February 07, 2013

(++++) GOING TO EXTREMES


Babymouse #17: Extreme Babymouse. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $6.99.

Lives of Extraordinary Women. By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Sandpiper. $12.99.

      The 17th entry in the long-running and still-amusing Babymouse series only seems to be about extreme things. Really, it is about ordinary ones: wanting to do what “everyone else does,” wanting to be accepted by peers, wanting to escape ridicule and ostracism, and wanting to participate in things at the same level as others – even if they have more knowledge and experience than you do. Extreme Babymouse is, on the surface, about Babymouse’s desire to go snowboarding, as all her friends (and frenemies) have been doing. But in typical Babymouse style, the book starts with her imagining herself as a super-duper snowboarder, only to be brought back to everyday reality when she realizes she is sitting at the top of a playground slide and stopping others from going down.  Then she hears in school, again and again, about all the wonderful things her snowboarding classmates are doing, and she feels more and more left out, especially when Felicia, who always torments her, rubs in Babymouse’s feeling of being an outsider again and again. Babymouse tries to get her mom to agree to let her go snowboarding by saying that everyone is doing it, which leads the narrator – always an amusing presence in these books – to ask whether Abraham Lincoln and R2D2 were snowboarders (the pictures of them on snowboards are among the book’s highlights).  Eventually, Babymouse does get to try the sport, having unsurprising problems getting started and finding, as usual, that her fantasy life is a poor match for her real one. Also as usual, Babymouse eventually listens to her own inner voice (something the snowboarding instructor has repeatedly urged), and Felicia (also as usual) gets her comeuppance, and everything ends happily, with hot chocolate. This is a particularly neatly-tied-together Babymouse series entry, with the brother-and-sister team of Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm using Babymouse’s well-established personality to very good effect.

      Babymouse is scarcely at the level of importance of, say, Cleopatra or Catherine the Great, but then, she is not as extreme as they were, either. The new paperback edition of Lives of Extraordinary Women, originally published in 2000, provides an excellent opportunity to revisit (or visit for the first time) some brief, anecdotal biographies of 20 notable women of ages past and recent, with an eye toward finding out about, as the book’s subtitle says, “Rulers, Rebels (and What the Neighbors Thought).”  Although many of the women about whom Kathleen Krull writes are household names – Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Eleanor Roosevelt – many others are not: Nzingha, 17th-century ruler of what is now Angola; Tz’u-hsi, empress of China during the 19th century; Gertrude Bell, famed explorer and a British spy during World War I; Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress; and others. Each entry gets an amusing but respectful caricature by Kathryn Hewitt that nicely complements the short but to-the-point narrative of Krull, which is primarily concerned with humanizing these larger-than-life figures. For example, in writing about Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Krull explains that “she relaxed by watching TV – with close friends she would imitate American commercials and laugh uncontrollably.”  Of American Indian leader Wilma Mankiller, Krull writes, “She and her ten brothers and sisters walked three miles each way to school (at times without shoes), wore clothes made from scratchy flour sacks, hauled water from a spring, and survived by bartering with neighbors.”  And Krull says that “the first time [Guatemalan leader Rigoberta Menchรบ] spoke in public, she was so nervous that she literally forgot her own name.”  Lives of Extraordinary Women is a once-over-lightly, for sure, but it skims the surface in an unusually humanizing way, showing that even such history-making women as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Queen Isabella I of Spain not only had their human side but were often dominated by it – a fine lesson for modern, would-be-extraordinary young girls (and boys) to learn.

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