January 12, 2012


882½ Amazing Answers to Your Questions about the Titanic. By Hugh Brewster and Laurie Coulter. Paintings by Ken Marschall. Scholastic/Madison Press. $9.99.

Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two: School. Hasn’t This Gone On Long Enough? By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.

How Do Dinosaurs Eat Cookies? By Jane Yolen & Mark Teague. Recipes by Heidi E.Y. Stemple. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $7.99.

     The questions posed in book titles may be there to elicit genuine answers, as in one of these works; they may be purely rhetorical, as in another; or they may be part of a longstanding title pattern, connecting something new in a series with what has gone before – as in the third. 882½ Amazing Answers to Your Questions about the Titanic is so named because the doomed liner was 882½ feet long (and that is the answer to the first question). Some of the answers really are pretty amazing, because they go well beyond the basic facts already known to many young readers – that the supposedly unsinkable ship struck an iceberg during its maiden voyage and sank, with considerable loss of life. For example, readers will find out here that although the Titanic was the world’s largest ship in 1912, a larger liner was built the next year, and some of today’s huge cruise ships are twice the size of the Titanic. Some question-and-answer entries debunk myths about the ship – for example, no one was sealed inside the hull by mistake, and no one painted “we defy God to sink her” on the stern. There are explanations of why the ship was considered unsinkable (because of a design using multiple watertight compartments), how long it took to launch it (62 seconds), why it carried dragon’s blood (which turns out to be the sap from a certain palm tree), how many crew members it carried (892 – although elsewhere in the book, in one of the work’s few flaws, the number is given as 899), and what animals other than dogs were brought aboard (two roosters and two hens). There is plenty of fascinating information as well about how the fatal collision occurred and what happened to those on board: 23 women worked on the Titanic and 20 were rescued; the first-class passengers had combined wealth equal to $9.8 billion in today’s money; one boy was almost denied entry to a lifeboat because he was wearing a hat that made him look older than he was; the ship’s lights stayed on until two minutes before it sank. Other questions deal with passenger rescues and recovery of bodies (with watches stopped between 2:00 and 2:20 a.m.), and then there is this: “Have any lives been lost due to ice in the North Atlantic since the Titanic disaster? No.” Hugh Brewster and Laurie Coulter carry the story of the Titanic into modern times, up to and past the discovery of the wreckage in 1985; and the book’s illustrations, which range from period photos to well-designed paintings by Ken Marschall, are highly evocative. The final “half question” of the book is whether people will always be fascinated by the story of the Titanic – an unanswerable but perfectly reasonable query.

     Middle-schooler Jamie Kelly’s question about whether school has gone on long enough is equally unanswerable, but there is nothing serious about this book – any more than there was about the first 12 in Jim Benton’s ongoing “Tales of Mackerel Middle School.” This may be “Year Two” of the school for Jamie, but she is still, well, Jamie, which means she starts out by warning readers not to read her “dumb diary,” then packs all the pages with a mixture of self-indulgent writing and highly amusing drawings (example: three “hideous math faces” followed by three “gorgeous language arts faces,” just to be sure you know which subject she likes and which she doesn’t). Jamie may have grown a bit older, but she has not grown a bit up; not a bit. She is still jealous of too-beautiful-to-be-real and too-good-to-be-true Angeline, to whom Jamie is now sort of related because Jamie’s Aunt Carol has married Angeline’s Uncle Dan. True, Jamie is now sufficiently self-aware to say of Angeline, “I think I would like her more if she was less likable to others.” But no fear: she is not so mature as to stop being unreasonable. Jamie also still has Isabella as a best friend, and Isabella is as cantankerous and generally difficult as ever – Jamie says her friend’s parents have received “all the Five Known Types of Letters Home” from school, the fifth of which is, “Your child is trouble.” Missing this year is Emmily, who was “not the sharpest knife in the drawer” or even “the sharpest spoon in the drawer. Most of the time, Emmily wasn’t even in the drawer at all. She was lost somewhere in the bottom of the dishwasher.” But Jamie does hear from her – and learns that Emmily is doing better in math than Jamie is. Now there’s a scary thought. So Jamie realizes she must do battle with math, and that is the main theme of the book – which also provides plenty of chances for Jamie to imagine (and draw) things that she would like to see, such as popped produce, on the basis that if there can be both corn and popcorn, there can also be popbroccoli, popcarrots and popwatermelon. Jamie, a year older, is no wiser, or not much wiser, and that bodes well for her continuing saga.

     The How Do Dinosaurs books by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague are a saga of their own, coming in multiple formats and designs. And now there is something new in the latest of them, How Do Dinosaurs Eat Cookies? The usual approach of the books has Yolen writing, in the first part of each one, the various things that dinosaurs (stand-ins for the young readers at whom the books are aimed) shouldn’t do…and then, in the second part, the things that they should do. Not this time: the yes and no elements are given on the same page, and for a very good reason. This is a short book, with only 14 pages, including the front and back inside covers – and it is packed not only with things to do and not do but also with scratch-and-sniff illustrations and two full pages of cookie recipes. That’s a lot of material in a little bit of space. On a single right-hand page, for example, Yolen writes, “Does a dinosaur baking just make a big mess, and splatter the batter on Mother’s clean dress? No – a dinosaur stirs with the greatest of care. She adds in some cinnamon just for the flair.” On the same page, below the text, is a dinosaur-shaped scratch-and-sniff panel that smells like cinnamon. And on the facing, left-hand page is one of Mark Teague’s usual, wonderful portrayals of a realistic-looking dinosaur (in this case a nothosaurus) acting like a not-very-well-behaved human child. Short the book may be, but seeing a caudipteryx carrying chocolate chips (the bag is sniffable) or a silvasaurus rushing to get a lemon cookie (which smells lemony) leaves no doubt that this book fits right into the delightful Yolen/Teague series very well indeed. The two recipes at the back of the book, for “Cinnama-Saurus Rex” and “Fossilized Lemon Tracks,” are easy to follow (with adult supervision) and make delicious, simple cookies that will make the book even more fun to re-read, as modern dinosaurs are sure to want to do.

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