September 06, 2012


The Man from the Land of Fandango. By Margaret Mahy. Illustrated by Polly Dunbar. Clarion. $16.99.

Rocket Writes a Story. By Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

      Round-faced, round-bellied, big-headed and permeated with unending silliness, the Man from the Land of Fandango “is given to dancing and dreams,” and “juggles with jelly and jam in a jar,” and “dances on ceilings and walls,” and is in every way a delightful series of non sequiturs and amusements.  Margaret Mahy’s The Man from the Land of Fandango is pure entertainment – its whole reason for being is to celebrate how joyous it can be to be a child in the 4-8 age range, experiencing life and all things wonderful and ridiculous and magnificent and utterly without meaning except for a sort of delicious bounciness.  Polly Dunbar’s illustrations capture the text perfectly and enhance it tremendously, making The Man from the Land of Fandango into a combination circus-zoo-carnival slice of absurdity.  The little boy and girl who make a poster that magically springs to life find the man appearing as a bird, bell and beach ball, dancing with a bear and a bison, and introducing the kids to a land where “baboons on bassoons make a musical sound.”  The images are completely ridiculous and so laced with charm – the characters’ smiles are just precious – that adults will be as eager to visit the Land of Fandango as will their kids, journeying to a place where kangaroos hop happily “and the dinosaurs join in the din.”  The book makes not one iota of sense, and is not intended to: it is simply a frolicsome journey through the ebullient wonderfulness of life, and is a superb introduction to the “friendly fandandical way,” which families will not only enjoy again and again but also, hopefully, try to bring into their everyday, real-world lives.  Even a touch of the fandandical will brighten the gloomiest day.

      Things are pretty bright and upbeat in Rocket Writes a Story, too, but Tad Hills’ followup to How Rocket Learned to Read has a more serious purpose.  This is a celebration of books, showing Rocket and his teacher, the little yellow bird, enjoying reading together, with Rocket deciding that a new book smells “like a place he’d never been to, like a friend he’d never met.”  That is a lovely image, and it begins a thoroughly wonderful “word search” in which Rocket and the bird find all sorts of interesting words, writing them down, drawing pictures of some of them (nest, worm, cloud) but not of others (down, over, of).  Puppy and bird cover a whole tree with their words, and then Rocket decides to use the words to write a story – but cannot think of what to write about.  “One of the hardest parts of writing is coming up with a good story,” the bird tells him, suggesting that Rocket write about something that happened to him, or something he really likes, or something exciting.  And Rocket roams around, looking at things and sniffing things and thinking, and finally decides what to write about: an owl who lives in a fresh-smelling pine tree.  Rocket, it turns out, is quite a creative type, wagging his tail while writing, growling when he can’t decide what to write, occasionally drawing pictures, sometimes taking “a walk in the meadow to look for inspiration” – doing, in fact, just the sorts of things that human writers (perhaps including Hills himself) do, although considerably more cutely.  Rocket keeps reading bits of his evolving story to the owl, and the owl, initially reluctant to come down from his nest high in the tree, slowly gets more and more interested and moves closer to the ground, branch by branch, eventually ending up right next to Rocket, listening to the story, enjoying it thoroughly and even collaborating on the ending.  Rocket Writes a Story is a charming fable in which the realities of writing mix beautifully with musings on the power of words and storytelling, all in a context simple enough for kids ages 4-8 to understand, enjoy and – wouldn’t this be wonderful? – use as the basis for writing stories of their own.

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