December 20, 2012


I Haiku You. By Betsy Snyder. Random House. $9.99.

Zigzag Kids No. 7: Sky High. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Illustrated by Alasdair Bright. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

Behind the Bookcase. By Mark Steensland. Illustrated by Kelly Murphy. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

A Thunderous Whisper. By Christina Diaz Gonzalez. Knopf. $16.99.

      Young readers have their choice this season of books from the light, poetic and pleasant to the heavy and ominous. I Haiku You is a sweet little book celebrating innocent love of the puppy-love type, more like adorable friendship.  Betsy Snyder mixes lovely poetry with adorable multimedia illustrations, such as a picture of a boy and girl flying a butterfly-shaped kite (or maybe a real, large butterfly) with the words, “love is in the air—/ every time our hearts meet up,/ i get butterflies.”  And love is not only for people in this book: one poem goes with a picture of a sad dog whose boy is leaving on a school bus, and a few pages later, another poem and haiku show their joyous reunion after the school day is over. Even plants come in for loving, as in this paean to sunflowers from a little girl who is watering them: “little by little/ i love watching you grow up,/ each and every inch.”  There is enough love for a delicious drink, too: “taste buds are cheering/ for a squeeze of your sunshine—/ HOORAY, lemonade!”  That picture comes complete with a cheerleader, just as an ode (well, a haiku) to alphabet soup shows a child with face covered in spots eating the soup in bed: “noodles so yummy,/ love letters for your tummy—/ warm alphabet soup.”  The whole book is rather soupily sentimental, but that just makes it all the more pleasant for a cold winter day – or maybe for Valentine’s Day.  Yes, it is intended mainly for children, but even adults will enjoy many of Snyder’s thoughts: “what are the chances?/ maybe one in a million?/ what luck i found you!”

      A little luck is always in store for the perfectly ethnically balanced kids of Zelda A. Zigzag School. Each book in this series – Sky High is the seventh – focuses on a different child, this time on Charlie the inventor, who creates cleverly named devices (zinger-winger, popper-upper) that either don’t do what they ought to or tend to do more than they should. Charlie’s problem is that the Afternoon Center Inventing Fair is coming up, and he needs to make something extra special; also something that actually works properly.  But thanks to his invention-gone-awry in the lunchroom, Charlie has been temporarily banned from inventing and assigned to help the lunch lady.  Help is in the offing, though, in the form of Mr. Redfern, himself an inventor – and with problems of his own.  Eventually Mr. Redfern and the other Zigzag Kids all get together in a way that helps Charlie feel very good about himself – feeling good about yourself is a big, big part of Patricia Reilly Giff’s series – and everything ends happily, as usual.  Also as usual, Alasdair Bright’s illustrations help make the whole Zigzag School setup come to unrealistic but altogether pleasant life.

      Things are also unrealistic – and generally a lot less pleasant – in Behind the Bookcase, a forthright fantasy derivative of Narnia and its derivatives. Sarah Steiner and her family – parents and little brother Billy – have moved into Sarah’s deceased grandmother’s house for the summer to fix it up and get it ready to sell.  And Sarah discovers an unfinished letter from Grandma Winnie with a comment about the strange things “happening behind the bookcase,” which of course makes no sense and is quickly dismissed by Sarah’s mother. But Sarah actually looks behind the bookcase and discovers, to the likely surprise of absolutely no one, that there is something strange there: a doorway to the land where shadows come from, Scotopia.  Soon Sarah is on a journey amid wonders and dangers and fears, in a place where time runs differently (just as in Narnia); and she is being helped by the talking cat Balthazat (or is she being helped?) and hindered by a series of strange doings and secrets both in Scotopia and in the world of Grandma Winnie’s house.  This is a book whose plotting is not much of a surprise at all, although Mark Steensland moves the story along at a good pace; it is also a book in which the illustrations, by Kelly Murphy, are particularly evocative, from the many hands and eyes in a chapter called “Meet Mr. Ink” to Sarah lifting a rock slab in order to free Anonimo the “blemmye,” an odd-looking, horned, mind-reading character who looks as if he escaped from Where the Wild Things Are.  The whole book is a quest, of course, with Sarah ultimately looking for the Undoer to try to right the wrongs she has discovered.  Many books begin in medias res, in the middle of things, but Behind the Bookcase is one that ends there, rather disappointingly for anyone hoping for a neat solution to the various mysteries – but happily for readers who will look forward to a sequel.  The plotting and writing are largely derivative – not surprisingly in a first novel, which is what this is – but the fine illustrations are not, and the adventure that Sarah and Billy have makes for enjoyable and not-too-scary reading for preteens.

      A Thunderous Whisper, though, is scary stuff, and designed to be more realistic as well.  A historical novel for ages 10 and up, Christina Diaz Gonzalez’ book is set during the Spanish Civil War, in the weeks leading up the bombing of Guernica by the Nazis in April 1937 – an event immortalized by Picasso but seen here through the eyes of young people who lived during it.  They are Ani, a 12-year-old Basque girl, and Mathias, a 14-year-old German Jew, and they first become friends – and then spies. Then it turns out there is a double agent in their spy group. And that means Mathias and his family may need to move – but things are not so simple for Ani, whose mother “doesn’t believe in getting involved,” as Ani explains to Mathias.  Eventually, the two young people are witnesses to the destruction of Guernica: “The bombers came and came again. …There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. We waited while an eerie silence crept over the land. My heart pounded with the hope that it was over and the growing fear that it would never end. …I wanted it all to be over. Speed up the hands of time and have this be a distant memory.”  Guernica is in fact a distant memory for many – the book’s epilogue brings Ani back to the city almost 40 years later – but it became a vivid memory for Gonzalez as she explored her Basque heritage and the fate of children who were in Guernica when the bombs fell.  The book feels like a slice of history and also like a remembrance – but it also feels like many, many other books about children in wartime, certainly meaningful to those sharing the horrifying experience but not so easy for others to connect with in a time that, for all its challenges, has nothing comparable to these events (at least for the young readers likely to be interested in this book).  A Thunderous Whisper is well enough done and well enough written to interest preteens and young teens seeking an emotional connection with World War II, perhaps ones whose parents or grandparents have told them stories of those times; and certainly readers of Basque heritage will find elements of the book memorable.  But it is not particularly distinctive in its portrayal of its primary characters: both Ani and Mathias are types rather than fully formed young people, and the events through which they live, however truthfully depicted, feel as if they have an air of fictional inevitability about them.

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