November 21, 2012

(++++) GIFTING

Star Wars: A Galactic Pop-Up Adventure. By Matthew Reinhart. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $36.99.

Justin Bieber: Just Getting Started. Harper. $21.99.

One Direction: Behind the Scenes. Harper. $10.99.

Charlotte’s Web: 60th Anniversary Edition. By E.B. White. Pictures by Garth Williams. Harper. $8.99.

Goodnight Moon Cloth Book. By Margaret Wise Brown. Pictures by Clement Hurd. Harper. $14.99.

Warriors: Omen of the Stars #s 1-3. By Erin Hunter. Harper. $16.99.

The Wildwood Chronicles, Book I: Wildwood. By Colin Meloy. Illustrations by Carson Ellis. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $8.99.

The Wildwood Chronicles, Book II: Under Wildwood. By Colin Meloy. Illustrations by Carson Ellis. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Books of Beginning, Book One: The Emerald Atlas. By John Stephens. Yearling. $7.99.

Books of Beginning, Book Two: The Fire Chronicle. By John Stephens. Knopf. $17.99.

Vegan Eats World. By Terry Hope Romero. Da Capo. $35.

      Sometimes books that are already pretty good can become very good simply by virtue of their usefulness as gifts – especially at this time of year. Figuring out what to give that the recipient will appreciate for some time after gift-giving season itself is not always easy, and with so many electronic devices and forms of instant gratification competing for young people’s attention, finding a “mere” book that will sustain young readers’ interest is by no means simple.  But there are various approaches that adults can take to this perplexing situation.  There is, for example, an electronic component to Star Wars: A Galactic Pop-Up Adventure, in the form of a battery-operated lightsaber that actually changes color. The fact that it has not all that much to do with the book is, in the gift-giving context, largely irrelevant, because the book also has a very strong visual element.  It is, in fact, one of the cleverest and best-designed pop-ups books to come along in several years, with huge three-dimensional foldouts throughout and smaller ones within and around the big ones – a sort of wheels-within-wheels approach that is made doubly attractive by the sheer skill of Matthew Reinhart’s designs and the astonishment they evoke.  The book’s weakness is the story, since all it really does is rehash the by-now-well-known elements of the Star Wars movie sequence, with different pop-ups illustrating different specific events and characters from the films.  But this is not a book to be read so much as one to be gawked at, and fans of Star Wars will indeed gawk at the wizardry of the design, which is little short of spectacular. The book is designated for ages seven and up, but somewhat “up” is probably best, since the unfolding and refolding of the pages needs to be done with some care to preserve their elaborate and very carefully made designs.  This is a book to be looked at again and again.

      The same is true in a different way for two (+++) pop-music picture books, Justin Bieber: Just Getting Started and One Direction: Behind the Scenes. Strictly for fans and not pretending to have any other reason for being, both books will give those fans just what they want: lots of photos, very little text and no information of any consequence.  Just who put the Bieber book together is not even clear, since its design is attributed to Taylor Cope Wallace but it contains the line, “Justin Bieber asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work,” which means he most certainly did not write it.  In any case, fans will scarcely care, since the writing – on subjects such as Bieber meeting Kobe Bryant and singing for President Obama – really has little to recommend it.  But, again, the writing is not the point: what matters here are all the photos, which come with such captions as “I’m living proof that dreams do come true. Work hard. Pray. Believe.”  Bieber fans – the book calls them “Beliebers” – will love it, just as fans of the five members of One Direction will love the way “the boys open their photo albums and share their childhood stories,” which include such comments as, “At one stage I wanted to become a boxer” and “I’ve always been the loud one in my house.”  A shorter book than Justin Bieber: Just Getting Started, and less expensive because it is a paperback rather than a hardcover, One Direction: Behind the Scenes is cut very much from the same cloth, complete with such comments as “It’s crazy how close we are” and “We all wanted to keep our individuality.”  Unlike the Bieber book, this one does have an author listed (“text by Sarah Delmege”), and in fact there is more verbiage here, including some quizzes and trivia offerings for fans.  Nevertheless, in both books, the words are entirely subservient to the pictures, and it is the visual elements that will bring existing fans back to these gift offerings time and again.

      Now, for a present where the words do matter, gift-givers can scarcely do better than the 60th-anniversary edition of Charlotte’s Web, the (++++) E.B. White tale that is as charming, heartwarming and endearingly sad as it was in 1952.   The new edition includes the classic cover and all the other illustrations by Garth Williams, and a good thing, too, since they are inextricably linked to the story of Wilbur the pig, Charlotte the spider, and all the other delightful and memorable characters.  Adults who remember the book fondly but have not read it recently may be surprised to find that it is quite short – only 184 pages. But its memorability and emotional connection far outstrip its length, and even without pop-ups, foldouts, or full-color photos, the book exudes attractiveness and warmth that will enliven many a wintry day and stay with its new readers – and older ones who reconnect with it – for a very long time to come.

      For a classic gift for the very youngest children, from newborns on up (but not very far up), there is a wonderfully cuddly version of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s 1947 classic, Goodnight Moon, available this season.  This (++++) offering really is a “cuddle book,” made of soft polyester, only eight pages long (including the front and back covers), excerpting what is already a very short and enduringly charming book by showing some of its words and a few of its pictures printed on soft cloth that looks attractive, feels comfortable and comforting, and is very easy to clean if baby spits up or otherwise dirties it.  The “great green room” is as attractive as it has always been, and even though the text is much truncated, very young children will absorb enough of the book’s quiet charm from this shortened version to be ready, when they are not much older, for the full-length Goodnight Moon, which shows every sign of becoming as much of a classic for today’s kids as it has been for children for the last 65 years.

      And then there is the opposite of a book with few words: another approach to book gifts that will keep recipients interested is simply to make sure there are lots of pages to read and lots of adventures to be had.  Where White’s book is best read slowly and absorbed with thoughtfulness, more-modern fantasies tend to proceed at much more of a breakneck pace.  That is certainly the case for the first three books in the sequence called Warriors: Omen of the Stars, by the four-person team collectively known as “Erin Hunter” (authors Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry and Tui Sutherland, plus editor Victoria Holmes).  The (+++) gift set of these books includes paperbacks of The Fourth Apprentice, Fading Echoes and Night Whispers, all of them dealing with the latest prophecy affecting the warrior cats and their clans – in this case, a mysterious prediction that Jayfeather, Lionblaze and Dovepaw will hold the stars’ power in their paws.  The usual twists and turns of Erin Hunter books are all here, with the usual sprawling settings and very large number of not-always-highly-differentiated characters.  This gift set is best for fans of the Warriors books who, for some reason, have not yet encountered this particular story arc, which in fact has already moved several books beyond the three packaged here. But that may be good news from a gift-giving perspective: readers who like the Warriors tales and find themselves engrossed in these three novels will, after finishing them, have additional ones to which they can look forward.

      Of course, it is not necessary to buy a prepackaged gift set in order to find an attractive multi-book present for a young reader attracted by fantasy and adventure. The Wildwood Chronicles and The Books of Beginning are both epic tales for preteens and young teenagers, filled with wonder and adventure, and so well-written and well-paced that they deserve (++++) ratings.  Like Warriors: Omen of the Stars, the books by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis and by John Stephens are only parts of longer series, the difference being that The Wildwood Chronicles and The Books of Beginning will both be trilogies – but only the first two books have been written, and for both series, the second book is new.  This provides a chance for gift-givers to capture the imaginations of recipients, who will hopefully become engrossed in these still-incomplete but already substantial stories and will await their concluding third books with considerable anticipation. In both these series, the first book has come out in paperback just as the second has been published in hardcover.   The Wildwood Chronicles focuses on the dense, tangled forest called the Impassable Wilderness, said to be on the edge of Portland (not coincidentally, Meloy, Ellis and their son live in Portland, Oregon). Prue McKeel and her friend, Curtis, discover many of the usual tropes of fantasy in the forest, from warring creatures to dark doings of all sorts; echoes of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories will be clear to those who know them. The first book is essentially a rescue mission, although as usual in such stories, it becomes more: a bid for freedom for the Impassable Wilderness itself. Prue does rescue her little brother, of course, although Curtis remains in the forest as a bandit-in-training.  In the second book, Prue is living a rather dull, mundane life until – no surprise – she is drawn back to Wildwood, which is being torn asunder by the usual evil doings as well as some unusual ones relating to titans of industry (who tend to be notably absent in other fantasy novels).  Prue and Curtis do indeed need to go under Wildwood to succeed in their second quest, and it is clear from the book’s poetic conclusion that there is more to come. Speaking of “poetic,” Ellis’ illustrations often are: they are particularly fine imaginings of the scenes and characters in both books of The Wildwood Chronicles so far.

      The underlying theme of The Books of Beginning is more unusual than that of The Wildwood Chronicles: Stephens’ books are about – books.  Again, the tale-telling will remind readers of the Narnia books and, for that matter, of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Harry Potter stories as well.  But Stephens, a TV writer and producer, knows how to pace a story in his own way, and also how  to create the right mixture of protagonists (Kate, age 14; Michael, age 12; and Emma, age 11), put them in a suitably isolated setting (10 years in orphanages), and make them appropriately important (they are, of course, potential victims of a horrible evil of which they are unaware – but which, through the books of the series’ titles, they will learn about and will be able to withstand).  There is a particularly well-done balance in these books of the humorous (sometimes actually silly) and the serious (the formulaic quest-to-find-one’s-true-role-in-fulfilling-a-prophecy).  For example, in the first book, the atlas gets the kids into the past, but without it, they cannot return to the present, and it turns out to be in the Dead City, “the ancient dwarf capital” that “had been abandoned some five hundred years earlier after being devastated by an earthquake.”  This leads to: “‘Bhuhoduuknoballdis?’ Michael asked (he had most of a banana pancake crammed into his mouth).”  This sort of humor is unusual in heroic fantasies, especially when it coexists with the typical mixture of dragons, dwarfs and elves.  In the second book, which takes place six months after the end of the first, Michael and Emma encounter a man who saw them 10 years earlier and who has knowledge of a map of a mysterious place that may be connected to the young people’s parents, while Kate finds herself stuck in the past (the past is an issue in both these books, in several ways) and in need of a friend to help her.  Stephens does a good job of introducing recurring characters (such as Pym, a wise wizard, and Gabriel, a brave warrior) while also bringing in new ones, and readers captivated by the first book will enjoy the second as well – and look forward to the third, whether it appears during some future holiday gift-giving season or at an entirely different time.

      And how about a gift item for adults, maybe even for the one doing the gift shopping for everyone else? Well, if the adult happens to be a vegan, one attractive choice could be Vegan Eats World, in which Terry Hope Romero argues that a plant-based diet is no barrier to eating Vietnamese, Thai, Belgian, Sri Lankan, Turkish, Afghani, Jamaican, French or other foods associated with specific countries.  The book has a narrow focus and some presentation oddities that combine to give it a (+++) rating – for example, the cover gives the subtitle, “300 International Recipes for Savoring the Planet,” while the title page’s subtitle is “250 International Recipes for Savoring the Planet” (the recipes are not numbered, but 300 is closer to the mark).  There is little narrative here: this is almost entirely a recipe book, and a handsomely made hardcover one, at that.  It does not, however, arrange recipes by types of cuisine (another presentation oddity), but instead offers a dozen sections with titles such as “The Three Protein Amigos: Tofu, Seitan, & Tempeh,” “Dumplings, Breads & Pancakes,” and “Asian Noodles to Mediterranean Pasta.”  Readers need to search within the sections for particular foods in which they may be interested.  “Hearty Entrees,” for example, includes “Korean Veggie Bulgogi,” “Baked Punky Pumpkin Kibbe,” “Jerk-Roasted Seitan Strips,” and “This Is Sparta! Spinach Pie.”  Vegan cooks will be familiar with virtually all the ingredients here, but newcomers to the field may have some difficulty with certain recipes – so it is very helpful that Romero includes a graphic for dishes that are especially easy to prepare (it is a circle with the numbers “123” in it).  Actually, the graphics that go with each recipe will be useful for all chefs: one indicates recipes taking 45 minutes or less to make, one shows dishes with less-costly ingredients, one is for low-fat recipes, one indicates dishes with no wheat or barley, and so on.  Full-page pictures make the dishes look very tempting indeed and add to the impression that Vegan Eats World is as much a gift book as a traditional cookbook.  Vegans on your gift list will find it a treat.

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