April 25, 2013
Mustache Baby. By Bridget Heos. Illustrations by Joy Ang. Clarion. $16.99.
Destiny, Rewritten. By Kathryn Fitzmaurice. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” states Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But it is a fair bet that even Shakespeare never considered the fated power of the mustache. Bridget Heos makes up for this unjustifiable omission with Mustache Baby, an absolutely hilarious book about a baby named Billy who happens to be born with a mustache – which, the nurse says, is sure to assert itself over time as a good-guy or bad-guy type. Joy Ang’s picture-perfect illustrations show just what that means, as the family watches with a mixture of hope and trepidation to see whether Billy will become a good or bad mustache-wearer. Goodness seems ahead at first, and there are multiple marvelous scenes of Billy as a helpful cowboy, a pint-size policeman, and even a pilot, sword fighter and doctor. But, alas, after a while, the ends of Billy’s mustache start to curl up, and soon he accordingly turns evil, for example becoming “a train robber so heartless that he even stole the tracks.” But just as he makes his getaway from a bank robbery (a piggy-bank robbery), Mom catches him and puts him immediately into jail…that is, his crib. Later, Heos explains, “his mother busted him out” and reassured him that “everybody has a bad-mustache day now and then.” The book ends with a very surprising playdate – but its real charm is in the way the story connects the mustachioed Billy with every toddler and post-toddler everywhere, prone to periods of sweetness and times of tantrums, occasions of obedience and others of mischief-making for its own sake. Billy, despite his appearance, could be any preschooler, and those young readers who happen not to possess a mustache of their own will nevertheless recognize their own feelings and behaviors in this charming book – provided that adults read it with them and point out the parallels.
Older kids can do their own reading about what destiny means and does not mean in the story of 11-year-old Emily Elizabeth Davis, who has been told that the fact that she is named after Emily Dickinson means that she too will become a great poet. The Dickinson connection is explicit – Emily has a first edition of Dickinson’s poems in which her mother has noted highlights of Emily’s life, including the name of the father Emily has never met. But the book goes missing, and of course that is symbolic of Emily not knowing where she is in life and where she is going to go. Emily is a fairly straightforward character, accompanied in her search for the book by a more-intellectual best friend and a younger cousin with his own confirmed notions of how mysteries are solved (with Morse code, among other things). Emily also writes a series of letters to Danielle Steel, who is about as un-Dickinsonian a writer as can be imagined. The quest here is largely free of intense emotion (despite the issue of Emily’s father), and the interactions among the young protagonists are nicely handled. The chapter titles frequently deal with the “destiny” theme: “The way the tree sitters planned to change the destiny of a cluster of old oak trees,” “The odds of being dumped in front of a store that was supposed to be across town but might be here instead,” “The way standing in a shower can win you the Nobel Peace Prize,” “The acorn that was supposed to be an olive branch,” and so on. The book is, of course, a coming-of-age story and a learning-who-you-really-are story, and the comparative mildness of Emily’s search is actually a relief when compared with all the angst-fraught preteen adventures that dominate young-adult publishing nowadays. The “destiny” angle is somewhat overwrought, though, and the plotting is such that when a chapter appears called “The possibilities that appear when you least expect them to,” readers are not likely to be at all surprised. Destiny, Rewritten is a (+++) book that is pleasantly rather than frenetically paced – a plus – but has a bit too much mildness about it. For example, Emily is naïve to the point of complete innocence, but there is no problem with her going to all sorts of places unsupervised. That is, she is quite unworldly, and the world in which she lives seems rather unworldly, too. There is an inevitable and thoroughly unsurprising happy ending that readers who care for Emily will surely enjoy; it is all in line with one of Emily’s letters to Steel, which says, “everyone’s life changes in the end, leaving them happier than they ever expected to be.”