February 28, 2013

(++++) BASED IN REALITY


When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet, and One Extraordinary Riot. By Lauren Stringer. Harcourt. $16.99.

The Passover Lamb. By Linda Elovitz Marshall. Illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss. Random House. $17.99.

Pretty Penny Makes Ends Meet. By Devon Kinch. Random House. $16.99.

Fly Guy Presents: Sharks. By Ted Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.

      No one riots over real art anymore. Yes, there are always stories of fights and violence at pop-music events, many of which seem designed to provoke exactly that; but the days of huge controversies involving serious music – classical, concert-hall, opera, ballet – are long gone.  The passions generated by this sort of music are no longer sufficient to get people up in arms, it seems; whether or not that is a shame is a matter of opinion. What is not a matter of opinion is that one of the most notorious musical riots of all time was directly caused by classical music – specifically, a ballet: Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a work now 100 years old and so far ahead of its time that it still sounds modern and disturbing.  Lauren Stringer’s When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky is the story of the ballet – or rather the story of its composer and choreographer, and the riot that they pretty much wanted to provoke, at least in this version of the tale.  Stringer says of each man that “he dreamed of making something different and new,” and adds that the art of each one changed when he met the other. Expressing herself poetically, she says, for example, that after Nijinsky met Stravinsky, “his torso trumpeted a melody,/ his arms and legs sang from strings,/ and his feet began/ to pom-di-di-pom like timpani.”  This is exaggeration, to say the least, but in the service of a good story, it is more than justifiable.  And this is a good story, beautifully helped along by illustrations in which Stringer channels art by Matisse, Picasso and others, and introduces her renditions of real-life people involved in The Rite of Spring, including conductor Pierre Monteux, Ballet Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, and others.  Most of today’s young readers are unlikely to be at all familiar with The Rite of Spring, much less with the riot it caused in Paris because it was so dramatically different from anything ever before presented in ballet.  Indeed, many young people today may know little, if anything, about classical music.  When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky is so good that it may remedy that lack of knowledge by familiarizing the youthful audience at which it is aimed with a time when serious music really meant something, provoking emotions that ran so high that they overflowed into fistfights and street battles. And what wonderful music it is – if only the readers of Stringer’s book can be given a chance to hear it. That is up to the adults who buy the book, who hopefully will do their part to promote culture that goes about as far beyond “pop culture” as it is possible to go.

      The true story underlying The Passover Lamb is a far gentler one, with a much greater family focus. Linda Elovitz Marshall bases the book on an incident from her own childhood, when she lived on a farm and discovered, just before the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover, that a sheep was refusing to nurse one of its newborn lambs.  This holiday, built around a recounting of Moses bringing the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, is a major one, marked by a special meal called a seder, and the lamb’s problem jeopardized the smoothness of the celebration. In real life, Marshall’s children found a clever solution to the problem – and so does Miriam, the girl who takes care of the lamb in Marshall’s fictionalized version of the story. Tatjana Mai-Wyss provides sweetly charming pictures to move the tale along, as Miriam – worried both about the lamb and about the rituals of the meal, in which she is supposed to play an important part – tries to ensure the baby animal’s survival without losing the meaningfulness of the seder and the holiday.  Her solution is an elegant and amusing one that results in the lamb being named Moses, and readers, whatever their religion, will admire the cleverness and pluck of this young girl’s quick thinking and her empathy for a newborn animal that would have died without her intervention.  A gently amusing and moving story, The Passover Lamb is charming and meaningful at the same time.

      Devon Kinch’s Pretty Penny books always have an element of reality about them: they are designed to teach young readers about money through the adventures of the title character. Pretty Penny Makes Ends Meet contains more reality than usual, starting with a flood in the basement of Grandma Bunny’s house. The water not only makes a mess but also ruins Grandma Bunny’s budget, since the flood comes on top of several other unforeseen circumstances: a broken window and problems with the washing machine and toilet.  Penny and her pet pig, Iggy – whose intelligence and cooperative nature are not realistic, but add to the charm of this series – decide to find a way to help Grandma Bunny pay for the plumbing repairs.  They come up with the idea of creating handmade jewelry and selling it at the Small Mall, the in-grandma’s-house store where many of Penny’s adventures are centered. Kinch shows Penny checking to be sure she and Iggy have the money they need for supplies and then follows them as they buy what they need, make the jewelry, price it and advertise it, take in money from willing buyers (there are always plenty of those in these books), and then calculate how much profit they have made and can turn over to Grandma Bunny.  The instructional elements here flow better than in some of Kinch’s other books, and because they seem less intrusive in the story, they are more successful.  And the fact that the situation is not easy and not fully solved by Penny’s good will – she does not earn enough to pay for the whole plumbing job, and she and Grandma Bunny still have a lot of cleanup to do – gives the book an even bigger dose of reality than other Pretty Penny books have. That is all to the good: Pretty Penny Makes Ends Meet is effective at showing that even if a young girl is well-meaning and financially savvy, she cannot solve all the problems of everyday adult life. But she can help a lot, and Pretty Penny certainly does that.

      Just as the unrealistic Iggy mixes with the realism of the Pretty Penny books, so the unrealistic Fly Guy mixes with real-world aquarium scenes in Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy Presents: Sharks.  This is an odd little book, fun to read and look at but a little difficult to figure out: there are plenty of books about sharks, and these fish are fascinating (and scary) enough to attract young readers on their own, so why use Fly Guy to pull readers into the subject? Presumably the idea is that fans of Arnold’s amusing series will be more willing to learn some factual material if Fly Guy presents it to them, which he does with his typical buzzy vocabulary: “gillzz,” “plantzz,” “puppiezz” and so on.  During an aquarium visit with his boy, Buzz, Fly Guy gets to look at lots of sharks – the book is filled with photos, with Arnold’s drawings of Buzz and Fly Guy interspersed among them. There is a “narrative voice” for most of the information: “Scientists have found about 400 different kinds of sharks.” But Buzz occasionally provides a fact himself: “Sharks have been around for over 400 million years!”  The information here is highly selective – this is a very short book, designed for kindergarten through third grade – but accurate and well presented: “Most sharks have rough skin made of denticles. It feels hard and sharp. …Nurse sharks have smoother skin than most sharks. It feels like sandpaper.”  And the occasional reference to Fly Guy and Buzz is amusing, if perhaps a bit overdone: “Sharks are very smart. They have brains – just like humans and flies.” Fly Guy Presents: Sharks is a good introductory book about these predatory fish and will be, of course, of interest primarily (or almost solely) to Fly Guy fans, who will likely want to find out more about sharks through other books for young readers (of which there are plenty) after finishing this one.

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