-white grid that creates the illusion of motion as a reader changes the angle of the page. This means that hot-air balloons really do seem to float in the clouds on one page, and there is plenty of activity on (or near) the ground as well: snowboards, a submarine beneath the sea, a roller coaster, and race cars all zip about, up and down and around and around, until – on the last page – a little boy with a big smile plops down on the grass, tired out by all the activity. As usual in “AniMotion” books, the story is thin, basically just describing the movement: “Submarines dive down to the ocean floor,/ Where there’s an undersea world for you to explore.” But the lenticular animation helps the imagination soar high.

     It is also imagination that takes flight in the latest Jane Yolen/Mark Teague dino delight, How Do Dinosaurs Laugh Out Loud? This too is a board book with a difference: in this case, flaps that kids lift to reveal really bad dinosaur-related jokes: “What did the Triceratops land on when he fell down? His Tricera-bottom!” As in all these dino books, a big attraction is Teague’s meticulous rendering of Allosaurus, Polacanthus, Pachycephalosaurus and the other dinosaurs – which he then shows with thoroughly human expressions and in thoroughly human postures. To make things even funnier, each page features flaps covered by thoroughly unrealistic drawings of dinosaurs – the sort that would likely be made by children who read the book. The kid-drawing flaps and parts of the realistic-looking dinosaurs conceal answers to the riddles, giving young readers plenty of activity in which to indulge while enjoying some silliness and letting their thoughts fly off into a world in which dinosaurs are really just big kids at heart.


ABC, Baby Me! By Susan B. Katz. Illustrated by Alicia Padrón. Robin Corey Books. $7.99.

Busy Gorillas. By John Schindel. Photographs by Andy Rouse. Tricycle Press/Random House. $6.99.

Little Tree. By e.e. cummings. Illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray. Dragonfly Books. $6.99.

Hubknuckles. By Emily Herman. Illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray. Crown. $14.99.

Babymouse #13: Cupcake Tycoon. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $6.99.

     Books need not be large or thick to deliver a considerable helping of enjoyment – and that applies not only to books for the youngest children but also to ones for early readers and even preteens. Of course, board books for kids up to age three are always short. But some pack a surprising amount of information as well as fun into their pages. Susan B. Katz’s very clever ABC, Baby Me! is an alphabet book whose pages focus entirely on things that infants want, need or experience during the day. From “Adore me” for A through “Zzzz, I’m fast asleep!” for Z, Katz – assisted by warm and lovely Alicia Padrón illustrations – takes parents and children alike through all sorts of eventful everyday happenings. Some pages express what baby wants: “Diaper me,” “Hug me,” “Nuzzle me.” Others show the sounds and sights that surround baby during the day: “La la, lullaby,” “Peek-a-boo,” “Velvet bubbles.” Different pages show different babies – as in many kids’ books today, there is a strong multiracial component – so just about any family will enjoy this short, sweet alphabetical tour of everyday life. And for something more exotic, families can turn to another short board book about a different set of everyday activities: Busy Gorillas, in which John Schindel and Andy Rouse show both baby and adult great apes doing what comes naturally to them. “Gorilla gripping” shows a young gorilla climbing a tree; “Gorilla clinging” has a baby holding tight to an adult; “Gorilla yawning” shows just what it says, and showcases a very impressive set of teeth; “Gorilla loving” captures a tender moment between an adult gorilla and a baby. The pictures are exotic enough, and the activities understandable enough, to combine into a book that is fascinating in showing both how different gorillas are from humans and how they behave in so many similar ways.

     Children old enough to read on their own can find a big dose of enjoyment in two new holiday-focused books, both for ages 5-8. Little Tree, originally published in 1987, combines a poem by e.e. cummings with soft, impressionistic illustrations by Deborah Kogan Ray. The poem is a touching one about getting a small Christmas tree and imagining how the tree must feel so far from its forest home: “i will comfort you/ because you smell so sweetly.” Ray interprets this visually as the story of a brother and sister who buy the little tree from a sidewalk vendor in the city, then bring it to their apartment and decorate it. The happy expressions of the children nicely reflect the warmth of cummings’ language in such lines as, “the spangles/ that sleep all the year in a dark box/ dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine.” At the end of this lovely little book, the poem is presented without illustrations and in cummings’ original design – a bonus for parents. Parents will also enjoy the Halloween story of Hubknuckles, but they may find it a bit more shivery than kids will. Emily Herman says a ghost named Hubknuckles really does pay an annual visit to her family’s home in Maine, and has done so for six generations. Hubknuckles, first published in 1985, tells the story of what happens when Hubknuckles shows up on one particularly special Halloween. Ray’s atmospheric black-and-white illustrations capture the mood here just as effectively as her color ones do in Little Tree. The idea of a child going outside to dance with a ghost, as the narrator of Hubknuckles does, may seem a little scary to parents, even more so now than 25 years ago. But there is nothing at all frightening in the mood of the story, even though Ma and Pa, in the book, are more than a little taken aback when they find out what their daughter has done. What could be just another ghost story for Halloween becomes, in this book, an unusually warm supernatural tale.

     Little books are somewhat less common for older readers, but the Babymouse series, for ages 7-10, continues to deliver a lot of fun in a small size. The 13th of these books, Cupcake Tycoon, is one of the best and one of the most complex (not that any Babymouse story is truly complicated). The ever-daydreaming Babymouse gets into more trouble than usual this time, causing a flood in the school library that ruins many books – so a cupcake-selling fundraiser is launched to replace them. There is a grand prize for the student who sells the most cupcakes, and of course Babymouse is determined to win it – but she is repeatedly upstaged by arch-enemy Felicia, who mounts an extensive advertising campaign all over town. Babymouse does eventually come up with a good idea, which turns into a disaster, but the disaster is noticed by a TV news crew and ends up tugging so many heartstrings that Babymouse wins the contest – but the prize turns out not to be the sort of grandiose item she has been imagining. And she realizes that’s just fine, even though the less-than-expected prize contains an error that causes Babymouse to say, for the umpteenth time in the book, “Typical.” Also included in Cupcake Tycoon are repeated references to an armadillo; there is even a rain of armadillos at one point. And the sister-and-brother team of Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm includes a giraffe in the Rumpelstiltskin role in one daydream, a “Cupcake Tycoon” board game, and some unusual involvement by the narrator who interacts with Babymouse in all these books: here, the narrator actually buys one of Babymouse’s cupcakes, just to be nice. This is one little book that is packed from start to finish with action, amusement and all sorts of cleverness. Babymouse fans will have a ball with it.


You Are the Best Medicine. By Julie Aigner Clark. Illustrated by Jana Christy. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.

I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: History’s Strangest Cures. By Carlyn Beccia. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.

Scaredy-Cat, Splat! By Rob Scotton. Harper. $16.99.

If You’re a Monster and You Know It. By Rebecca Emberley & Ed Emberley. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     An absolutely extraordinary book of rare sensitivity about an extremely difficult subject, You Are the Best Medicine is an absolute must-have for any family dealing with breast cancer. It is a book that can be read word for word to a child – at least to a girl, since the mom in the book has a daughter – and it will provide tremendously uplifting feelings of hope for mother, daughter and other family members as well. Written by Julie Aigner Clark at the perfect level for children ages 4-8, and illustrated with tremendous warmth and intimacy by Jana Christy, this is a book that fully accepts the genuine fear young children have when a parent confronts a major illness; the fear the parents have in discussing it; and some ways in which parents and children alike can cope. But it is not the slightest bit preachy or dogmatic – it is told entirely in the voice of a mother diagnosed with cancer. The type of cancer is never specified, but because of the book’s use of pink and the plans to donate some of the proceeds from its sale to breast-cancer research, the implication is clearly there. The book allows mothers and daughters alike to feel frightened, worried and sad, then reassures them that even in the bad times of coping with disease, there are thoughts and memories that can and will make things easier. “I will be sad because I am sick, but I will be happy because it is not a sickness that you can catch from me, and so you can still kiss me and hug me and love me.” “Sometimes I will feel scared… But I will remember the times when you were scared, times when you had a nightmare and came into my room to sleep with me.” “For a while I will have to take medicine that…will make all my hair fall out. I will look different. But I will laugh when I remember your own sweet little baby head, how round and bald it was…” Every single page is a gem – and not just because of Clark’s words. Christy, to cite just one example, illustrates the “hair will fall out” page with mother and daughter sitting outdoors, with mom covering her presumably bald head by wearing a big hat – to which her daughter is pinning flowers. It is almost impossible not to tear up when reading this book, even if your family is fortunate enough never to have been affected by cancer. But the tears, remarkably, will be ones of joy as much as ones of sorrow.

     In fact, You Are the Best Medicine is so intense that it may be a good idea to follow it up by reading something medical that is much more amusing – at least in retrospect. Something like I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat. The contrast between the cures suggested here and the ones used in modern medicine is both fascinating and hilarious – made even more amusing because Carlyn Beccia is every bit as skilled an illustrator as she is a writer. She warns at the outset that some of the cures “are gross” and some are painful and should not be tried “on yourself, your pet, or family members.” Then she proceeds to show such “medicines” as “caterpillar fungus” for cough (illustrated by wide-eyed, rather cute caterpillars in a laboratory beaker); “puke weed” for a cold (a woman getting sick into a flower pot); “a necklace made from earthworms” for a sore throat (illustrated by – yes – a necklace made from earthworms); and many more ideas. But the best is yet to come, because Beccia not only explains what these supposed cures were and when they were used, but also shows why some of them may actually have worked. A frog in the throat? Well, some frogs secrete slime when they get annoyed, and sometimes the slime could actually coat the throat and cure the infection – frog slime is used in some of today’s antibiotics. Maggots as a cure for wounds? This worked – because maggots eat pus and dead flesh, leaving healthy flesh alone and helping the wound heal. This is a thoroughly fascinating book that shows, through remarkably sound research and very well-done illustrations, just how far we have come in treating disease – and how far we have not come.

     Fears of disease, although sometimes overdone, have a basis in reality – and so do the fears of some of the treatments that have been used in the past for various diseases. One way of handling fear is through scientific understanding and rationality. Another way is to make fun of it – a big part of the foundation of Halloween. Well-done Halloween-themed books such as Scaredy-Cat, Splat! and If You’re a Monster and You Know It can be very useful for helping young children confront fears that seem real – and maybe even prepare them to handle some of the ones that are real. Rob Scotton’s book is his fourth about Splat the cat, a peculiar-looking feline with big, close-together, wide-open eyes and fur that sticks out every which way. In his Halloween adventure, Splat is scared by a spider, then decides to dress up as one for school to try to win the scariest-cat prize. But he is not very good at frightening his equally odd-looking friends, Spike and Plank – and their loud “BOO” ends up scaring him. Yet everything works out just fine when the accident-prone Splat gets a pumpkin stuck on his head in the middle of a scary story and – well, you have to see (and read) it to believe it.

     As for If You’re a Monster and You Know It, you can see, read and sing along with it – to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” This book is all Emberley, all the way: Rebecca and Ed created it, and songwriter Adrian sings the words in a free download available through the Scholastic Web site. The bursting-with-colors art, created with Freehand software and displayed against black backgrounds, is weird but is not the slightest bit scary. Neither are the words – “if you’re a monster and you know it, snort and growl,” and so on. But the art, the words and the music are good, clean, silly fun, with plenty of participatory stomping, twitching, wiggling and roaring to keep kids interested and unafraid of make-believe monsters – even the big, noisy ones. In real life, it is all too often the small, quiet monsters that are really scary – like the illness that You Are the Best Medicine helps children handle. It is nice to think that rambunctious “monster play” may also eventually do its part in helping children cope with much more serious and much less colorful scary things.


Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins & Other Nasties: A Practical Guide. By “Miss Edythe McFate” as told to Lesley M.M. Blume. Illustrated by David Foote. Knopf. $16.99.

Masters of Disaster. By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

The Greenhouse Chronicles #1: A Crack in the Sky. By Mark Peter Hughes. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Hunchback Assignments, Book 2: The Dark Deeps. By Arthur Slade. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.

     You might expect a book about the behavior of supernatural beings, intended for preteens, to be filled with amusement and lighthearted descriptions of pleasant, ethereal creatures. Not so – not in Modern Fairies, Dwarves, Goblins & Other Nasties, anyway. Cast as a protective guidebook by an expert named Edythe McFate, the book explains that just about everything you thought you knew about the various little people is wrong – and, as a result, dangerous. For fairies, brownies, goblins and the rest of these beings are not pleasant creatures of long ago, but modern and frequently malevolent – and protecting oneself from them is a very good idea indeed. “McFate” (through the medium, so to speak, of Lesley M.M. Blume) both explains the habits of various supernatural beings and discusses how they function in the modern world – the latter through eight illustrative stories of the (usually unfortunate) interaction between the supernatural characters and modern people in, of all places, New York City. Aided by excellent David Foote illustrations that convey both otherworldly charm and an undercurrent of menace, Blume shows again and again – whether setting a story in the old Algonquin Hotel or in the Lincoln Tunnel – that, as one story warns, “fairies can always see what you really are. Take note.” So in connection with an explanation of fairy rings, there is the tale of a girl named after a flower who eventually becomes one – but probably not happily (“it’s impossible to know for certain”). There is a story of applause-loving twins who perform at Carnegie Hall, offending beings called Librettos in the process – and therefore are never able to perform in public again. There are discussions of fairies in the kitchen (“fairies simply cannot help themselves when it comes to stealing spoons”), goblins in the subway, enchanted fairy isles, ball lightning at Coney Island, and many other unlikely combinations of real-world and fairy-world themes. In fact, the entire book is an unlikely combination – and for that reason will delight preteens whose view of life is a little different, and perhaps a little skewed.

     Things are off-center for the same age group in Masters of Disaster, but despite the title, this book leans to the light side, not the dark. Gary Paulsen’s story is about 12-year-old Henry Mosley, whose life is so boring that he decides to write down a variety of ways to make things more exciting for himself and his friends Reed and Riley. Among Henry’s ideas: solve a 100-year-old murder mystery; research the contents of a Dumpster; and break the world record for forward somersaults while tied to a bike. Each of these is a recipe for disaster, and the results are fairly predictable. The things Henry and his friends try are not totally off-the-wall – the Dumpster idea, for example, is tied to possibly getting a scholarship for “the study of environmental protection by middle school students.” But Henry, Reed and Riley consistently underestimate the requirements of what they want to do, and equally consistently mess up the execution of their plans; and that is where the fun lies, or is supposed to lie. In truth. Masters of Disaster tries a little too hard to be funny – it is a very short book (just 102 pages) into which Paulsen attempts to pack more than the work can really hold. And none of the kids is particularly well characterized; they are just there. Still, the would-be adventurers and their exploits are amusing enough to garner Masters of Disaster a (+++) rating.

     Nearly four times as long, far more serious and far darker, A Crack in the Sky is also for preteens and also a (+++) book. Its attractiveness is adventure; its shortcoming, formulaic plotting. Its central character is 13-year-old Eli Papadopoulos, grandson of the founder of the huge (and therefore, yawn, evil) InfiniCorp, the firm that “is taking care of everything” (so its ads say) in the domed cities where Eli and many other people live in the aftermath of a Great Sickness that has wiped out most human beings. Naturally, the company’s hubris means there must be something rotten at the core of what it is doing; and it must be something that a 13-year-old can discover even though no one within the huge corporation seems able to find out about it or believe it when Eli points it out. Hence the book’s title: Eli notices that something is wrong with the dome city’s artificial sky and that the city keeps getting hotter. Bad move to point out a problem, though: Eli is sent far away to the Tower (bad corporations do not want to correct any mistakes that anyone points out), and while in exile, Eli meets a girl named Tabitha who is also a stranger to “right” thinking, and together they plan to get out of the domed cities altogether – and away from InfiniCorp. This is an old, old plot of individuals fighting to escape a repressive society in whose warnings of “the danger outside” they refuse to believe. Mark Peter Hughes seasons this stew of familiar ingredients with some entirely predictable elements (including mutants, terrorists determined to bring down InfiniCorp, and a conflict between Eli and his brother, Sebastian) and some less-expected ones (Eli’s pet mongoose, Marilyn). And since this is the first book of a series, Hughes pilots it expertly to a point at which Eli does manage to escape – but ends up in a dire situation that will be resolved in the next novel. A Crack in the Sky is well done for what it is, and Hughes’ end-of-book discussion of global warming and the way he used (and overused) scientific information on it is interesting. But the book has too many predictable adventure elements to be judged a complete success.

     The Dark Deeps targets slightly older readers, ages 12 and up, with a combination of Victorian-era settings, anachronistic devices and dialogue to speed the story along, and a substantial touch of fantasy to disabuse young teenagers of any notion that this might be science fiction. The first Hunchback Assignments novel introduced a secret-agent network called the Permanent Association; its commander, Mr. Socrates; a shape-shifting orphan (remember that this is fantasy!) named Modo; and a set of evil opponents, the Clockwork Guild. That book, very loosely inspired by The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which is a very, very dark and deeply disturbing book in Victor Hugo’s original version), had a number of clever touches that helped make up for its being somewhat overdone. Arthur Slade’s sequel, loosely connected to Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, is less compelling – it introduces only one significant new oddity – but still deserves a (+++) rating for strong pacing and a number of intriguing (if not especially well differentiated) characters. The Dark Deeps also includes a touch of The Invisible Man: Dr. Hyde has treated a Clockwork Guild orphan named Griff – Modo’s evil counterpart – with elixirs to make him invisible. The story involves mysterious attacks on ships in the vicinity of Iceland, with the Permanent Association sending Modo and fellow agent Octavia to find out what is going on. Throw in some French spies, some anarchists, and rumors of a sea monster, and Modo falling overboard and being presumed dead, and you have the elements of a taut tale involving a submarine, a city beneath the sea, and plenty of nefarious doings. Readers who enjoyed the first Hunchback Assignments book will surely like this one as well, even though some elements here are a great deal less than convincing – the ease with which Modo is taken in by Griff’s none-too-believable lies, for example. The Hunchback Assignments is set to be a potentially long-running series, drawing on Victorian literature and various genre conventions and retaining a focus on Modo and Octavia. Hopefully, as Slade writes further books, the characters will show more depth than they do in The Dark Deeps.